I spent all of last weekend in prison. Litchfield Federal Penitentiary, that is, bingeing on Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black. This season is much more comic than last, though due to new rules, it has to compete as a drama in this year’s Emmys.
Much of the comedy this season comes from mixing up the characters. The social groups of Litchfield have always been balkanized by race, a situation made worse by Vee, the villain of Season 2. Multiple coalitions were put together — and pitted against one another — by her, and her death sent characters careening off into strange new directions. These unusual friendships make excellent use of the deep bench of supporting characters, many of whom are outcasts or invisible, or have lost their identity to groupthink.
The backdrop of the season is that Litchfield has been taken over by MCC, a private corporation that cuts corners with cheap food and part-time guards, and profits by paying inmates $1 per hour (far more than the usual $0.08) to make expensive underwear for a company called Whispers. The new assistant warden is Joe Caputo; via heartbreaking flashback, we discover why he became a CO instead of a rock star. One of the show’s most interesting new relationships is the love/hate sexual one between him and the conniving Natalie Figueroa, whose job he took. Under Fig’s tutelage, Caputo morphs from nice guy to corporate ladder-climber.
Dayanara and CO Bennett’s baby is finally born. The only interesting aspect of that story is the juxtaposition of Bennett with Cesar, the partner of Daya’s mother Aleida. Ostensibly, Bennett is a good guy and Cesar a drug-dealing, philandering, parenting-at-gunpoint thug, but Cesar has what Bennett lacks: courage and loyalty. Watching the two of them interact at Cesar’s chaotic, child-filled apartment was grimly humorous, but only pointed out how little a man Bennett is after all. The conclusion of the Daya/Bennett affair is sad but all too predictable.
What comes after Vee?
Not everyone at Litch is glad Vee’s gone. Crazy Eyes/Suzanne can’t accept her death, despite how badly Vee used her. Taystee steps up to pull her into reality, and they bond over their grief at the loss of their maternal figure, weeping in each other’s arms. This closeness finally frees Suzanne from her bereavement and leaves her able to express her true self via creative writing. Her x-rated sci-fi saga becomes a Litch-wide hit and attracts the attention of many inmates who have previously dismissed her as a freaky joke. It’s a beautiful evolution for a character previously only depicted as humorous or pathetic.
By working with Gloria on the Santeria ritual that killed Vee, Norma emerges from Red’s silent kitchen sidekick to prison guru. Her backstory reveals both why she never speaks and why she knows so much about being in a cult. She accumulates a diverse group of followers: Angie and Leanne, Poussey, Brook Soso, and that woman who never stops crying. Leanne, it turns out, isn’t just a dumb meth head. Once Pennsatucky’s acolyte, now Norma’s, Leanne’s craving for faith and belonging is deeply rooted in her upbringing, but takes a dark turn because, to her, you’re not inside if someone else isn’t out.
The person whose rejection she orchestrates is the perennially friendless Brook Soso. Used by Piper and Nicky, she hopes for acceptance from Norma’s coterie, but is soon shunned by them too. The prison counselor who shows her compassion is sabotaged by a vengeful Healy, so Brook is driven to the edge of despair. Ultimately, her urge to self-destruct leads her to find acceptance from the lonely Poussey, who recalls all too keenly how it felt to be made an outcast by Vee.
Casualties and collateral damage
Though Laverne Cox has become the breakout star of the series, we rarely see Sophia outside her salon, or being harassed about her transsexuality. This season, she and Gloria butt heads when their sons carpool to Litch together. Sophia’s only real friend is Sister Jane, but Gloria rolls deep. After receiving a serious beatdown, Sophia is a casualty of MCC’s uncaring corporate culture, being placed in solitary “for her own protection.” And there she rots, though she’s done nothing wrong. I hope this is a springboard for the show to make better use of Sophia next season.
Another casualty of MCC is Litchfield’s kitchen. Gloria, torn between motherhood and leading the kitchen, finally cracks, and Red, via her new closeness with Healy, is able to take over again. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, considering that everything now comes precooked in bags. At first, Red is just using Healy to get what she wants, but a strange friendship forms between them, an almost-affair for the love-starved Healy and newly divorced Red. I cringed a bit at the thought of their liaison, but ultimately it reunites Red with Norma and Healy with his wife, so it works out for the best.
Black Cindy claims to be a Jew to get tasty kosher food instead of the meals-in-a-sack, but then undergoes a sincere conversion to Judaism. Not just another comic voice from the black girl clique, Cindy, now Tova, completes her conversion via an unexpected mikvah in the season finale, in a storyline that does her justice as a complex character with real depth.
Arguably, Tiffany/Pennsatucky has made the biggest transformation of any of the characters, from the villain of Season 1 to a daffy idiot savant. Flashbacks show why she became the wounded girl with a meth habit and six abortions behind her. She and Big Boo forge an unlikely but sweet bond. Their personalities couldn’t be more different. Tiffany’s a perpetual victim, while Boo never backed down for anyone, sometimes to her own regret. As a team, they are glorious, bringing out the lost humanity in each other.
Of special note is the backstory of Litchfield’s most invisible loner, Chang — one of my favorite episodes of the season and not to be spoiled.
Piper fades to the background
Notice who I haven’t mentioned yet? Piper. Alex is back in Litch, and they get back together, then, after much melodrama, unceremoniously break up. Piper has a completely unmemorable affair with genderqueer inmate Stella. In a sitcomish subplot, Piper smuggles used panties of Litch, and her brother sells it online to people who get off on sniffing it. Caught up in being a gangster, she ignores Alex’s real fear of retaliation by her former dealer boss, further reinforcing the truth that most viewers have accepted: Piper is a narcissistic jerk at heart.
I have a modest proposal for creator Jenji Kohan: Let Piper out of Litch and continue the story without her. Piper’s white, privileged face may have been necessary to sell the show at first, but this season has made it excruciatingly clear that she’s extraneous. My wish for Season 3 came through (bye, Larry and Polly!), but for Season 4, I wish Kohan would embrace the fact that OITNB doesn’t need a star. The unique ensemble cast, with its endless permutations, is the star, and she should let it shine.
For Jessica Friedman’s review of Season 3, click here.