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Why Orange Is the New Black's Sophia and Gloria are season 3's most compelling characters

The conflict between Gloria and Sophia is one of season three's best plot lines.
The conflict between Gloria and Sophia is one of season three's best plot lines.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

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.

Alex Abad-Santos, culture writer: After season three's slow start, I had been waiting for Orange Is the New Black to reach into my soul and make me care about where its story is headed. There's been plenty to not like lately — Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) are exhausting, Red (Kate Mulgrew) has become a caricature, and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), a character with one of the show's more powerful and compelling arcs, was sent away. But one storyline in particular has encouraged me to keep watching: the motherly rivalry between Sophia (Laverne Cox) and Gloria (Selenis Leyva).

The two share a brittle friendship carved out of Gloria's desperation. Gloria wants to see her son, Benny, but he doesn't have a reliable way to travel to Litchfield for visits. As a last resort, Gloria arranges for him to carpool to the prison with Sophia's wife and son. But things quickly go sour, as Sophia sees Benny as a bad influence on her "sweet boy."

The resulting tension puts the spotlight on two of Orange Is the New Black's stronger, flashier characters. And it took until this season and this story for me to see that they are more alike than I had realized.

Both Sophia and Gloria are parents who are committed to their families. Both are feeling the awfulness that is not being able to watch their kid(s) grow up. And both are coming to understand that they are bad parents.

Tone-wise, their situation marks a bit of a departure for Orange Is the New Black.

In its first two seasons, the series presented an overarching narrative about good women who ended up in tough situations and made do. Many of Litchfield's inmates wound up there through unfortunate series of events. As the show has unfurled, we've gotten the sense that most of these prisoners aren't that bad. And in season two, Vee and her open evilness made a lot of them seem "good" by comparison.

It's been a while since Orange Is the New Black has put the women of Litchfield in positions where they become their own worst enemies. Sophia and Gloria have taken very different approaches to teaching their sons about life and what it means to be a man, and neither woman fully comprehends the scope of her influence. The show makes clear that both of them, while powerful at Litchfield, are just tiny specks in their sons' lives, and that their absence from home is hurting their families.

Consequently, the conflict between Gloria and Sophia is part of a larger question this third season wants to address: How much do our parents shape who we are? And further, does nurture trump nature?

From that depressing Mother's Day celebration in the season premiere, to Daya's (Dascha Polanco) dilemma in deciding whether to give her baby to Mendez's rich mother, to Ruiz's (Jessica Pimentel) boyfriend not letting their daughter visit Litchfield because the child will soon start to grasp that her mother is a felon, Orange Is the New Black has made a deliberate effort to illustrate the true impact of prison on motherhood and, ultimately, the importance of mothers in our lives.

And the show is at its best when it doesn't flinch in depicting the hurt and ugliness that motherhood can bear. Sophia's fear that her son will follow in her footsteps and wind up in prison is heartbreaking. So is Gloria's growing realization that she's failed to raise a good son. Their stories offer a visceral reminder that even when they leave Litchfield, there may not be anything or anyone — including the people they hold most dear — waiting for them on the other side.

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

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