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Why Orange Is the New Black season 3 isn’t as bingeable as seasons 1 and 2

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

For the next several days, several of Vox's writers will discuss the third season of Orange Is the New Black. Before you dig into the latest round, check out our review of the full season, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date.

Dylan Matthews: I'm having a bit of trouble finishing Orange Is the New Black season three — and not just because of its dubious social science citations. It's not, as Alex (Abad-Santos, not Vause) argued, that the characters feel like they're growing more clichéd. I think that critique loses its bite as the season progresses. The problem is that Netflix shows, in general, have no idea what to do with the middle of their seasons.

The first two seasons of Orange Is the New Black revolved around single, dominant storylines: the Piper-Alex-Larry love triangle in season one, and the Vee vs. Red showdown in season two. Their approaches weren't particularly original in terms of structure. Season one evoked other TV series' season-long love triangles, like Jim-Pam-Karen on The Office or Rory-Dean-Jess on Gilmore Girls, while season two brought to mind "big bad" shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Justified, where the season is built around a villain who needs to be taken down.

Season three feels a bit fresher for not relying on a tried-and-true formula, but doesn't make an effort to shore itself up in the absence of a given structure. There's no single plot line that every episode is focused on furthering. Piper's panty-smuggling business is fun, but doesn't get nearly enough screen time to anchor the season. Same goes for Norma's New Age-y religion/cult/meditation club and the Gloria vs. Sophia battle over their teenage sons' behavior. The prison privatization plot comes closest, but developments there happen slowly, and usually result in Mike Birbiglia's corporate-stooge-who-cares character imposing new cuts or restrictions on warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), and Caputo capitulating after a bit of weak, ineffectual protest. Privatization isn't an active enough plot line to ground the season; it's an important piece of background context, one that makes Red and Pennsatucky's stories possible, but not much of a story in its own right.

So we're left instead with a half-dozen odd storylines being juggled, all of which feel independent and non-intersecting, and none of which look poised to congeal into something gripping enough to carry us through to the season finale.

I might be wrong about this. I felt the same way around episode nine of Bloodline, and then the show set its endgame in motion and I was riveted. I can imagine a few ways in which Orange Is the New Black could pull itself together for a final push. As of the end of episode nine, where I am at the moment, Piper's panty business is actively threatening her relationship with Alex by pulling her toward Stella (Ruby Rose). Alex is in turn pushing Piper away as she grows more and more paranoid — and more and more seemingly justified in her paranoia — of Lolly (Lori Petty), who sure acts like she's been hired to kill Alex. Pulling those threads together could make for a big-feeling final act.

But even if things do converge, Netflix really needs to acknowledge that episodes three through 10 of a season exist, and can't just be phoned in. The reason many shows lean on formulas like love triangles and "big bads" is that they provide a ready-made framework for each step of the season. The first act of the love triangle plot introduces the main relationship (Piper and Larry), the second introduces the challenger (Alex), the third pushes all three participants toward a resolution. The first act of the big bad plotline introduces the villain (Vee), the second delves into the villain's backstory, and the third shows his or her ultimate downfall. Each portion of the season has a task it needs to complete.

In the absence of an off-the-shelf setup like that, Netflix series have a tendency to drag in the middle of their seasons, because there's no real reason they can't. When a show is serialized weekly on actual broadcast networks, it can't afford to bore viewers and risk losing them before the season is over. That provides an incentive for maintaining momentum throughout. But on Netflix, the assumption is that most viewers are binge-watching, and will finish the entire season no matter what. So why not concentrate on making the end of the season mind-blowing, and slack off in the middle?

This dynamic is most evident in Orange Is the New Black's season three flashbacks, which feel dutiful in a way the previous seasons' didn't. That's not to say they're bad, necessarily. I loved seeing Chang's (Lori Tan Chinn) past as a gang boss. But what did it actually do in terms of the overall plot? Vee's flashbacks established her relationships in the prison and grounded other characters' fears. What do Leanne's (Emma Myles) Rumspringa memories tell us? That she's devout and likes organized religion? We knew that in season one!

I'm ready to forgive a lot if season three sticks the landing. But Netflix needs to figure out a way to solve its midseason problem.

Read our review of season three. Come back soon for more discussion.

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