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.
Jen Trolio, deputy culture editor: Alex, I must respectfully disagree with your assertion that Sophia and Gloria are the most compelling characters of Orange Is the New Black's third season — in my mind, that distinction belongs to two other folks who've been a major force as of late, Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) and Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow). The former meth-head and the errant warden of Litchfield have come so, so far since we first met them in season one, and they're two of the best examples of how much this series excels at changing our perceptions of people we thought we knew.
By this point, we've seen some pretty radical flip-flops happen with several different characters; between the show's heavy use of flashbacks to reveal individual backstories and the way we see the owners of those individual backstories behave in the present day, Orange Is the New Black has been able to paint a uniquely elaborate picture of why so many of its characters are the way they are, so to speak.
In opting to tell several smaller stories instead of one big one, season three has benefited from having extra breathing room to fill in some blanks for characters whose backgrounds remained largely mysterious in seasons one and two, while also deepening our understanding of characters we've already spent plenty of time with. In the "new information" category, Leanne's Amish upbringing and subsequent predisposition to organized religion comes to mind, as does SoSo's overbearing mother and her eagerness to please. In the "old dogs, new tricks" camp, characters we used to love have become characters we hate and vice versa, or ended up somewhere in between.
Think back to how, when we first met Officer Healy in season one, he was an ally to Piper and a generally likable authority figure... until he turned on her due to her lesbian dalliances with Alex, looked the other way during her knockdown drag-out with Pennsatucky, and eventually grew angry and spiteful at work while suffering marital problems at home. His duality thus established, season three has frequently alternated between every facet of the character's complexity, illustrating how his desire to be loved has affected every aspect of his life.
Similarly, Piper's trajectory has oscillated quite a bit in season three: she was fairly annoying in the early episodes, shrank to somewhat of a non-entity for a while, and then leveled out as she kickstarted her used-panties business, began to fall for Stella (Ruby Rose), sabotaged her relationship with Alex, and ultimately took a big step in her transition toward hardened prison don when she filled Stella's cube with contraband to send the message that she is not to be messed with.
The point is, Orange Is the New Black has gotten damn good at fleshing out its characters over time, always piling on additional shades of gray. And nowhere has that been more apparent in season three than with Doggett and Caputo.
In Doggett's case, her season three arc has humanized her so much that it essentially feels too mean to keep calling her Pennsatucky, the same way that it no longer feels all that appropriate to refer to Uzo Aduba's Suzanne Warren as "Crazy Eyes."
Yes, Doggett was once a toothless, close-minded, Bible-thumper — but now that we've learned all about her troubled past and her history of sexual abuse, watched her open up to and grow close with Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), and cringed at her present-day rape by Officer Coates and heartbreaking response to it, we have a much more complete picture of what makes her tick.
Meanwhile, with regard to Caputo, we now have a much better idea of what it means to him to "do the right thing." Seeing the way his past sacrifices — namely, giving up an opportunity to tour with his band to help raise a child that wasn't his, and still finishing last, as nice guys so often do — have informed his current actions in the face of Litchfield's privatization has helped to explain and justify his headspace. It's difficult not to feel for the guy, even as you find yourself recoiling in disgust when he releases his pent-up energy and frustration by sleeping with Fig.
Orange Is the New Black has drawn plenty of criticism for using its flashbacks to absolve its characters of moral responsibility, to make them seem like innocent victims of circumstance who played little to no active role in bringing about the crummy, prison-centric situations that have befallen them. And in some cases, that's true.
But even still, in developing its characters the way it has, Orange Is the New Black has crafted an extremely rich world full of damaged and desperate — and above all, believable — human characters who will ultimately be the reason the show can evolve beyond its Piper-focused premise. The last few episodes of season three have done a whole lot of "big event" table-setting for season four, suggesting that once again, the show will be switching things up in terms of major plot points and the presence of a big bad. However, as long as it continues to build on its existing foundation by adding new layers to the people and settings we consider to be familiar, it'll be in good shape.
Read our review of season three. Come back soon for more discussion.