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Piper Chapman is irritating. She’s also vital to Orange Is the New Black’s success.

You wouldn't like Piper (Taylor Schilling) when she's angry.
You wouldn't like Piper (Taylor Schilling) when she's angry.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For the next several days, several of Vox's writers will discuss the third season of Orange Is the New Black. Before we begin, check out our review of the full season, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Joining culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be culture writer Alex Abad-Santos, deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, and more.

Spoilers follow for the entirety of season three.

Todd VanDerWerff: Dammit, guys, I love Piper Chapman.

Orange Is the New Black's ostensible protagonist has long been seen by fans of the show as one of its Achilles heels. Even those who like the character frequently admit they like the way she's basically the worst, someone who comes into prison with a bunch of preformed opinions and then has those opinions disabused during her stay. In some ways, this argument goes, Orange Is the New Black is a show about checking your privilege; Piper is a vehicle for the show to examine that theme, and a way to force viewers to do so themselves.

But even this argument presupposes that most people find Piper deeply irritating and wish she would just go away already. What's more, Orange Is the New Black sometimes seems convinced it might be better off without its unlikeliest inmate. Even though the series is based on a memoir by Chapman's real-life counterpart, Piper Kerman, I've occasionally felt that Orange Is the New Black hadn't known what to do with the character post-season one (when she was much more the unquestioned lead).

In season two, that meant mostly sidelining her in favor of the conflict between Red and Vee. And in season three, it meant throwing her into a romantic subplot with Alex, which bore very little fruit, before having her realize her own darkest side by starting up an operation to smuggle dirty women's underwear out of Litchfield so her brother could sell it on the internet. It was the most pure fun Piper has been in ages — perhaps ever.

This convinced me, more than ever before, that Orange Is the New Black is at its best when Piper is somewhere near its center.

Don't get me wrong, I totally understand all of the reasons many viewers find the character annoying (though they will never catch me saying anything bad about Taylor Schilling, who perfectly understands every single nuance in her character's particular brand of awfulness). I get why people believe the show could be just great without Piper, why she's the thing holding it back. But I just can't go that far. Indeed, I think Orange Is the New Black might fall apart without her, a fate season two came dangerously close to at times.

The thing about Piper is that she serves as a perfect foil for almost every other inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary. She's more innocent than Alex (and the series makes great use of flopping this dynamic in season three). She comes from a much more privileged background than many of her prison peers. She has fewer street smarts than, say, Red. But she survives and she persists and she gets by. That makes her someone who fits in better at Litchfield than even she might be willing to admit.

In contrast, look at how Brooke Soso, a character introduced in season two and presented as a kind of pseudo-Piper, ends up being completely destroyed by Litchfield, attempting to commit suicide after her rejection and bullying by the Norma cult. (She's saved by Taystee and friends, who nurse her back to health and take her under their wing.) We've seen Piper at her lowest over the course of this show, and it's hard to imagine her ever trying to kill herself. She's tougher than she gives herself credit for.

One shift that's occurred in the background of the show's main plots has been the slow ebb of Piper's family visits. Her parents show up to say hi early in season three, but we don't see them again. Former fiancé Larry, of course, has dumped her (and doesn't appear at all in season three). The only person left is her brother, who seems more entertained than anything else by what's happened to his sister. Piper, in many ways, has been cast adrift by the very society that formed and shaped her, forced to find herself anew in Litchfield.

But Orange Is the New Black makes a very convincing case that the family she's formed here is stronger than the one she ever had outside of Litchfield. The show isn't naive enough to believe that its characters will all hang out together once they leave prison, but it does have an innate belief that their bonds are stronger than the characters might confess, because of the adversity that shapes them. Piper doesn't belong in Litchfield, but she's one of the few characters who's literally being rehabilitated by being there.

And, honestly, that might be the show's sneakiest reminder of privilege. Piper can be rejuvenated and tested by her prison experience, because she knows that once she leaves, she can return to being an upper-class, attractive white woman, even if she's a convicted felon. As we've seen time and time again, the other characters don't have that kind of a safety net. It's a key difference that allows Piper to figure out her shit in a way that makes her an interesting center for the show.

Given the amount of time — around 10 months — that has passed in the first three seasons, it sure seems like Piper's time in prison will be up in season five or season six. It certainly seems quite possible that series creator Jenji Kohan has planned out her protagonist's stay in such a fashion. But even though the show's other characters are strong enough to keep things going in a post-Piper world, I'll still find myself a little sorry to see her go. Orange Is the New Black is a better show with Piper in it, and she's a better character than many fans want to let on. Chapman forever.

I know many of you disagree with me, so flame away.

Read the review and check back in throughout the next several days for more entries.

WATCH: The real Piper discusses how prison is broken