Orange Is the New Black is confined to one location — indeed, to one building — for the bulk of its running time. But it always feels like the biggest show on television, like the stories contained within the walls of Litchfield Penitentiary encompass the whole of humanity, the whole of the world.
It's an endlessly empathetic show, where each and every character matters in ways that few other TV series would dare attempt. From the lowliest new inmate to the most powerful people at the prison, creator Jenji Kohan makes sure Orange has room for everybody in its view of the world.
The show's third season, which launched on Netflix Friday, June 12, struggles at times to hit the heights of the show's first two seasons. But it also does so much necessary work to rebuild a lot of what the over-the-top, massive second season seemed close to tearing down. While that second season was thrilling, ambitious television, it also grew so big that trying to top it could have easily caused the show to implode.
Instead, season three did everything it needed to do to make sure the series can continue for years to come. It wasn't as immediately satisfying as season two, but it was, in some ways, even more important to the run of the show as a whole, and it built to a final set of episodes that are as good as anything Orange has attempted so far.
Let's look at all of the ways the series perfectly set itself up for seasons to come.
Warning: mild spoilers for the full third season follow.
1) It backed away from the "Big Bad" model
Season two was dominated by the conflict between chef Red (Kate Mulgrew) and newly returned inmate Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). It was such a big, centralized storyline that it had a tendency to draw everything else toward it. Similarly, season one eventually boiled down to a conflict between the newly incarcerated Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling, ostensibly the show's main character) and the conservative Christian fundamentalist stereotype Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning).
While conflict between inmates is a good story engine for Orange, it also can't drive every season, or the series will become too formulaic. Plus, trying to top Vee could have easily led the show off a cliff. The character was so villainous, yet so sympathetic, that she was like the perfect Orange baddie.
In season three, there is no overarching villain. There are conflicts between inmates here and there — notably when Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Sophia (Laverne Cox) are at odds in the season's back half — but the overall story is much more thematically unified around the idea of both society and the prison system being the story's true villain. This is not a show about prisoners butting heads; it's about how the prison system makes them turn against each other, because it's so inherently dehumanizing.
The season's final two scenes underline this. In the first, the women race into the lake that sits behind the prison, thanks to a series of unlikely coincidences that might as well add up to a genuine miracle. Frolicking in the water, the women don't seem like prisoners, if only for the faintest of moments.
But then the series drives everything home, as more buses, filled with more women dressed in orange, drive in through the front gate. Any reprieve will be short-lived. The never-ending grind of life at Litchfield goes on.
2) It's much more thematically unified
Instead of revolving around a single plot, season three seems to be built upon three central themes that collide in the finale in messy, unpredictable ways. Let's look at them one by one.
Motherhood: The most obvious of the season's major themes, motherhood is addressed in almost every episode and informs many of the season's flashbacks to the inmates' lives before they arrived at Litchfield. The season premiere even takes place on Mother's Day and involves the characters having a few moments with their children or their own mothers. The season also builds to the birth of Daya's baby, the product of her union with prison guard Bennett (who leaves town) — a storyline three seasons in the making. The idea of motherhood ties into the series' intense, empathetic concern for everybody in Litchfield. Motherhood, after all, involves caring for someone, and the inmates often have no one to care for them but each other.
Faith: One of season three's stranger tangents is some sort of witchcraft cult begun by Norma (Annie Golden), the speechless woman who once worked in the kitchen. As the season progresses, she becomes more and more of a messianic figure, thanks to the proselytizing of her followers, who also push away those who don't fit neatly into the incipient religion's organization. And yet the season isn't all about the awful things faith can do. Even if the "miracles" Norma works are simple coincidences, they seem significant to the women who follow her, and they provide tiny moments of freedom amid captivity. Meanwhile, Black Cindy's conversion to Judaism is treated completely seriously and with great reverence. The scene where she convinces a rabbi of her earnest desire to convert is among the most powerful Orange has ever done.
Exploitation: Everybody's using somebody else in season three, whether it's the way the new corporate overlords of the prison (which has privatized) seem to treat the women within its walls as statistics they can move around on a spreadsheet, or the way that Piper herself treats the women who sign up for her service that sells the used underwear of female convicts to the less savory elements of the outside world. The system dehumanizes, yes, but it also forces people into positions where they dehumanize other people, because capitalism is all about grinding out slightly more profit, forgetting the human cost those profits are built upon. In that way, it's also the most surprisingly forthright defense of the right to unionize from a work of American pop culture in a long, long time.
3) It figures out what to do with Piper
Schilling's performance has long been one of Orange's best elements. She knows Piper can be incredibly unlikable, but she doesn't seem to mind pushing those elements of her character to their utmost. Even in season two, which largely sidelined the character, Schilling was always present and perfect, even in the backgrounds of large crowd scenes.
In season three, then, the show seems as if it's going to push forward in her star-crossed relationship with Alex (Laura Prepon), the woman who got Piper into this situation in the first place. But after a few episodes where the two have hate sex, the show settles them into a kind of couplehood and has Piper explore her economic options behind bars — culminating in a plan to smuggle prison panties out to her brother, who will sell them on the internet.
But setting up this illegal operation means that Piper eventually has to give in to her dark side. What begins as something she thinks might be mildly empowering turns her into a de facto gang boss, punishing people who double-cross her and setting up payment plans that operate similarly to how drug dealers pay their own underlings. It's a great turn for the character, and Schilling expertly plays every shade of Piper's semi-descent into legitimate criminality.
4) It's the show's most political season yet
I've already touched on season three's pro-union themes (though it maintains the same skepticism for unions as it does for any other institution), but it's also deeply horrified by the corporation that turns the prison into just another way to make a few spare dollars here and there. That means the inmates' needs aren't cared for, a situation that spirals out to touch almost everybody in the prison, including the employees.
It starts small, too, with things like terrible food that is even worse than the cuisine in previous seasons (this demoralizes Red, who can't believe she's asked to cook it). But it soon grows into something almost all-encompassing. Newly hired prison employees who don't know the inmates very well miss important details, allowing dangerous scenarios to develop. Sophia is sent to solitary confinement for her protection, because Litchfield's management doesn't know how else to care for her when she comes under attack for her trans status. Women are pushed into service to make underwear, a system that Piper is able to exploit, which in turn makes her a workplace oppressor as well.
The privatization of Litchfield is presented, when it happens, as a kind of catchall solution to the prison's continual problems with funding. But what actually happens is that it becomes an even greater squeeze on already limited resources, and one that doesn't much care about the people who are ostensibly there to be rehabilitated. Orange displays great empathy for everybody caught up in this system, but it sees the system as fundamentally dehumanizing, something that must be torn down so somebody can build something more humane.
5) It maintains its grip on the series' great humanity
Though season three is more scattered and less story-driven than Orange's previous seasons, it's filled with absolutely stunning scenes, when the camera cuts to some tiny moment of perfectly observed human behavior.
Consider, for instance, the remarkable shot of the often loathsome guard Healy (Michael Healy) openly crying at the wedding that takes place in the season finale. Or think of the small sequences that detail commissary head Chang's daily routine in the episode focused on her, especially the way the episode pays special attention to how she transforms Fritos, water, and peas into the little biscuits she eats, anything to find solace in her life. Or even look at how Orange has turned Pennsatucky from the stereotype we met in season one into someone who is slowly realizing all of the terrible things that have happened to her throughout her life.
Orange's third season can sometimes feel slightly too consumed by these moments; it can feel too disjointed, without a strong, central story to bring everything together. But by season's end, it becomes all the more clear that these moments are the show's whole point. To be in prison is to search, endlessly, for ways to maintain your humanity, even when it seems hopelessly lost. Orange's greatest strength is that it never succumbs to despair, yet also never suggests despair has disappeared entirely. It's pitched, forever, between giving up and pushing back, between losing hope and clinging desperately to what little hope you have left.
The third season of Orange Is the New Black is currently streaming on Netflix. Join us later in the week for a conversation about this season.