Orange Is The New Black, Netflix’s greatest achievement in original programming thus far — no offense, Frank Underwood, please don’t push me into the path of an incoming train — has returned for its third season. Judging by the first three episodes, it’s a mostly triumphant return, spearheaded by its incredible ensemble cast portraying diverse, nuanced and morally ambiguous characters and its continuing honesty and dark humor in sending up our corrupt and abusive criminal justice system and prison-industrial complex. Now, if only the writers could figure out a way to make Piper Chapman’s (Taylor Schilling) and Alex Vause’s (Laura Prepon) characters and stories interesting again, then this season might just achieve true greatness.

‘Orange Is The New Black’ Season 3 Review

The season begins with a rare glimpse of happiness and celebration at Litchfield Penitentiary, as the inmates celebrate Mother’s Day in the prison yard, complete with decorations, games and a pinata, with their children. Instead of having one character’s backstory being the focus of the episode’s flashbacks, we get treated to several brief flashbacks of characters like Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Sophia (Laverne Cox) and Poussey (Samira Wiley), united by the theme of the mother-child relationship, which is invariably strained or tragic in the world of OITNB — just look at Daya’s (Dascha Polanco), who is soon to be a mother herself, relationship with her mother and fellow inmate, Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez). Troubled parent-child relationships have been one of the show’s most reliable and consistent motifs and features heavily in this season, which makes framing the premiere around Mother’s Day all the more poignant and fitting.

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Any semblance of tenderness or joy tends to fade very quickly at Litchfield, since it is a prison in America, after all, and so it is with the Mother’s Day celebration. The pinata has no candy — “that’s such a metaphor for their lives” one character exclaims about the children — and when a child goes missing, the alarm sounds and all the inmates have to drop to the ground amidst their bewildered and terrified children, who keep telling their moms to get up. This scene serves as a stark reminder that as traumatizing as the experience of incarceration is for the prisoners themselves, their children suffer their own measure of trauma and punishment that will dramatically alter their psyches and the rest of their lives. With so much going on in the premiere, it’s easy to forget about Alex returning to Litchfield and Piper’s loving arms, but their tired, toxic romance unhappily drags down the next two episodes.

It’s an interesting and often valuable thing when a show’s initial protagonist and figurehead loses some screen time to make room for a rich cast of supporting characters with interesting backstories, subplots and motivations – they did it in Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, and it kept both series from growing stale with a domineering, charismatic, but largely unchanging male character completely hogging the show. One could argue that OITNB is simply following this path by pivoting away from its main character to let its ensemble shine, but the problem is that, so far at least, Piper’s story has entirely devolved into the Piper/Alex love/hate/hate sex story and any time spent on her and Alex feels like time that could have been spent on characters that remain compelling or characters yet to be discovered. When your show’s supposed main character has become one of the least engaging, least interesting characters onscreen and her scenes appear to amount to little more than sexy-time filler, you’ve got a serious problem. Piper and Alex, on-again, off-again, again. Piper, coming to terms with her manipulative, narcissistic nature, again. I hope the writers figured out a way to make Piper an integral and interesting part of the show again in later episodes, because the first three episodes made me wish she was written out altogether.

Luckily, the second and third episodes – especially the third one – have plenty of moments of great TV by focusing on some fantastic supporting characters and stories. We see Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) struggling to deal with a bed bug infestation while attempting to reconcile his admirable ideals for improving the quality of life at Litchfield with his own bumbling, imperfect nature, the forces out of his control and the harsh realities of the broken system in which he is supposed to lead. With the phone call at the end of the second episode that the prison will be closed, Caputo appears defeated and resigned to the fact that this reconciliation was never possible, though he bounces back by attempting to blackmail Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), whose closeted gay husband is running for office, into pulling some strings to save the prison. Leave it to OITNB for getting its audience to feel genuine sorrow at the idea of a prison closing and scattering our beloved cast of characters to the wind. Another strong story involves the fate of Daya’s and Bennett’s (Matt McGorry) unborn child, when the possibility of adoption becomes a serious alternative when “Pornstache” Mendez’s (Pablo Schreiber) affluent mother, Delia (Mary Steenburgen), offers to raise the child as her own in an attempt to atone for the sins of her son, who she has been led to believe is the father of Daya’s child.

Finally, Nicky’s (Natasha Lyonne) story, including flashbacks that reveal the desperate acts of addiction-motivated theft that led to her incarceration, dominates the third episode, and it is easily the most powerful plot the first three episodes had to offer. Nicky is unable to completely resist the temptation of keeping some of the heroin leftover from last season, and this decision leads her to be carted off to maximum security prison, away from the family and friends she had made at Litchfield. Combined with the flashbacks revealing how a bright young woman of privilege came to be a hardened inmate serving multiple years, the series of events that led to Nicky’s latest defeat made the episode feel like an epic tragedy in its scope and execution. Nicky is smart, Nicky is funny and Nicky is tough, but even after years of prison-enforced sobriety and what appeared to be legitimate personal growth, Nicky was rendered powerless by the presence of heroin, and the consequences were devastating. The reaction of Morello (Yael Stone) and Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Nicky’s facial expressions during her ride to Max are absolutely heartbreaking. Topnotch acting from all involved, especially Natasha Lyonne. Moving forward, I hope we get more stories like this and less hate sex between Piper and Alex.

Get Orange Is The New Black, Season 2 here:

 

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