A red chili pepper piñata that holds no candy is one of the first images we see in the newest season of Netflix’s hit dramedy, Orange Is the New Black. It’s a powerful one. The children of the various inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary are told to “punch” and “work out their anger” on the piñata to release its sweet innards (the kids aren’t allowed to use a stick), while Corrections Officer Scott O’Neill (Joel Marsh Garland) and inmate Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) watch. She says the children are happy, not angry, to which he replies: “Sure they are. Hey, kid. Your mother is in prison. Pummel the piñata. Jab, jab.”
Mother’s Day at the prison might seem like a fun occasion, but all of the families are deeply affected by their mothers’ criminal actions, and the often sublimated anger is going to come out in various ways throughout the remainder of the season. In particular, two inmates are unable to control their sons outside of the prison walls, while another inmate is told by her baby’s father that he will no longer be bringing their daughter to see her.
Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), the assistant warden, calls the inmates “complicated ladies in a complicated place.” In fact, he believes that “these women forget they have lives on the outside” and “it affects how they behave in here.” But is this true? Time and time again, through flashbacks and current story lines, we see the women of Litchfield struggling with their lives on the outside. In fact, one could argue that the opposite is true: What is happening on the outside, be it troublesome teenage boys or drug dealers seeking revenge, can never completely be forgotten and has repercussions inside the prison as well.
Working with what you’ve got
While the ladies of Litchfield struggle with their outside lives, one consistent theme in this season is resourcefulness. The Mother’s Day celebration is humorously decorated with out-of-season merchandise — from St. Patrick’s Day shamrocks to balloons that say “Congrats Grad 2014” and “Clearance” to an enormous banner that reads “Fiesta Like There’s No Mañana” — and while that offers a terrific sight gag (reminiscent of Arrested Development’s Lupe wearing seasonally inappropriate sweatshirts), it also demonstrates the reality of life in Litchfield: You need to work with what you’ve got.
Similarly, after a bedbug infestation leads to the burning of all mattresses, the inmates create their own makeshift replacements, covering bare metal beds with maxi pads, toilet paper, cardboard, or rolled-up sweatshirts. Everyone at Litchfield is trying to make do with what they have — which isn’t much, given the effect of public attitudes toward the prison system: these people are criminals, so they should be happy with whatever we, the law-abiding citizens, give them. The prisoners have to be resourceful in an environment where nothing — not even clean clothes, edible food, and a place to sleep — is handed to you easily.
Enriching backstories and humor
As in previous seasons, Orange Is the New Black provides rich backstories for its characters, often with unexpected twists. My personal favorite was Lorna Morello’s (Yael Stone) story in Season 2, told in the show’s trademark style of intercutting flashbacks that illuminate the character’s actions in the present. Morello’s “reveal,” shocking but logical, continued to play out this season. In addition, this season we found out more about Leanne (Emma Miles) — the most surprising backstory of the bunch — Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), Chang (Lori Tan Chinn), Norma (Annie Golden), Flaca (Jackie Cruz), and Caputo. Mini-flashbacks provide insight into the lives of Soso, Counselor Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney), and Corrections Officer John Bennett (Matt McGorry) — the baby daddy of Dayanara “Daya” Diaz (Dascha Polanco). These flashbacks illuminate the paths that brought the characters to Litchfield, whether as inmate or staff, leading to the viewer having greater sympathy.
Throughout the drama this season (including rape, hate crimes, transphobia, and crushing depression), Orange Is the New Black still contends that it is a comedy (despite what the Emmys may think), and it is definitely lighter in tone overall than Season 2. There are fabulous montages, like Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) trying to convince a rabbi that she’s Jewish, and hilarious plotlines, such Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (the award-winning Uzo Aduba) writing intergalactic erotica. Another fun feature of the show is its clever use of music. In this season, viewers are treated to a Les Miz sing-along by the guards as well as one of the best uses ever of the overwrought rock of Foreigner. These musical interludes add levity to the dire lives of the inmates and provide hope for a better future.
Moments of connection
Which brings us back to that red chili pepper piñata. After the festivities, the inmates clean up, returning the prison back to its usual dull appearance. While Poussey is sweeping, she finds the empty piñata carcass; inside the papier-mâché pepper, she sees the same Calvin and Hobbes cartoon she read as a child with her now-deceased mother. The old saying appears to be true: One person’s trash is another person’s treasure. And for the ladies of Litchfield, these cherished moments of connection, reflection, and optimism — culminating in a cathartic release at the end of the season — give them the hope they need to continue to survive behind those prison walls.
For Paula Berman's review, click here.
For Alaina Mabaso's review, click here.