Much to the dismay of my sleep schedule, Netflix released the third season of the acclaimed series, Orange is the New Black, a day early this year. This is the kind of news cinephiles save their sick days for. Sorry boss. Thank you Netflix.
Fans of the show are used to seeing highly dramatic plotlines, with many of the issues present in the series taking the entirety of the season to resolve. The first two seasons of Orange is the New Black end on similarly dramatic notes; season one ends with main character, Piper, defending her life against a religious zealot methhead, Pennsatucky, and season two ends with the death of the formidable prison boss, Vee, at the hands of Rosa. Viewers are used to seeing dramatic points centre around themes of corruption, uncertainty, power conflicts, and emotional and professional betrayal.
This kind of chaos all but disappeared in the junior season of the show, Piper having finally settled into the prison environment. The writers seemed to have taken a deliberate turn to focus on the individual turmoil, sorrow, joy, and nuances that come with accepting that federal prison is where many of these women will be calling home for an extended period of time. Rather than overarching drama in the plot, we see much of the drama in the individual characters’ growth as people as well as how they deal with the dehumanization inherently present in being an inmate.
Because of this, many critics have dismissed season three as feeling more like a “women’s summer camp” than a federal prison. However, I would argue that mellowing the story arc allowed the viewer to further empathize with the women in prison. Much of the first two seasons left the viewer hating characters (I’m looking at you Larry, Pornstache and Vee) but with the removal of these characters, the viewer was able to focus on the cast of diverse female anti-heroes and their propensity for change, as well as address experiences that many of these women experience in different ways, including exploitation, faith, motherhood and the desire to be loved. The settling of drama allows the characters themselves to pause and reflect on their current situations.
With the removal of a central villain, the writers were also not-so-subtly able to paint the real villain as the prison industrial complex, with much of the plot of the story dedicated to the privatization of the prison and the implications that causes for the prisoners and staff. Through this, we’re able to see some of the cruel realities of life in a privatized prison, which include a disparity in pay that inmates earn (inmates that work for the corporation earn ten times as much as those who don’t), the psychological implications of that, the consequences of having untrained officers that are ill equipped to deal with any real prison emergency, a tragic “solution” to dealing with trans misogyny, and to Red’s despair, terrible meals, which, in case you were curious, she had nothing to do with.
Season three was also different because the story no longer centres on Piper’s perspective. In fact, Piper’s story seems to have taken a back seat and opened up the floor for other people’s stories to be told. Each individual character in this season retains their own story, untarnished by Piper’s biases. Thus, we see women of every size, shape, colour, age, ability and sexuality represented themselves. Because Piper has been removed from the central plot, we see the social pressures that informed these women’s crimes, such as poverty, abuse, and religious background. Removing Piper from the centre also created a means for other characters to grow (see Pennsatucky, Lorna and Flacka).
Overall, the new season of Orange is the New Black leaves on notes of redemption and promise. We leave the prisoners on a high note, and on one that sets itself up for just about anything. High thrills, further character development, or both, I’m on board. Let the countdown begin for next year.