If Orange Is the New Black’s second season divided fans over the Vee issue, its third season may divide fans over the lack of Vee. Or more generally, the lack of a central drive or a Big Bad villain. In Season 1, the show revolved around Piper (Taylor Schilling) coming to terms with the reality of going to jail. Through that, we met the ladies of Litchfield and the correctional officers who interacted with them, and came to know (and love, and hate) their characters. In Season 2, things got tougher, both as Piper found her footing as an inmate, and in how Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) and Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) war began dividing the women, allowing for more violence and strife and darker storylines.
But Season 3 starts out at Family Day, setting the tone for the new season that is much lighter than before, and also more at peace. There is no central villain (other than the general problems of the prison system), but there is also no central hero; the series has truly become an ensemble work, with Piper barely registering among all of the other storylines that weave through the various groups at Litchfield, as the inmates and the officers deal with bedbugs, the possibility of the prison closing, and (of course) personal dramas.
Last season’s plot point-driven style has been replaced by something more character-driven and meditative, with themes of faith, motherhood, and personal philosophies all becoming part of the regular interactions. It can be interesting, but it’s a very different focus for the show. In fact, the premiere episode feels like one is jumping in mid-season. It doesn’t start, or end with, anything particularly remarkable. It alights on the major characters and fan favorites, but almost casually and without a clear direction. We’re meant to just exist here for awhile.
More than ever, Orange Is the New Black has turned into a collection of vignettes about daily life in a women’s prison. There are many relationships to be repaired from Season 2 (like between Danielle Brooks’ Taystee and Samira Wiley’s Poussey, as well as the forever drama between Piper and Alex, played by Laura Prepon), and many callbacks to the past (like Yael Stone’s Morello still pathologically lying), as well as some strange new additions like Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Norma (Annie Golden) as practitioners of voodoo. New stories about the failures of the prison structure are also detailed. But it doesn’t necessarily seem to lead anywhere. Yet, does it have to?
The same question can be asked of the show’s flashbacks, which feel more than ever like a forced device rather than a revealing one. It has been interesting to find out why the women have been incarcerated, and to get glimpses of the lives and choices that landed them in Litchfield. But as time wears on, few of the background stories have remained revelatory, especially ones that bounce back to childhood. Instead of getting to know the women (and officers like Bennett) better in the present day, their personalities are supplemented with extra information from their past. Some of it is still illuminating, but other times it can feel like a narrative crutch, or like the show is treading water.
Say what you will about Vee, but she certainly livened things up on the series. Now, the focus of many of the first episodes revolves around the constant rehashing of Bennett (Matt McGory) and Daya’s (Dascha Polanco) baby drama, which briefly introduces Mary Steenburgen as Pornstache’s mother, who wants to take care of the baby once it’s born. Alex and Piper, too, struggle through new problems in their on again / off again relationship, while characters like Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman), Morello, Red and others are relegated to the background. (Although Red is starting to make her power plays, of course, clawing her way back to the top).
But when truly emotional moments do come (when inmates may be leaving the prison for good, or a mother is no longer able to see her child), they come suddenly and without much buildup, or they are resolved quickly and without tension. In fact, those moments almost feel like interruptions to what is otherwise an ordinary collection of stories from daily life. What makes those stories compelling and often funny is that these ordinary things are happening in such an unusual place.
And of course, the dialogue is still the series’ crowning glory, and it is never better than when Piper is quoting something she once heard on NPR, or when Taystee, Poussey, Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) get together and watch TV and shoot the shit. When it gets preachier, it’s not quite as engaging, but there are a few excellent lectures from Boo (Lea DeLaria) to Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) that prove the show is as sharp as ever. (And on the visual end of things, the show’s sex scenes are possibly steamier than ever, but never feel purely exploitative).
Orange Is the New Black’s main issue, though — which is more apparent in Season 3 than ever — is its sense of tone and pace. Existing somewhere between a comedy and a drama, the show doesn’t always know how to reconcile those two elements. In its more contemplative state, Season 3 doesn’t possess the kind of episodic cliffhangers that made Seasons 1 and 2 so bingeable. Instead, the new season is more about being immersed in the world of Litchfield, and celebrating the small details, interactions, and minor dramas that make the series so quirky and likable.
And yet, it still feels like something is missing. In the first four episodes, Crazy Eyes has trouble letting go of Vee, even crying out for her in the night. After experiencing so much of Season 3’s wandering, that impulse is surprisingly understandable. But as one of the older inmates says to another, “I just want to enjoy the simple things now.” And so too does the show. After the turmoil of Vee, maybe it is time to give peace a chance, even though there’s a good chance that things will begin to rev up and connect together more as the season wears on. But to start, it may require an adjustment.
Rating: ★★★ Good (marching towards ★★★★ Very Good — this was a really tough batch to rate)
All 14 episodes of Orange Is the New Black Season 3 are available starting Friday, June 12th on Netflix. Check back on Collider starting Monday, June 15th for Perri’s episode recaps (which will cover 2 episodes at a time, twice a week).