“Orange is the New Black” Season 3: Running Diary

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Just like last year, I’ll be writing up some reactions to each episode of the third season of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. It’s likely my reactions will vary in length, depending on my energy level at the time that they write them.

Episode One: “Mother’s Day”
Episode Two: “Bed Bugs and Beyond”
Episode Three: “Empathy is a Boner Killer”
Episode Four: “Finger in the Dyke”
Episode Five: “Fake It Till You Fake It Some More”
Episode Six: “Ching Chang Chong”
Episode Seven: “Tongue Tied”
Episode Eight: “Fear, and Other Smells”
Episode Nine: “Where My Dreidel At”
Episode Ten: “A Tittin’ and a Hairin'”
Episode Eleven: “We Can Be Heroes”
Episode Twelve: “Don’t Make Me Come Back There”
Episode Thirteen: “Trust No Bitch”


Episode Two: “Bed Bugs and Beyond”

OITNB3

“Am I allowed to interact with them?”

“They are people. Yes.”

That brief exchange, which comes midway through the second episode of Orange is the New Black‘s third season, plays both as a mission statement for the show and a commentary on the present state of the relationship between the prison staff and the inmates, which has evolved a lot since the show began. Under Caputo’s benevolent reign, conflicts between the wardens and their subordinates seem to be at an all-time minimum. Nicky even goes one step further and tries to rope Luschek into her heroin-smuggling business, with surprising success.

As the season begins with this tenuous relationship in a stable period, it makes sense that the show also offers a glimpse into the pre-prison life of Bennett, who’s always been the most sympathetic to the inmates and now has even more reason to be than ever. With Daya’s baby on the way (as it’s been since the middle of season one, a reminder of this show’s leisurely pace), logistical complications abound. Chief among them: the emergence of Pornstache’s mother (played by the reliably wonderful Mary Steenburgen) and the looming possibility that Bennett will have to be a solo dad while Daya awaits the end of her 37-month sentence.

The flashbacks to Bennett’s stint in the military are brief but striking. He addresses his superiors and his buddies with a confidence and swagger that’s missing from all but his most enraged moments at Litchfield. We don’t see the moments immediately after he loses his leg in the raid, but the implication is clear: Bennett’s time in the war robbed him of his outward authority but instilled in him an inward sense of morality and self-respect, which he exercises by rejecting the crib from Aleida’s well-intentioned but incompetent and occasionally dangerous boyfriend, and by proposing to her with a ring he handmade from gum wrappers. Crass appropriation of “Hollaback Girl” aside (I will never get the sequence out of my head, try as I might), Bennett shows real initiative in this episode, even while retaining his meek

Even as the wardens come into clearer focus, their jobs and the entire Litchfield ecosystem comes under threat, as the prison faces the threat of closure and only Caputo has even a chance at reassignment. Such a move would upend the entire foundation of the show, which makes me think we’re in for a season in which the Litchfield inmates fight to keep their home alive, but it’s an interesting continuation of the outward pressures that surfaced in the second half of season two.

In the meantime, there are plenty of inward pressures to tide us over. Piper and Alex’s honeymoon period ends abruptly…or does it? I’ll confess the combination sparring match/sexual encounter that ends their storyline in this episode struck me as rather too convenient, constructed as a titillating moment with its narrative implications justified later. The conflict itself makes sense, given Piper’s ill-advised revelation that she called Alex’s parole officer and was directly responsible for her return to a place that suits her lifestyle even less than it suits the rest of the inmates. And it was interesting to see these two characters engaging in conversations that aren’t predicated on the “will they/won’t they” dynamic, which threatened to send their relationship straight into the realm of cliche. I’m willing to follow this story over subsequent episodes, but that moment felt a little false.

Outside of the show’s ostensible leads, other storylines are percolating pleasantly. Poussey’s meditative ambitions will hopefully come into clearer focus in a later episode. The same goes for Suzanne’s ongoing defense of Vee and refusal to see how the character manipulated her. Nicky returning to the drug trade seems ominous. Red confronting Piper about her lie from the end of last season tied in nicely with the undoing of Piper’s increasingly problematic strategy of telling people what they want to hear.

And bedbugs, man. Lots and lots of bedbugs. Those creatures set in motion lots of amusing banter and thought-provoking conversations about the treatment of women’s bodies and the rotting state of American prisons. After the relaxed vibe of the season premiere, they provided a welcome dose of tension. I’ll be extra vigilant as I go to sleep tonight, just in case.

Episode Three: “Empathy is a Boner Killer”

Nicky

This episode doubled down on the plot point I found least plausible from the last episode: Alex and Piper’s adventures in hate sex. The follow-up here justified the abrupt nature of this development more than the second episode, but I still cringed at the cliche of Piper and Alex working out their issues under the guise of an improv scenario. As enjoyable as that scene was, bolstered by the hilarious reactions from the crowd (topped by “Bow chicka wow wow!”), I couldn’t help feeling like I’d seen this storytelling device used to less predictable effect.

Luckily, the main story of the episode didn’t disappoint. I’m always down for a Natasha Leggero showcase, which made the revelation that this one might be Nicky’s last all the more heart-wrenching. I initially thought the flashback was superfluous, repeating the same beats about Nicky’s criminal past and drug addiction that we’d already seen in previous flashbacks, but by the end, the glimpse at the moments that led to her first imprisonment made the ones leading up to her second, harsher sentence even more tragic. She got herself into this mess by sticking around the drugs after she no longer had to, but she still didn’t deserve Luschek’s betrayal at the end.

I hope we’ll see more of Nicky at some point, though I’m not sure logistically how that would be possible. Questions to keep us pondering in the meantime: where is Bennett? Will Healy’s mail-order marriage work out, or are we being set up for a dalliance between Red and Healy? (I’m disappointed in myself for even thinking that, but Red had genuine compassion on her face during the translation scene. Perhaps this was just an opportunity for her to focus her energy on solving someone else’s problems instead of facing her own.) When is Black Cindy going to win her Oscar already?

Three episodes in, the show’s knack for cramming sparkling gems into dialogue between minor characters while pushing along the main plots with some of the less overtly comic characters is working well. In some ways, I want the impending closure of the prison to prompt a shakeup in the show’s structure, just to demonstrate that the show can handle major shifts in its status quo. But the solution presented at the end of this episode suggests that probably won’t happen. For now, it’s just a threat below the surface. In future episodes, it may bubble up.

Episode Four: “Finger in the Dyke”

Finger

Most stereotypes are rooted in some sort of truth. Often that’s because people learn about stereotypes and then internalize them, viewing the world through that pre-determined lens and developing their sense of purpose and individuality in relation to what they see around them. Breaking through the status quo, especially when you feel on the inside like you represent the status quo, is hard to do.

Big Boo (Lea De Lauria, who gets a classic OITNB performance showcase) resolves not to break through the status quo in the flashbacks of this episode, but the constraining environment in Litchfield changes her tune. By the end, she realizes that her pre-prison decision in the hospital was the right one. She’s not going to apologize for who she is, even though she has it within her to pretend to be someone else. If that means sacrificing money, institutionalized notions of attractiveness and conventionality and even the possibility of spiritual awakening, so be it.

Most of Big Boo’s appearances on the show up to this point have showcased her brash unwillingness to conform to people’s expectations for her behavior. Here, she takes a step in the other direction and decides she doesn’t like it. Lying to the pastor in the episode’s triumphant complex feels like as much of a betrayal as her parents’ insistence that she wear more traditionally feminine clothes was. She’s aware that people like her brief love interest in the flashback have it easier, able to pass for what society considers normal and comfortable. But what makes Big Boo special is her acceptance of herself as a person who lives up to many people’s stereotypes while also enjoying herself and her liberated sense of identity.

The other storylines in this episode echo this theme in less overt ways. It turns out Taystee secretly longs for the same status quo that has Suzanne fanatically insisting that Vee is still alive. Piper’s visit with her family affirms that they still aren’t as much in her corner as they or she would like to think they are. Unlike Big Boo, Piper can’t come to terms with that disparity quite as easily, lashing out at the prospective buyers and even her now-girlfriend Alex as a means of coping with the constricting family history she can’t quite leave behind. And Caputo has his own status quo to maintain, even as the qualities of the status quo appear antithetical to the buyer’s interests.

In a piercing bit of social commentary, the buyer ultimately selects Litchfield over the maximum security prison, which comes with even more baggage, which is saying something. As squalid as the conditions in Litchfield occasionally seem, and as harsh as the reality of life at Litchfield can be, it’s far worse elsewhere. And as the end of the last episode reminded us, the people in Litchfield are only one offense away from ending up elsewhere. As ragged as the comforts of Litchfield, what lies beyond is even more foreboding.

A couple more notes:

  • As I said above, De Lauria is fantastic in this episode, and worthy of whatever acting Emmy nomination her tenure on the show qualifies her for.
  • Bennett is still nowhere to be found. I’d suggest calling all the law schools in Pennsylvania, but that’s just me.
  • “Pennsafucky” is a great nickname for a nickname.
  • Just as many of the season one comic relief characters (Morello, Black Cindy, Poussey) took on more dramatic dimensions in season two, season three seems committed to deepening the audience’s investment in former throwaway characters like Soso, who gets a killer scene in this episode when she dismisses an old friend who vastly misjudges Soso’s feelings about prison.
  • I’m once again wondering if we’re headed towards some sort of romance between Red and Healy. The show has already exhausted the concept of guard-inmate partnerships with Daya and Bennett, so I hope it finds a new angle for this budding partnership.
  • Danielle Brooks was dynamite in her emotional breakdown scene with Uzo Aduba. So was Aduba, of course. But she tends to get more recognition from the media than Brooks ever has.
  • This was my favorite episode of the season so far. I’m happy to have the show back and looking forward to continuing my sort-of-speed-watch through this season.

Episode Five: “Fake It Till You Fake It Some More”

Fake it Till You Fake it

This review will be quite a bit shorter than the last one – I don’t have quite as much to say about this episode, which is the kind of hour that the show probably couldn’t get away with if it were airing on a weekly basis. The storylines are all on the small-scale side, and coupled with the season’s apparent aversion to a Vee-like arc, this episode feels even more relaxed than the breezy premiere.

I’ve never had a ton of interest in Flaca or Marisol as anything other than a supporting bit of comic relief, but it’s a testament to the show’s “every character has a purpose” approach that I found the flashbacks to her life as a placebo drug dealer compelling. Jackie Cruz doesn’t get anything nearly as dynamic to play as Lea DeLaria did last week, but she handles her heftiest dose of screentime to date with ease. The obviousness of Flaca getting a job involving sewing machines after a flashback in which sewing machines play a major role made this flashback quite a bit less subtle and interesting than the best of the show’s character spotlights.

Elsewhere, I was happy to see that Red and Healy are not going to be the new Daya and Bennett, at least for now. Rather, Red is using Healy’s obvious affection for her as leverage to work her way back into the kitchen, where she’s itching to return. That’s much more in line with what we know about Red and gives Healy a welcome dose of humble pie.

I’ll never complain about a subplot involving Taystee and Poussey, but I root so strongly for them to be friends that the sight of one betraying the other fills me with an unpleasant feeling. Their arc last season was among the show’s most harrowing yet, and I’d hate to see their relationship continue as contentious for the sake of drama.

I’ve seen some people on social media complaining that this season doesn’t have enough plot. I’ve never been terribly interested in Orange is the New Black as a delivery system for plot, so the slow storytelling doesn’t bother or surprise me. I wonder if people are beginning to feel like the show is running in place, or that it’s repeating itself and not embracing change. But even there, I’d disagree – the loss of Nicky is pretty seismic, and the encroachment of the corporate overloads (headed by Mike Birbiglia) promises to keep the inmates on their toes. Less plot gives the many wonderful actors and characters room to breathe. They deserve all the oxygen they can get.

Episode Six: “Ching Chang Chong”

Ching Chang Chong

Who are you? Not your name, your title, or your credentials. Your identity.

The inmates at Litchfield are constantly pondering that question, as this episodes makes clear. Is Piper a blonde bombshell or a hollow approximation? Is Chang murderous or harmless? Is Sophia a woman, a transgender woman? Is new inmate Stella Carlin (Ruby Rose) a woman because other people think she is, because she tells herself she is or because society won’t let her decide anything different? Is Poussey an alcoholic or emotionally fragile?

The answers to all of these questions are complex. Many of them involve race. But all of them involve some element of self-definition clashing with societal expectations. Whether it’s Chang carving out her private niche at Litchfield or Piper looking at her naked stomach in the mirror, these women desperately want the world to see them as they see themselves, but even before that, they want to be able to see themselves the way they imagine. But something – prejudice, institutions, ill intentions – keep them from reaching that point as often as they’d like. So it’s frustrating when others tell Piper to stop complaining because she’s white and thin and pretty, when Taystee tells Poussey to be happy and embrace her insecurities because her habits are unsafe, when Piper invokes the term “slavery” with a table full of black women sitting behind her, when Alex carelessly lets slip that she thinks Chang’s habits are weird and funny.

The flashbacks on Orange is the New Black do the narrative work of explaining our characters’ backstories, but they also provide a peek into the mental state of the featured character. In some cases, these flashbacks throw the conflict between self-definition and societal prejudice into sharper relief. This week’s Chang story is one of those. Be honest: did you know Chang’s name before this season started? Can you remember a single episode she appeared in or a line of dialogue she spoke? I couldn’t. Part of that is the fleeting nature of this show’s supporting cast, and the unusually large number of noteworthy characters. But part of the reason the show never foregrounded her actions is that her actions are never in the foreground. Even in this episode, Chang’s mostly on her own, contemplating her past and microwaving her pea cakes. (Don’t speak that term out loud.) Some Litchfield inmates draw attention wherever they go. Chang’s not like that.

If I have a quibble with this episode, it’s that the show’s soundtrack works a bit too hard to characterize the Litchfield portions of the Chang spotlight as a wacky adventure. Chang’s activities represent only a minor tonal departure from some of the show’s lighter storylines, which makes the aggressively bouncy score jarring. Lori Tan Chinn does more than enough to make Chang watchable, and Teresa Ting marks the show’s latest success in casting young versions of Litchfield inmates. I wish the show had had a little more faith in this narrative side trip, especially since this season has had more of those than either of the last two seasons combined.

I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning Morello’s scam, kosher meals, Red’s return to the kitchen or the corporatization of the prison yet. Some brief thoughts:

  • I’m glad to see the show continuing to acknowledge the darker side of Morello, which we saw in last season’s remarkable “A Whole Other Hole.” Pinning her pen pal extortion scam to Nicky’s departure is a convenient but apt way of keeping her in the show’s immediate orbit.
  • “Shabbat Shalom, bitch!” justified the entire subplot about kosher meals alone. I hope and expect we’ll see more of the crafty new inmate who started this trend.
  • “I’m back!” felt ripped from a less subtle, more overtly comedic and showy version of this story. And I admit that, despite typical excellence from Kate Mulgrew, Red’s story hasn’t been as captivating as it was in the first two seasons so far. Perhaps her return to her natural habitat will prompt a different kind of drama for our resident manipulator.
  • Someone in the Orange is the New Black has a serious bone to pick with red velvet cupcakes. I wasn’t crazy about the “I love you” scene in Caputo’s office, but placing the guards in a vulnerable position allows the show to portray them as underdogs in a way they haven’t been as much in previous seasons.
  • I’m really enjoying writing about each episode of this show. I haven’t done this treatment for any show since last season of Orange is the New Black, but I’m not regretting my decision to do it again for season three. This show is fun to watch, but it’s so busy and interested in so many different ideas that writing about it only deepens the experience.

Episode Seven: “Tongue Tied”

Norma

I mentioned a few reviews ago that some people on the Internet seem to feel that this season of Orange is the New Black has been slow and aimless. On a surface level, I’d agree, but I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that slow and aimless are a bad thing, or an unintentional one on the part of its writers.

There’s lots of talk about how the “binge-watching” model preferred by many TV providers and distributors makes TV writers more inclined and obligated to stuff as much plot as possible into each season, or at least enough of a serialized element that viewers will feel compelled to continue onto the next episode. That model has infected both online-only shows like OITNB and traditional network shows like Empire and Scandal, which skimp on emotional depth with the assumption that you’ll be too locked in to its wild plot machinations to notice.

But the “binge” model (again, loathe as I am to use that term to describe the act of watching television) also affords writers another option, less glamorous but perhaps more ripe for exploring complex themes and incremental character progression. This season of Orange is the New Black seems slowed-down in a way that would be unsustainable if the show were unfolding weekly. Viewers would have no patience to wait through several episodes of, for instance, the inmates reaping the spoils of kosher food before finding out the payoff. (I confess I’m still clueless as to what that payoff might be, though it will almost certainly circle back to Lolly, who Alex first met on the plane to Chicago in the second season premiere.) But writing a show with the knowledge that viewers will be watching several episodes in a row removes the pressure to pile on plot twists and mysteries and clues and red herrings and answers and complications. Confident in the assumption that viewers will be willing to sit through the long game, Orange is the New Black is unraveling its story at a leisurely pace.

This model has its frustrations and drawbacks, just as its opposite extreme does. It’s sometimes difficult to see how the many individual pieces of each episode will add up to something coherent and enriching by the end. There’s danger of repeating character beats and exhausting character combinations before the next major event arrives to shake the show up.

But the third season of Orange is the New Black seems to be avoiding those problems. Individual scenes offer enough in the way of emotional depth and verbal comedy that a grander plot payoff will be a bonus. And the cast of characters is big enough that few of the show’s relationships feel entirely played out. (Daya and Bennett’s romance outlived its usefulness right around the time Bennett checked out and Matt McGorry enrolled in law school.)

All of that is to say that I could sense the Internet’s indifference to “Tongue Tied” even as I thought it accomplished its modest goals. Piper’s underwear scheme nicely extends her saga of punctured privilege and incorporates the corporatization storyline that reached a new height tinged with pepper spray this week. (Seriously, that dude is dumb.) It was nice to find out why Norma doesn’t speak, even if this plot felt too thematically similar from that of the equally silent Chang in “Ching Chang Chong.” And Suzanne’s erotica and its effect on her fellow inmates was treated with the kind of surprising depth and thoughtfulness that represents Orange is the New Black at its gleefully profane, humane best.

Episode 8: “Fear, and Other Smells”

Other Smells

Two moments from this episode stuck out. The first is the scene in which Piper pitches her panty scheme to the inmates, growing increasingly theatrical as dramatic music swells in the background, until a guard interrupts her monologue and brings her back down to earth. The second is the episode’s final shot, in which the audience sees what Alex can’t – Lolly jotting down all of Alex’s actions and apparently preparing to enact vengeance on behalf of Kubler.

These moments represent the show manipulating the audience, calling attention to its artificiality, in a way that Orange is the New Black rarely does. Piper’s speech felt like something out of Community in the way that it mocked conventions of filmmaking while also advancing the plot forward. And the Lolly reveal felt like a standard cliffhanger at the end of a show that runs weekly. Neither moment felt entirely out of place – Piper’s scheme has been gathering steam since the previous episode, and it’s well-established that her character often goes to bizarre extremes to distract herself from what she feels is a miserable situation. Meanwhile, the flashbacks establish Alex’s former boss as a violent menace, making the possibility that he would send a killer into prison after her more plausible.

And yet, I tend to prefer my Orange is the New Black a little less obviously constructed. The show works best in observational mode. With its deep bench of characters and richly detailed setting, plot typically feels like an afterthought, or a distraction from the more mundane but emotionally complex pleasures of the characters interacting with each other and their environment.

Luckily, this episode was heavy on that appeal as well. Samira Wiley will almost certainly not get an Emmy nomination for her fantastic work last season, and it’s doubtful that this season will be any different, but the scene with a drunken Poussey breaking down to Taystee in the stairwell is among the more affecting scenes of the entire series, given what we’ve seen of their tumultuous companionship. I was initially skeptical of the story involving Pennsatucky and the green guard heading out for an afternoon on the town, but there was so little in the way of payoff that I was inclined to simply enjoy their unforced chemistry, even as I wondered how that story will continue in the rest of the season.

And continuing on the show’s never-ending streak of empathy, the pernicious Pearson (Mike Birbiglia) gets some humanity this week, as we see that he actually does care about Caputo’s concerns more than he lets on in meetings with the lame-duck warden. But his pleas to the corporate overlords, including his own father, fall on deaf ears. That scene was entirely too on-the-nose, but it effectively complicated the relationship between Pearson and Caputo, which was threatening to become repetitive. And it gave us another opportunity to revel in the awesome weirdness of Caputo freestyling at the mic with his band.

Two other stories stood out this week, though neither got more than three scenes. Daya has become a vastly more interesting character now that she’s out from under the shadow of her courtship of Bennett, and her decision to confess to Pornstache’s mother (Mary Steenburgen, wonderful) marked a significant breakthrough in that character’s agency. Meanwhile, Sophia and Gloria’s sons are still friends even now that they’re back in New York, and it’s causing strife back at Litchfield and within Sophia’s household. It’s great to see the show making use of Laverne Cox, who was sidelined for much of last season, and this storyline ties in elements of race, class, gender and sexuality without seeming forced or treacly.

The less said about the Alex flashbacks, the better. Laura Prepon is a fine actress, but that character is on a different show at this point, and these flashbacks took valuable time away from the rich variety of interesting things happening at the prison. Alex wouldn’t have been in my top five characters who needed a second flashback episode. But much of what was around this episode was so strong that it almost didn’t matter.

Episode Nine: “Where My Dreidel At”

Dreidel

The episode title foregrounds the subplot about Judaism, and so will I. The montage of inmates struggling to convince the rabbi who specializes in “corporate inquiry” of their Jewish roots might be the funniest scene this show’s ever done, and undoubtedly one of the funniest things I’ve seen on TV this year. I could spend this entire review quoting lines from that scene alone and laughing so hard that I forget about some of the season’s peripheral flaws…but I won’t do that.

It’s been a few days since I’ve seen this episode – I watched it before the holiday weekend. I liked it, particularly the flashbacks to Leanne’s days among the Amish and her stint as a narc. I’m less enamored with Stella’s seduction of Piper, because it feels piped in from a less interesting and more formulaic show. I also couldn’t stand that Red’s entire purpose in this episode amounted to frantically asserting her culinary prowess to a prison full of inmates who know full well that Red is a skilled chef. Red has gone from being one of the show’s best characters to one of its least developed, and it’s a shame to see Kate Mulgrew’s excellent performance squandered under such superficial auspices.

On the bright side: glad to see Emma Myles get a spotlight episode. Disturbed that the romance between Pennsatucky and the new guard has turned sour and sinister so quickly. Overjoyed by everything that Adrienne C. Moore and Danielle Brooks did in this episode. Excited to see the home stretch of season three.


Episode Ten: “A Tittin’ and a Hairin'”

Doggett

This is the kind of episode that would have the Twitter collective firing for days if OITNB aired on the broadcast schedule. So much of what happens in this episode provokes immediate, visceral reactions, from Coates raping Pennsatucky in the prison van to the return of Pornstache sans pornstache, Sophia shoving Gloria into the bathroom wall and even the villainous conclusion to Morello’s pen pal manipulations. The season has reached a boiling point.

First, Pennsatucky. Unlike the repeat Alex flashback two episodes ago, another look at Tiffany Doggett’s prison life is revealing and poignant, providing context for what unfolds at Litchfield without neatly resolving the events’ messy moral implications. Taryn Manning may not look the age she’s supposed to look in the flashback sequences, but the subtlety and intensity of her performance more than makes up for any logistical shortcomings. The flashbacks are also economically written, showing key moments that shaped Pennsatucky’s understanding of sex and relationships without suggesting that that understanding is solid and whole. Whether he realizes it or not, Coates preys on Doggett’s uncertainty, all while trying to convince himself that he can stay under control.

The show deserves credit for approaching this storyline with delicacy and ambiguity, taking care not to place any blame on Pennsatucky for what she falls victim to, but also not suggesting that what she’s experienced in the past hasn’t had an effect on her mindset. It will be interesting to see how much the rest of Litchfield will be drawn into this story, which is fairly isolated to Pennsatucky aside from Caputo’s brief, inciting interference into Coates’ professional lapses.

I was less impressed by the return of Pornstache, a character who’s never felt entirely like he belongs in this series, by design or otherwise. I know I’m supposed to feel uncomfortable when he’s onscreen, especially when he venomously assures his mother that he plans to claim Daya’s daughter as his own. But something about the character seems too cartoonish and garish for the rest of the show’s universe. I may be in the minority with this opinion, and Pablo Schreiber’s performance is always excellent. But his presence is unnerving nonetheless. (Also, should we read Mama Pornstache’s insistence on adopting the child as an attempt to bring the baby to her son? If so…ugh.)

In quick succession, thoughts on the other violent events that marked the last ten minutes of this episode, one of the show’s most harrowing ever:

  • Lolly reveals that she thinks Alex is a spy for the NSA, and appears to have no connection to Alex’s former boss. That twist makes sense at this point in the season, but it seems entirely possible that Lolly’s apparent delusion is actually the first half of a double cross on Alex and the audience. Is it me, or did Lolly seem far more sane when she was first introduced this season? The game is afoot.
  • Any storyline that gives Laverne Cox more to do is fine by me, and she totally sells Sophia’s frustration with her son’s dark turn and Gloria’s alleged involvement in it. Sophia’s son’s behavior is almost too broad to believe at this point, but it’s given two excellent characters a juicy dramatic throughline for the season.
  • It’s nice to have another reminder that Morello isn’t the sweet, innocent woman she pretends to be, even if she herself believes she is. Once again, it’s hard to tell how much the death of Christopher will reverberate, but it’s safe to say that Nicky might have company soon. (Also, Nicky! We miss you, Nicky!)

It’s a testament to the sheer narrative volume of any Orange is the New Black episode that I’ve written this much and haven’t even scratched the surface of half the stories yet. There’s the matter of Piper and Stella’s consummated flirtation, which couldn’t come at a worse time for Alex’s sense of security and self-worth. Suzanne nearly has her first sexual encounter with a relatively new onscreen presence named Maureen (I know this because Myles McNutt’s review said so, not because anyone in the show made her name clear), who appears both keen on sexual adventures and Suzanne in particular. Judy King, the show’s Martha Stewart stand-in, appears bound for a different prison, but the presence of a well-known actor in the role suggests that assignment might get switched before the season is out. Black Cindy is still trying to become Jewish, the cult of Norma is alive and well, and Red’s cooking is back with a vengeance.

I list all of these stories in short order not to dispense with this ballooning review, nor to provide a plot summary when you’ve undoubtedly already seen the episode if you’ve read this far. (Thanks for that, by the way!) Rather, that list should serve as a reminder of the shortcomings of reviewing a show like Orange is the New Black on an episodic basis. What seems like a throwaway story right now might turn out to have quite a bit of meaning later on. And even the obviously significant stories are winding towards uncertain conclusions. It’s useful to see the forest for the trees and examine these stories as they unfold, but it’s also worth remembering that sometimes there’s not much more to say than, “This was interesting. I wonder what happens next.” Orange is the New Black makes that question worth asking.

Episode Eleven: “We Can Be Heroes”

We Can Be Heroes

That’s a loaded episode title. Who does it refer to? Perhaps Caputo, who sticks his neck out for his girlfriend, then his child, then Angie, then his employees, with little reward coming his way. (Or, at least, that’s what his girlfriend said in a preachy expository monologue). But Caputo is a hero who does nice things for people because they’re convenient, and because he hopes he’ll get something in return, even though he rarely does. The word “hero” implies making sacrifices without expecting compensation, but all Caputo wants is a little compensation. He’s just not proactive enough to seek it out when he doesn’t come his way through virtue.

Berdie is much closer to the kind of hero Litchfield needs. She’s patient with the inmates and takes time to understand what makes them tick. But because Healy is the worst, she gets shoved under the bus for something that isn’t really a crime and in which she had little direct involvement. She might be a hero to some of the inmates, but upper management doesn’t think. Nor does Suzanne, who admits she took Berdie’s call for individual expression and ran with it in ways Berdie never asked for.

Suzanne can be a hero too. She recognizes her mistakes and just wants to be loved. She understands why Poussey is frustrated with her, even though she wishes she’d move on. And she never expected her foray into erotica to have such a dramatic ripple effect on her fellow inmates. When she loses her entire body of work in one fell swoop, she’s forced to reflect on what she’s done, and realizes that she did some good, even if the people in charge couldn’t see it.

Other heroes populate this episode in smaller ways. Big Boo takes an unconventional approach to awakening Pennsatucky to the horrors Coates inflicts on her, finally getting Doggett to admit that she wants the sexual assaults to stop. Red offers Piper a bit of professional advice, inadvertently facilitating a power trip that costs Piper her relationship with Alex, and maybe her panty business, if Flaca’s feeling particularly vindictive. Pearson finally puts down the facade he so often hides behind in front of Caputo, paving the way for a more fruitful professional relationship.

And it all comes to back to Caputo, who decides to throw in his lot with the guards and take a non-violent stand against the corporate overlords who threaten the existence of the institution that’s caused him so much strife but also saved him from financial and emotional ruin. If many of the antihero dramas of the 2000s were about institutional rot, Orange is the New Black offers more hope about the power of institutions to shape people’s lives for good. Litchfield has more than its fair share of rot, but the people in it can be heroes. The eyes of the institution aren’t everything, and the Litchfield community has more than the books can show for it.

Only two more episodes to go. A lackadaiscal first half of the season has given way to a busy second half. The final pair of episodes has a lot of ground to cover. I’m eager to see what they have in store.

 

Episode Twelve: “Don’t Make Me Come Back Here”

It’s been more than two weeks since I watched episode eleven, and I’m happy to report that Orange is the New Black loses none of its power when consumed on a more old-fashioned viewing schedule. It doesn’t hurt that this episode continues the second half of the season’s turn towards the harrowing. By episode’s end, one inmate is unjustly thrown in solitary confinement, another is lying on the ground unconscious from an overdose, a third is in the hospital holding a new baby in her arms, and still another is struggling with the aftermath of a violent rape. Litchfield is in disarray.

The birth of Daya’s baby marks a key development in a storyline that’s been percolating and gathering steam since the early part of the first season. After all that buildup, it’s almost disappointing that the storyline takes a backseat to several others in this episode, but Dascha Polanco’s strong work with Mary Steenburgen this season has rescued this storyline from repetition, and the absence of Bennett has made the story more powerful rather than less.

The flashbacks to Daya’s childhood summer camp adventure and Aleida’s jealous reaction to her daughter’s happiness were powerful and surprising. It’s rare to see motherhood depicted onscreen in such self-serving terms. It’s easy to glorify or demonize parents, but it’s much harder to see that they’re people just like everyone else, and they’re in need of validation from their children as much as the opposite is true. The juxtaposition of this story with Daya’s labor paints a grim picture of parenthood and its adverse effects on the younger generation. In an attempt to craft a young woman in her own image, Aleida only reinforced the same mistakes she’s made, and it’s costing her daughter a comfortable experience in prison, already a tall order. Daya seems unlikely to respond well to the news that her mother told Mama Pornstache that the baby died in childbirth, but Aleida’s choice represents yet another attempt to atone for her parental sins, even if she’s suffering from a lack of self-awareness in not realizing that Daya simply wants to be respected enough to make her own decisions.

Soso seems likely to follow Daya to the hospital in the finale, though not for the same happy outcome. Healy’s decision to subject Soso to the lackluster medical team provided by MCC puts the aggrieved inmate in a position to end her suffering through medicinal means. Poussey might have discovered Soso just in time to save her, and perhaps the sight of another inmate in a state of such disrepair will be enough to set her on a path away from the alcoholism that’s consumed her this season. It will be quite a shame if that revelation comes at the cost of another inmate’s life.

Many lives and livelihoods were threatened in this episode. Sophia’s feud with Gloria turned ugly and brought out the worst of the prison’s transphobic population. One wonders where this contingent of Litchfield has been for Sophia’s stint in prison up until now, and how it’s possible that she’s had such a comfortable run even amid intolerant people. But the emotional shock of Laverne Cox sans wig traipsing down to the shu for not committing a crime largely justifies this dramatic license. I complained last season that Cox didn’t appear enough or get juicy material, and the show has met those complaints with plenty of both.

While the ripple effect of Sophia and Gloria’s fight played out, other interracial conflicts threatened to boil over. Red nearly lost it on Taystee, Black Cindy and her crew when she found out that her corn had been stolen, but thanks to another impressive display of diplomacy from the group’s new unofficial mother Taystee, that story ended happily – even for Healy, who gets a nice slice of quiche for his efforts in restoring Red’s place in the kitchen despite also putting Soso’s life in danger in this episode.

Big Boo and Pennsatucky’s plot to wreack havoc on the latter’s rapist fizzled out, not because the logistics of the plan failed, but because Pennsatucky needs something other than settling the score to heal her emotional wounds. As with many of the storylines in this episode, the easy emotional catharsis isn’t enough. Sophia can’t just curse out Caputo and call out injustice without the realities of the system coming back to haunt her. Piper realizes she needs emotional support from another woman just in time for Stella to announce she’s getting out of prison. Suzanne can’t make a clean break from her foray into erotica because someone (Maureen) took up her mantle and created the first Time Hump Chronicles fanfiction. Actions have consequences, and they’re rarely pleasant.

One episode left! I’ve heard good things about the finale, and I’m excited to see what’s in store.

Episode Thirteen: “Trust No Bitch”

The ten-minute sequence that wraps up the third season of Orange is the New Black is as calculated and manipulative as storytelling gets. Having spent three seasons with these characters and grown to love or love to hate many of them, there’s nothing the audience wants more than to see them get free, especially all at once. And putting all of the characters together in one location allows the show to neatly tie a bow on nearly all of the season’s arcs in one fell swoop. Life doesn’t work like that, but television does.

And yet, Orange is the New Black makes this screenwriting ploy work like gangbusters, largely on the strength of the show’s magnificent, sprawling cast. It helps that the 80 minutes leading up to this sequence were fraught with ominous notes, with Caputo going corporate, Piper selling Stella out, Alex potentially getting murdered in the greenhouse, Red rebuffing Healy and Daya’s baby falling into the hands of Child Protective Services after a drug raid. The triumphant sojourn in the lake didn’t erase these devastating plot turns – Piper missed her chance to flirt with escape because she was too busy inflicting pain on herself in the name of art, Alex might be lying dead in the greenhouse, and Litchfield won’t stay guardless forever. Also, she didn’t appear in this episode, but Sophia is still suffering in solitary. It seems unlikely that we won’t see Laverne Cox on the show again, but the confident, authoritative Sophia of the salon might be gone for good.

Despite these hardships, and the many more that likely await the inmates once reality sets in and they return to the prison and lie down in their new bunks, the lake sequence offered redemption, romance and respite. Black Cindy finally achieves full conversion to Judaism after assuming she’d still be one step away without a convenient source of water for the mikvah. Soso finds companionship, at least temporarily, and perhaps an outlet for the emotional challenges she’s endured. Norma gets to be the hero again, but not in a dictatorial way. Suzanne and Maureen finally share a moment of romance unburdened by awkwardness or hesitation. Daya and her mother share a moment of understanding, even as we know it’s likely to come crashing down soon.

And that’s what makes this sequence powerful. Even though it’s bright, sunny and cheerful, notes of melancholy and menace lie just below the surface. The languid camera movement and bright lighting are bound to give away to harsher truths in the fourth season. Nothing good lasts forever, especially in prison.

And so the book closes on the third season of one of TV’s most compelling, expansive, messy shows. The tight plotting of last season loosened quite a bit this year, which seemed to rankle some viewers. There are moments when the sprawling focus threatened to be messy to the point of irritating, but by and large, Orange is the New Black found honesty and beauty in the emotional lives of its characters time and time again. This show doesn’t stand up to mechanical scrutiny, but it stands up to emotional scrutiny, achieving its goals with dazzling frequency. The wait for the fourth season will be as painful as the wait for the previous two.

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