NOTE: This review may contain mild spoilers for the third season of Orange is the New Black. That said, the review is written to accommodate those who have not yet seen the season, and as such, will avoid any discussion of major plot developments.
By its third year, the novelty of Orange is the New Black has kind of worn off. As one of the pioneering Netflix Original Series programs, the idea behind the show was revolutionary for its debut in 2013, particularly in how it so effectively created a female-driven show meant for a female audience that was still good enough to be enjoyable to men. That effect was bound not to be permanent once the ground was broken however, so if you’re expecting a radical change-up to the antics of Litchfield Penitentiary in the show’s third season, you’re bound to be disappointed.
That said though, it’s funny how, in its own twisted way, Litchfield has come to feel like home for fans of the series, even if it’s a place where no one in their right mind would want to live. This is a great sign of the show’s ease of deriving bittersweet investment from its viewers, and with that being what the show did especially well in its first two seasons, rest assured that it’s still at the top of its game on that note in Season Three. The writing behind the show remains a fantastic mix of comedy and drama, with the upticks of fleeting hope and inspiration amongst the prisoners able to give way to tragedy and defeat at any moment. This keeps the potent emotion behind Orange is the New Black as exciting as it ever was for Season Three.
What about where we pick up with the numerous inmates though? Naturally, we get a peek at more backstories, with spotlighted inmates including Leanne, Chang, Nicky, Big Boo, Aleida, Norma, and Flaca. We also get an additional peek at further backstories for Alex and Pennsatucky, and even Bennett and Caputo get some backstory filled in as a nice switch, helping to ensure that the show is about more than just the inmates.
In fact, among the strengths of Season Three, the more vulnerable, sympathetic portrayal of the guards and higher-ups is one of the best. Characters like Caputo are now shown to be far more relatable, particularly in the early episodes, as Litchfield’s rampant financial trouble threatens it with closure. Naturally, this doesn’t stick, though the solution isn’t an easy fix by any means. It results in a whole bunch of new obstacles for both the guards and Caputo, and it feels satisfying to be reminded that they’re people too, with their own struggles and insecurities, just like the inmates. This clever idea of how Litchfield ends up being salvaged in the wake of Fig’s thieving from Season Two effectively helps the cast of the show grow and feel more interesting than ever.
That’s not to say that the inmates are skimped upon this season however. Some of the flashback elements amongst the inmates are a very unexpected surprise, namely the origins of Leanne and Chang. Pennsatucky gets a particularly great season in Season Three as well, with her character also becoming far more sympathetic, particularly later in the season, when we see the true depths of how damaged her upbringing was. It’s a great way to re-interpret a character that largely served as an antagonist in Season One especially.
Crazy Eyes is another inmate with some particularly ingenious writing behind her in Season Three. The show doesn’t completely betray making her a comic relief character, though it does finally give her an actual character, rather than just making her a creepy basket case like in Season One, or a borderline mindless thug like in Season Two. In fact, both of those one-note personality traits are brought together to excellent effect in Season Three, as Crazy Eyes must deal with the fallout of Vee’s death from the end of Season Two, and better yet, becomes the product of accidental fame when a smutty story that she writes becomes the sensation of the prison, with inmates constantly pestering her for new developments in the insane tale. It’s a clever and cathartic way to rib on women for the inexplicable popularity of trashy female-driven literary fads like Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey, though one that thankfully avoids feeling insulting.
As much as the ensemble cast steals the spotlight frequently in Season Three however, the show is still very much about Piper, even if she’s barely recognizable from where she started. The complete absence of Larry in Season Three is actually kind of beneficial, since he would have taken away from Piper’s increased edginess and unnatural acclimation to her prison environment by Season Three. This is best exemplified by Piper getting a new admirer in Season Three, even as Piper tries to rebuild her relationship with Alex, and even more so by Piper’s new business, which results from an idea she has after being assigned a new prison work job.
Along with several other inmates, Piper is re-purposed to building panties for a fictional lingerie company called Whispers, which seems to be a riff on Victoria’s Secret. When Piper discovers that a lot of unused fabric is discarded, she comes up with the idea to make custom panties that the inmates can wear, which she can then sell to panty-sniffing perverts on the outside, using her brother and the guards as packagers and deliverers. It’s definitely twisted, but actually kind of brilliant, and fits perfectly with the show’s tone. It also creates tons of interesting plot developments on all sides, with the power quickly going to Piper’s head, and changing her character in some very engaging ways throughout the season.
There’s a lot to love about the third season of Orange is the New Black, and it’s impossible to detail it all without major spoilers especially, given how enormous the show’s cast is. That said though, there are also a few sticking points that viewers should be aware of in an otherwise strong third season. These aren’t too common, but they do drag down what’s otherwise some fantastic writing.
First, if there’s a weak arc this season, it’s Daya’s. Given the timeline, it’s not really a spoiler to say that Daya is about to have her baby when Season Three starts up. There’s an interesting conflict set up with Pornstache’s well-off mother, played in a recurring role by Mary Steenburgen, offering to take the baby, and Aleida encouraging it, since it would mean a better life for the unborn child. Unfortunately, the back-and-forth on this is done tediously, and Daya comes off as a bit spineless in the end. The resolution of this storyline also feels like a cop-out, since it makes all of the agonizing over the decision feel like it amounted to nothing, and that’s very annoying.
Oh, but where’s Bennett, you may ask? Good question! Despite Bennett getting his own flashbacks for the second episode, and continuing to play extensively into the Daya conflict in the early episodes of the season, Bennett then just disappears for the entire season after the second episode. Bullshit! That’s total bullshit, no two ways about it. The way that the show tries to explain Bennett’s absence makes no sense in regards to his character at all, with his poor guile from this very season drawing the most attention to that. Not only that, but the writers just aren’t clever about hiding the fact that they clearly have no ideas regarding what to do with Bennett for Daya actually having the baby, so they just kind of swept Bennett under the rug. It’s cheap and unsatisfying, and a show like Orange is the New Black is better than simply ignoring characters and pretending that they don’t exist whenever said character becomes a bother to write for.
Lastly, another botched inmate this season is Morello. Just like Piper, the writers tried to give Morello an added edge in Season Three, but unlike Piper, said edge just doesn’t work with Morello’s character. Yes, Morello is a crazy stalker-type, as we established in Season Two, but she had sort of an innocence and naivete about her character that effectively allowed you to feel sorry for her, even when you knew she was doing wrong. That innocence is completely thrown out in Season Three, with Morello responding to a tragedy (that I won’t spoil) by willfully taking advantage of men that write to her in prison. As with Daya’s arc, the conclusion to Morello’s arc also doesn’t feel that satisfying, particularly when she spent so much of the season being so mopey and unlikable. In fact, there’s a callback to Morello’s original beau that landed her in prison which occurs later in the season that’s supposed to be funny, but actually comes off as horrifying! Morello’s nuts, but she’s never been nasty. These kind of actions on her part just feel very out-of-character.
Those are really the only weak spots in what’s still a pretty overall great season though. Orange is the New Black has now settled into a comfortable groove, which isn’t really bothering to shake up the core formula of the show by this point, but if you’re already a fan, there’s still lots to love. The show’s writing is fantastic as ever, Daya and Morello notwithstanding, and the bittersweet emotional satisfaction behind everything still comes in droves. Orange is the New Black may be starting to stick to an established craft now, but it still does that craft better than most any other Netflix series, or television dramedy in general.
I’ll be keeping my visitation request to Litchfield sustained!
Orange is the New Black delivers another strong cocktail of emotional, smart and surprising comedy and drama in its third season, even if a few inmates lagged behind in the storytelling.
THE GOOD STUFF
Effectively dark turn for Piper and her panty business
More sympathetic prison guard stories
Still an excellent mix of comedy and drama
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Losing some of the novelty from earlier seasons
Daya's and Morello's arcs were tone-deaf and unsatisfying