SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains minor spoilers for season three of Orange Is The New Black. Please stop reading here if you don’t want know anything about the show’s new season.
The third season of Orange Is The New Black begins with a Mother’s Day celebration that smacks of tragedy. Little boys and girls file into Litchfield Prison to spend a brief afternoon with mothers dressed in prison jumpsuits, while corrections officers keep a close watch. In one scene, children who are blindfolded with a sanitary pad—the prison gift that keeps on giving—hack desperately at a piñata with their fists because wooden sticks are not allowed on the jail grounds. When a guard finally intervenes with her baton and breaks the piñata open, there is nothing inside, much to the kids’ dismay. “Oh my God,” says the prisoner known as Soso. “This is such a metaphor for their lives.”
The same, of course, could be said of the inmates. The third season of Orange, which drops on Netflix this Friday, puts forth a particularly searing exploration of the stark emptiness of an existence carried out behind bars. An undercurrent of desperation and loneliness has run through the show’s narrative since it premiered in 2013, but that heft was tempered by the raucous moments that made Orange such a hoot to watch—the tampon sandwiches, the lascivious dance parties, the full-on gang wars. Season three plays out at a slower pace and with a softer tone.
From the get-go, we see the inmates grapple with intense isolation, which often manifests as a disruption of the relationship between mother and child. Though the Mother’s Day event begins with relative normalcy—sunny skies, laughing children, drugs smuggled in diapers (OK, maybe not that normal)—it soon devolves into chaos. The episode ends with the inmates lying face down on the ground as a security siren wails and frightened children cry. Later, the inmate Maria finds out that her husband will no longer bring her infant daughter to visit her in Litchfield. Gloria struggles to find someone to drive her teenage son to the prison. Dayanara contemplates the prospect of giving her unborn baby up for adoption.
Even when it comes to inmates who are not mothers, the Litchfield universe turns tightly inward. The show’s primary links to the world outside prison—namely Larry and Polly, the fiancé and best friend (respectively) of protagonist Piper Chapman—have been phased out of the series, or at least out of the first six episodes that were released to critics. Piper, once a symbol of yuppie civilian life, fades into the fabric of the prison compound. The first two seasons were grounded in her patchy acclimation to the controlled chaos that is Litchfield prison, but she isn’t given more screen time than any of the other inmates in season three. When we do see Piper, she is as subsumed by the drudgery of Litchfield as the rest of the characters. In one scene, she stands in front of a mirror, examining her bare breasts. “I just wanted to feel beautiful,” she says when an inmate catches her in the moment.
Bonds between prisoners persist in season three. Poussey and Taystee are friends again, praise the television gods. But there is a sense of bitterness and futility to many of the relationships that develop on screen. Piper’s on-and-off romance with Alex Vause, which was always based on betrayal and lies, boils to a bizarre concoction of sexual tension and raw hatred. When Dayanara talks about seeing her prison “family” after her release, Maria is not enthused. “We’re not a family, we’re a Band-Aid,” she says. “And once you rip it off, all we are to each other are scars.”
If all of this sounds dreary, it isn’t. Orange’s dialogue is as wickedly funny as ever, its ensemble cast unflaggingly strong. And the show still excels at doing the very thing that made it so exciting to watch when it hit Netflix two years ago—namely its foregrounding of the sort of women we aren’t used to seeing on our television screens. Old women, fat women, trans women, and ethnic women are all treated as multi-dimensional characters with stories worth telling. Most of the inmates are unequivocal criminals, but flashbacks reveal their hopes and their mistakes. Most compelling of all is the glimpse we get into the life of Mei Chang, the middle-age Asian woman who has scarcely said more than 10 words since the series premiered.
Series creator Jenji Kohan has always excelled at highlighting the humanity that survives in the dehumanizing conditions of Litchfield. But this season of Orange never lets us forget that in spite of the characters’ spunk and verve, prison takes its toll—on children, on mothers, and on the spirit.