Orange Is The New Black Season 3

If season 1 of Jenji Kohan’s masterful 13-hour serial Orange is the New Black was about breaking and reshaping one’s identity within prison, and season 2 about tribal territory and clan warfare, then season 3 is about the individual mechanisms of survival each inmate uses to get herself through her sentence. As the show delves deeper into exposing the corrupt nature of America’s prison-industrial complex, it keeps its focus on the women at stake, showing us a glimpse at what they cling to in order to remind themselves of their humanity. From episode 1, Kohan and the writers establish the key forces of this to be motherhood, faith, and power.

When we arrive back in Litchfield, the inmates are preparing for Mother’s Day celebrations, which offers a wonderful opportunity for each character to confront their own relationships to motherhood, whether they themselves have children or are grieving their lack of them, illustrated most touchingly in a scene featuring Doggett (Taryn Manning) and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria). Meanwhile, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) has, to the delight of audiences and Piper (Taylor Schilling), returned to Litchfield for the indefinite future. And while Piper wants to celebrate and pick up where she and her on-again lover left off, resolution doesn’t come easy as Piper struggles to admit to a bewildered Alex that it is her fault she is back in prison. Luckily that question is answered relatively early, and seems to only add fuel (if rather toxic fuel) to their attraction.

For Piper, her mission is assigned to her by Red (Kate Mulgrew): “No more bullshit.” And the transformation that follows is troubling, fascinating, and establishes Piper Chapman as one of the most interesting antiheroes on television since the departures of Walter White and Don Draper (to the point where a joke comparing Piper to the former is actually said aloud). The roles are reversed for Litchfield’s favorite couple, as Piper embraces her independence and resolution, while Alex lives in paranoia that one of the new inmates has been sent to kill her by the crime boss she betrayed. As Alex begins her tentative journey down the road to reformation and responsibility, literally afraid of any connection to her former criminal life, Piper is ruthlessly carving out her path to power. And when the new, self-assured and arrogant inmate Stella (Ruby Rose) comes on the scene, Piper finds herself questioning just how well her new power-hungry attitude matches Alex’s vulnerability.

Orange Is The New Black

Among the other “main” characters (the show at this point has found its strength in being a 100% ensemble piece – Piper can hardly be called the lead anymore), the other stand-out story is that of Doggett, more commonly known as “Pennsatucky.” Since the beginning of her friendship with Big Boo in Season 2, Doggett finds herself in a position to question the beliefs she has clung to her entire life. Ideas she has taken as purely true are now under scrutiny as she embraces her own self-identity and understanding of who and what she does or does not trust. This journey culminates in episode 10, “A Tittin and A’ Hairin” which offers one of the most complex and challenging looks at feminine sexuality television or film has seen. As has been true since Season 1, Taryn Manning here proves herself to be one of, if not the most valuable player in what is already an incredibly strong cast.

Beyond these personal portraits, Season 3 places all of its many characters on a search for answers, big and small. Between the power shake-ups in prison management leaving the guards fearful for their jobs and needing leadership, to prisoners looking to believe in whatever will make them feel some semblance of peace, everyone finds themselves in a crisis of faith. Some find solace in following Norma (Annie Golden), the mute inmate and long-term sidekick to Red, who now, thanks to the conviction of others that she possesses mystical abilities, takes on a position of guidance, control, and power, benevolent though it may be. Meanwhile characters such as Brooke or “So-so” (Kimiko Glenn) and Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) struggle with a need for fulfillment that somehow cannot be achieved through devotion or faith, and requires palpable connection to feel validated. And as for Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), who begins in the throes of grief over Vee’s death from last season, carves a role for herself as the resident novelist of Litchfield, discovering her penchant (if not calling) for sci-fi-oriented erotic fiction, and develops a cult following of her own.

Season 3 of Orange is the New Black is the strongest thus far, and offers the most daring and complex explorations of even those characters we have for the most part treated as accessories to the main plots. Each woman is using the tools at her disposal to retain a sense of identity and control within a system designed specifically to strip away those two very tenants. Whether it be Piper’s ruthless business acumen, Norma’s ability to play spiritual leader, Gloria’s ferocious maternal instinct, or even Suzanne’s success as a novelist, each woman understands they have a fundamental need to survive on their own terms, and have either learned or are learning the valuable lesson that titles the final episode and which Piper proudly has branded on her arm: “Trust No Bitch.”