The series, which has been changing society’s views not only on women or the American prison system, but also on the greater LGBTQ community, has pretty much won us all over with its laughs, tears, weird prison antics and damn harsh slap-in-the-face realities. The dynamic cast–full of a Jesus-loving hippie, protesting nun, hippie activist, privileged WASPY drug criminal, among others–allows the script to shine light on the stories of women from all walks of life. (Sometimes, a bit too much.) But, when you put them all in the hellhole that is prison, you get some truly beautiful and powerful stories of women who are forced to share their lives together–and try to enjoy it, too.
With the entire third season released last June 12, there has already been fandom over Suzanne’s erotic literature, #PraiseNorma’s miracles, Soso’s newfound strength and–wait for it–the introduction of the infamous Ruby Rose.
This season made some real moves that drifted from what most OITNB fans are used to. The flashbacks into character backstories feel a little forced; the main plot line takes a while to develop; and there’s no immediate shock value or story arc present (such as last season’s high-blooded feud between Vee and Red). The season seems to ramble, though it rambles in an entirely important way that allows us to know OITNB is here to stay.
Let’s revisit past seasons and reflect on why this season still manages to be great.
Warning: There are definite spoilers below. Continue at your own will.
Season 1: Getting to know prison
Season 1 took us on the journey of regular white girl Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who is everyone’s well-off upper middle class, law-abiding American who struggles to identify herself as part of the prison system. She’s sentenced from an incident that occurred more than ten years prior and, with her, we learn to navigate prison. We see how messed up the prison system is and how everyone in there with her are normal people just like her who messed up at the wrong time. Her relationship with her old drug criminal friend/lesbian lover Alex Vause (Laura Prepon)–who is also responsible for her being in prison–is rekindled, which disrupts her relationships with her fiancé and family.
At the same time, we’ve gotten acquainted with “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber), the crazy handsome crooked corrections officer who smuggles drugs in through “Red” (Kate Mulgrew), the bold Russian kitchen maestro. We laugh at Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba) and her ridiculous lesbian attempts at Piper (“chocolate and vanilla swirl”), and are amused by the Jesus-loving Doggett “Pennsatucky” (Taryn Manning), who calls Piper out on her infamous “lesbianing” with Alex.
Season 2: Surviving prison
After last season’s big cliffhanger with Piper and Pennsatucky’s fight and Piper ending up in “shu” (solitary confinement), we found Crazy Eyes pretty much saved Piper’s life and made their fistfight look even. Meanwhile, with the help of Piper, Litchfield admin Caputo (Nick Sandow) took down the treacherous money-loving warden Fig (Alysia Reiner); Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee affirmed their friendship; and half-Asian newbie/hippie activist Brooke Soso (Kimiko Glenn) joined Litchfield.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking moment was when Piper was granted furlough by Counselor Healy (Michael J. Harney)–a rare privilege all other inmates grew weary of–and we realized just how detrimental prison is. When one of her relatives said, “I’m sure you’re anxious to return to your old self,” Piper paused and responded, “I’m not, actually.” She realized that her life in the “real world” just isn’t her life anymore. (That was heartbreaking.)
What created the most serious rift this season, though, was the new inmate Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) kind-of-mom but also seriously manipulative b*tch who conspired against everyone in the prison. She’s OITNB‘s ultimate super-villain–at times sympathetic but most of the time crazy. When we are introduced to the story of cancer-stricken Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) and see how she was a real badass in her younger days, we root for her when she escapes prison and runs over everyone’s favorite meanie (giving us the most cruelly satisfying end–ever).
Season 3: Finding the real enemy
After last season’s high-rolling action and toothy engagements, Season 3 took a rather slower approach in letting us in on the season’s main story arc. Now, we are more well-acquainted with the prison system and Piper is no longer a newbie. We see her uncover different layers of her character that we’re not used to–going “gung-ho” with her panty brigade and letting go of all preconceived notions and false senses of herself. And, with the introduction of everyone’s favorite hot “new” inmate Stella Carlin (Ruby Rose), who stole all our screens, she tests Piper’s newfound confidence in calling Alex her girlfriend.
With Season 1’s cliffhanger ending and Season 2’s high-action, sigh-of-relief, Season 3 is a little scatterbrained, full of small moments and little character vignettes. There’s no strong story arc, but it still shines with some of the series’ most beautiful, telling and powerful scenes–something the series needed to progress for seasons to come.
Here are some of my take-aways:
1) It reminded us all of the un-glory of prison.
Let’s face it: After watching two seasons of OITNB, we all fell in love with Litchfield—even if just a little. The sense of camaraderie in the prison is infectious (it makes us wonder why we don’t have some of those bonds in real life); Alex and Piper’s relationship is passionate (it reminds us of the comfort of old flames and familiar relationships, and just how nice it is to have someone you know going through something with you); the kitchen shenanigans, gossip around Litchfield and weird pee-cups are entertaining and fun.
But, this season showed us how real prison can get. The story is fueled by the lack of support for and from the prison. We begin the season with a bed bug infestation, which forces everyone to wear underwear and disposable suits; fresh food is banned from the kitchen and everyone is forced to eat packaged foods (causing some to lie about their religion to eat kosher). The new prison staff also treats the women as mere statistics, belittling them to less-than-human, and they threaten to lessen the prison workers’ hours (most of whom are already struggling to make ends meet) by hiring new workers who don’t even know the inmates’ names.
2) It refocused itself on the real enemy.
Trying to “one-up” last season would be a mistake. Conflicts between inmates can grow old and introducing another villain like Vee would make the series seem formulaic. Now, the interactions between the inmates feel more casual and familiar. There are no inmates (purposely) having it out against each other. Rather, it seems like there is a bigger force making these characters turn against each other.
From the top, the corporate heads have no sympathy for the prisoners and only want to invest in short-term benefits that allow them to profit (like cheaper toilet paper over restocking the library). Further, the head warden Caputo can hardly influence the system or help his staff when the prison workers’ hours are lessened and new untrained officers come into Litchfield. And, when the inmates are given a new job of sewing panties–almost like a legal sweatshop–it leads to Piper’s new illegal dirty panty business, causing her to turn on inmates who cross her for the sake of her own profit.
Also, the prison threatens the inmates from gathering (in the case of Norma’s new cult-like spiritual circle) and could care less about educating them (they don’t plan on adding books that would help the women with their sentences). There’s also poor Soso who grows depressed with her lack of friends in the prison and her only given solution is when she is told to take antidepressants by Counselor Healy–and overdoses. This just goes to show how dangerous a toll prison can take on you and that the only real people looking out for you are the inmates who are in it with you (in the case of Poussey and Soso).
3) It allowed the underdogs a chance to shine and showed they’re humans too (and also brought some real issues to light).
Previous characters whom we have grown to hate, we suddenly feel for. There’s Pennsatucky’s sudden friendship in Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) as she opens up about her abortion. Big Boo also delivers some of the most powerful lines in OITNB history. She tells Pennsatucky that she saved her children the misery of living an unfortunate, hard life with her abortions, and also made Pennsatucky realize the magnitude of rape and how it is just
There’s also the recurring theme on faith, spirituality and religion. We get the story of Leanne (Emma Myles) and her dedication to her Amish past; silent Norma (Annie Golden) creates her own cult-like following as she seems to make miracles happen, just with the touch of a hand or a glance; and there’s also “Black Cindy” (Adrienne Moore), whose conversion to Judaism creates an unexpectedly powerful and honest moment of faith.
4) It turned our protagonist against us.For the past two seasons, Piper was always seen as someone “perfect.” She was insecure, trying to do the “right” thing; she held herself up to privileged standards, refusing to belittle herself to the system; and she always tried to keep herself calm, composed and collected (for as much as she could).
Now, we get an incredibly complex and powerful performance by Schilling, who allows us to explore Piper’s dark side. Alex, who was freed last season, suddenly ends up back in the prison, which Piper oddly takes pleasure in. For the first time, Piper takes advantage of her relationship with Alex, ensuing in a lot of hate-sex to then claiming her as her girlfriend. She then takes the opportunity to profit off extra material in the panty room to make a couple extra bucks. Whereas she first seemed to (ironically) be an innocent inmate, she has now turned into a menacing, all-powerful panty operator, punishing those who cross her and setting up a payment system in which she wins. She’s a legit criminal now.
5) It still does what it does best.
Although the season was a little scattered, it was still full of some remarkably stunning moments.Think of the episode that focused on Chang (Lori Tan Chinn) and how we followed her daily routine of mashing up Fritos, water and peas to make little biscuits, just to find a little comfort and piece of home in her life. There was also Daya’s (Dascha Polanco) pregnancy, which allowed us to explore the unfailing love of motherhood as we took a glimpse into mom Aleida’s (Elizabeth Rodriguez) early upbringing with Daya. It also finally humanized Pennsatucky, who grew from a character we didn’t like to someone totally human and real to us. And, in perhaps one of the sweetest moments, Poussey stood up for the neglected and friendless Soso who, also for the first time this season, was able to stand up for herself, stray away from the group despite being alone and (with the help of CO Rogers) still able to accept herself as different.
In the prison system, there seems to be only one thing that keeps everyone going: their sense of hope.
Whether the inmates found it through silent Norma’s spirit circles, Suzanne’s erotic fantasy literature or extra cash brought forth through Piper’s panty business, the inmates just wanted and needed something to look forward to–to perhaps get them through another day.
In the finale episode, when a seemingly miraculous (but entirely incidental) moment happens and the prison gates are opened to the lake, the inmates all run for the lake (following the miracle-maker Norma’s footsteps) and take a moment to embrace the open air and water.For this one moment, the prisoners don’t feel like prisoners–they feel as if they are freed. The episode ends, however, with a bus full of new inmates, dressed in orange jumpsuits, unloading and entering Litchfield.
It reminds us that these little joys are short-lived and their real lives in the never-ending prison cycle have to continue.
With all of the rules, restrictions, corrupt government and poor prison conditions, these moments are all these women have to look forward to. Creator Jenji Kohan doesn’t shy away from showing us just how messed up the prison system can be, but how we can still manage a laugh here and there.
The show is very progressive. It allows the voices of women to come through in an especially male-dominated industry, and it isn’t afraid to be political. It’s current, humorous, dramatic and just damn good television.
Get on the bus to Litchfield.