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Orange is the New Black Season Three: the Banality of Misery

Orange is the New Black was one of the Netflix’s first attempts at truly original programming and despite its flaws it gave an idea what could be done on the platform. We’re talking about shows whose subject matter wouldn’t actually air on TV. Season 3 is more of a structural departure from the first two, and in many ways it doesn’t pay off. While it still has its moments, those moments are farther away than they were in previous seasons. Let’s not waste any time and jump into it.

Trigger warnings: sex, alcohol, sexual assault, rape, language, emotional abuse


Beware of spoilers ye who enter

Season 3 can be best described as going wide instead of deep; by which I mean it doesn’t focus on a select few characters but instead uses the pre-existing characters to tell a wide range of stories. This approach has its merits. It’s a natural path to take the show, especially if they don’t want to repeat season 2 by having a character act as a sort of warping force on the entire setting. Not only that, but it falls in line with what the intended goals of the show, using Piper’s story as bait essentially, to create a space to talk about women in an intersectional framework. Not only that, but in a way it’s exactly what myself and others were hoping for in that the show would move away from Piper. Not to mention that all of these moving parts make Litchfield a much fuller place. This approach isn’t foolproof however; the basic idea is that you have such a density of characters and plots that some of them being duds is fine. In actuality, we have a cast of characters who are pitiable at best and contemptible at worst.

My problem with season 3, at the root, is that the characters aren’t as appealing they once were. The new gleam has worn off on some of them and others have histories that the show would rather we forget. It’s possible to have bad people be interesting characters, in a lot of ways that’s a good description of the TV renaissance with the exception of Parks and Rec, but these characters aren’t interesting. Nor can you call it misery porn, the notion that these characters deserve what they’re dealing with is antithetical to the show’s thesis and again, isn’t particularly interesting. In fact, this banality does reinforce the show’s thesis of prison being a horrible and dehumanizing place; it just doesn’t make for good television. Now, since it’s not that easy, there’s merit in discussing the individual characters and their arcs; I’m not going to discuss every character, just the ones that I have something to say on.

First, it’s worth mentioning that Larry was written out of the show, the only character from Piper’s life that shows up in more than one scene is her brother. This is an unambiguously good thing. Larry was both terrible and extraneous to the plot; a feeling that was only exacerbated by Jason Biggs being vocally offensive off the screen.

Piper is the closest thing to a main character, so it makes as much sense as anything else to start with her. She’s a terrible person and there’s nothing endearing. Her major moments can be summarized as following: being honest to Alex about getting her back in Litchfield, hate-sex with Alex, emotionally tormenting Alex, starting up and running a prison business, union-busting, cheating on Alex because of Alex’s tattered emotional condition, and getting revenge on Stella. The problem is that most of these actions are varying degrees of awful, the amount of space given the plot is disproportionate to how entertaining it is. Now while I’m not saying axiomatically that horrible things should be punished accordingly, there’s no consequence at all. Granted, Red finding out the truth and being robbed are both consequences but they’re comparatively small and abstract;  Red not interacting with Piper for half a season doesn’t stand out in this format and the money is a completely abstract issue. A lack of consequences is bad storytelling.

            Alex is completely superfluous. If she had completely disappeared after the season two opener, there would be questions but it would make sense. Instead Alex gets her own story that is by and large separate from the rest of the cast sans Piper. Most of the season is spent focusing on someone who turns out to be paranoid as a red herring and then we’re given a cliffhanger of a real assassin. While there is an attempt at integration by having Lolls be the person to introduce the kosher meal plot, that could have easily been given to Stella. The use of the red herring deflates the tension and actual assassin just comes out left field at the last possible moment. If nothing else, Alex did have one of the best lines this season, which you can find here.

Nicky is actually surprising. Her being written off via being sent to max was an unexpected development. The loss of her character is definitely a blow to the show although the fact that it happens gives more weight to such a fate compared to Miss Claudette, which again ties into the show’s thesis. The use of flashbacks in her final episode felt forced as it tried to gently rewrite her backstory and characterization to fit the narrative they were going for.

Healy, on the other hand, is a character that the show keeps trying to humanizing and I’m not interested in engaging with it on that premise. This is a man who has enabled the attempted murder of one woman, pushed another one into attempting suicide, and set out to get a female coworker fired in the course of less than a year. He is not a good person and whatever relationship he may have with Red or whatever nice thing he does is for his wife doesn’t make up his sins and how he is unrepentant.

Boo and Doggett intertwine enough and don’t have enough on their own to warrant separate discussion. Their relationship strangely works. Boo’s one plot in the spotlight is enjoyable, attempting to fleece fundamentalists and asserting yourself is good. Doggett is a lot more complicated though. First, the fact that Doggett tried to murder Piper and was a militant druggie fundamentalist is never really brought up again. This is certainly dissonant and there’s no answer as to why I’m okay with this. There is a certain amount of deprogramming going on and not addressing attempted murder, cause how do you do that?’ has a certain logic to it. Doggett’s main story is her relationship with Coates. The best reason for having this plot is a retread of the Daya/Bennett/Pornstache plot except shorn off the tone-deaf romantic subtext. Showing that prison rape is a horrible thing certainly makes sense in a show about prison. What makes less sense is showing the rape on screen, what makes even less sense is needing to juxtapose this next to a flashback of Doggett being raped. It’s the flashback that is truly gratuitous. Whatever point the show is trying to make is irrelevant; it’s doing so in a grossly shocking manner.

The biggest causalities of this storytelling method were the black clique. After Vee there was a large amount of emotional fallout that was more human and interesting than just about anything else. The lack of depth and constant moving away from them to other characters made it hard to buy in. Which is somewhat ironic, the de-emphasis on these characters to move onto other characters was somewhat expected, it’s just a matter of flawed execution.

Speaking of characters who had been de-emphasized, Sophia re-entering into the spotlight was good. That’s all.

Lolls and Stella aren’t really characters, or at least anything that approaches well rounded characters. They’re given so little attention yet the investment that the show asks us to make in them is far higher. Lolls is little more than a red herring hailing from the show’s brief Chicago trip, a weird attempt at mirroring the book’s events to begin with, but is at least characterized. Stella on the other hand is an intentionally mysterious entity that ends up hooking up with Piper, none of that is actual characterization but it’s basically all we’re given.

Caputo and by extension the prison privatization plot is essentially the season’s main plot. On a personal level, Caputo was being shaped up to be what passes for a good person on this show. The fact that his climax involves him selling out is a perfect encapsulation of how everyone on this show is varying degrees of bad, not good. The privatization plot in and of itself isn’t unexpected, it’s topical and relevant to the show’s overall themes. That being said, the show’s limited perspective really hurts the message. Obfuscating how the prison-industrial complex works, obscuring the profit motive for MCC to take over Litchfield creates an imperfect image of the system of oppression that the show is denouncing is a disservice. It muddies the waters and ends up being a weak-willed argument against the system at best.

Orange is the New Black may not be the best show, but it is a different enough show, and still has its moments that even if it’s not always entertaining, it still has value. Season 3 has been the worst of the lot, but there’s always room for improvement. Next week I’m not sure what I’ll be talking about, till next time.




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