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Orange Is the New Black is certain to be much darker in season 4

Don't expect to see the same reverie in season four.
Don't expect to see the same reverie in season four.
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 last several days, several of Vox's writers have been discussing the third season of Orange Is the New Black. Before you dig into this final installment, check out our review of the full season, as well the archive of our entire conversation to date.

Todd VanDerWerff, culture editor: To conclude our discussion of Orange Is the New Black's third season, I want to shift the topic to how I think the season will ultimately function in the series' complete run. In short, I think we'll look back on it as a kind of perfect breather between the frantic first two seasons and what looks to be a harder turn in the seasons to come.

In my argument in favor of Piper that kicked off this series of posts, I mentioned that Orange Is the New Black's timeline is advancing such that her stay at Litchfield will likely end in season five or six. By that standard, then, season three will mark the center of the series, and be the season where everything pivots. Although I don't think creator Jenji Kohan and her writers have planned out their story to that exact of a degree, I would be very surprised if they haven't at least thought about where it's headed.

In short, season three functions as a respite from everything else. The complaints about the show's whitewashing of its characters' criminal pasts (complaints I don't really agree with) seemed to come up a lot more often this season than in the past, and I think that's because its tone was more forthrightly comedic than it's ever been, as if to make a complete break from the darker season two.

But the season finale underlines just how all of season three's hijinks lulled us into a sort of false complacency, as perfectly illustrated by the women's sprint into the lake for a swim. In that moment, they have the illusion of freedom, with no fences or bars holding them back and the cool splash of water on their faces. But they also don't truly have freedom. The lake is too large to really make a break for it, and it doesn't appear as if any of them would even really want to. In general, they're committed to just keeping their heads down and getting through this.

Except Orange Is the New Black's point is that being in prison isn't really living, nor is it just punishment for any crime, no matter how severe. Even a minimum security facility like Litchfield inherently dehumanizes the people who reside (and work) there, not so much rehabilitating them as turning them into people who mostly belong at Litchfield. (That point was more successfully driven home by Taystee's journey back in season one than it has been by anything else.) No matter how certain events transpire to make these women feel as if they have some degree of agency over their own lives, they don't. Not really. Agency is a mirage that pops up every so often, but it largely serves to turn the women against each other.

Orange is the New Black lake escape Netflix

The greatest agency, then, is in the collective, in the moments when the women band together and fight back against the system that reduces them to dehumanized cogs in a giant machine. And that's all well and good if Litchfield remains the size it's been in Orange Is the New Black's first three seasons, but the final moments of season three serve as a wake-up call to the implausibility of that idea. The prison is about to get much, much larger. The women we've come to know will presumably be even more lost, even more like interchangeable pieces of the bigger picture. Litchfield is about to become even more of a factory of exploitation.

If Orange Is the New Black has a central message, it's the idea that every human being is worthy of value. And if it has a secondary message, it's the idea that the systems human beings establish, whether they're public or private, always end up pitting us against each other, turning us into either exploiters or the exploited — and sometimes both at the same time.

The first three seasons of Orange Is the New Black contained plenty of despairing moments. But things are about to get much worse.

Read our review of season three.

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