REVIEW: Orange is the New Black – Season 3

OITNB season three


For all the praise that gets heaped on Netflix for House of Cards, the streaming service’s better show is still probably Orange is the New Black. Don’t get me wrong, Kevin Spacey being an amoral sociopath who breaks the fourth wall is as entertaining as hell. But for me, the better drama, and richer characters, have always been found at Litchfield Prison.

For the uninitiated, OITNB follows the story of Piper Chapman, a middle class white American who winds up in prison for a drug smuggling charge deep in her racy past. Engaged and living a comfortable life, Chapman is colossally unprepared for the inside. A lot of the first season follows Piper as she meets the other inmates and comes to terms with her situation.

But that was season one. As we step into season three, things have changed. While Chapman is still nominally our protagonist, season two made quite clear that the show is really about the entire prison, and the lives and struggles of its inmates.

And this is a good move, because what truly elevates this show above the pack is its minor characters. Litchfield is bursting at the seams with background characters, all of whom have a story and most of whom have something to say. One of this season’s stand out scenes, Chapman and her on-off girlfriend Alex in front of an improv class, is elevated from good to great by characters who began on the show’s periphery.

We join Litchfield this year as it’s strapped for cash. Newly promoted prison boss Caputo is barely given time to catch his breath before the prison is threatened with closure. Jumping in to save the day though is a private prison firm, who quickly implement their own ideas of how to run the place. Like anything else in the show, this set up leads to some darkly funny moments.

From a writing standpoint, OITNB has always blended pitch black humour with the emotional consequences of being locked up by the state. This season is no different. One minute a group of inmates might be having a philosophical chat about the origins of the blowjob, and you’d easily forget they were in prison at all. The next moment things come crashing down, with the characters suffering yet another indignity of incarceration.

One of the most compelling things about OITNB is its flashback segments. By now we should all know the drill: a minor character who we thought was unimportant to the story gets the spotlight for the episode. We see their past and, sometimes, how they ended up in prison. This continues in season three with the likes of Nicky Nichols, Big Boo and Chang. Here the show remains ambitious, exploring issues such as addiction and sexual identity. It’s a lot to tackle for a show with so many characters.

And if this season has a downside, this might be it. There’s only so much screen time after all and while the show tries to give most of the inmates something to do over the season, some character arcs can feel slightly directionless.

Ruby Rose OITNB
Coming to a Tumblr near you

Take Poussey, for example, considered by many to be season two’s breakout character. After a great arc last season involving best friend Taystee and the manipulative Vee, Poussey’s story seems a little slow and meandering this year. After a similarly intense season two Red’s year also seems to start off slow, but she still has so many great lines I only just noticed.

But this is no more than nitpicking. While Netflix’s recent Sense8 asked us to care about a dozen different characters from the outset, Orange has spent two years giving us a reason to give a damn. Meanwhile, season three manages to throw in enough new twists and turns to give inmates new and interesting stories.

One way it does this is to throw two characters together for a bunch of scenes and see what happens. A highlight of this season for me is the continued unlikely friendship between Big Boo and Pensatucky. Elsewhere, Suzzane and Taystee bond over the loss of gangster Vee, and Red and Healey have a weird friendship going on.

One issue some have had with the show in the past is the character of Chapman, technically the show’s main character. She’s selfish, self-absorbed and occasionally manipulative; not qualities that endear us to a hero. Which she isn’t anyhow, but season three sees a subtle transformation for Chapman, which is one of this year’s most interesting arcs.

[Tweet ” “…OITNB hangs easily with the very best shows around””]

She doesn’t become outright evil, but seems to embrace the dark side that she’s spent two seasons in denial about. Without spoiling anything, her plan for a smuggling operation in the prison is both inspired and ridiculous in equal measure. Not only does this make her more fun to watch, it’s also a fascinating evolution from where she was when she started her sentence.

What continues to be refreshing about Orange is that the actions of the characters have consequences. Look no further than Daya, who remains pregnant with the child of Officer Bennett. Who will raise the baby? What kind of life does she want for her child?

In the current golden age of television, OITNB hangs easily with the very best shows around. There aren’t enough TV dramas that focus so much on female experiences. Even rarer is the show that allows its women to be screw ups. Orange has been nailing this for three seasons now, which is why it deserves membership in that elite TV club we reserve for the likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

If you liked seasons one and two, keep watching. It’s another great year. If you’re new to the series, why are you reading this? I warned you about spoilers. Go watch the first episode – by the time the credits role you’ll know if it’s for you.

Best one liners of the season:

“Nice is for cowards and democrats.” – Red.

“That’s the thing with the internet. Nobody’s a freak no more.” – Cindy

“You’re trying to brand me, but I am not your fucking sex cow.” – Alex.

“My mother always said silence was the loudest thing. But she never shut the fuck up.” – Morello.

“I married a pillow – soft, lumpy, and always lying behind my back.” – Red.

Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.