Monday, June 22, 2015

Communities, Characters, And Businesses Rule Orange Is The New Black Season Three!

The Good: Decent character development, Good performances, Moments of message
The Bad: Light on plot
The Basics: In its third season, Orange Is The New Black develops the characters without doing much more around Litchfield's minimum security women's prison.

Third seasons are an interesting turning point for most long-running television series'. Outside the random show that gets cancelled after having a rockin' third season - Happy Endings (third season reviewed here!) I'm looking at you! - third seasons seem to be where most television shows actually hit their stride, even if they involve a little bit of retuning. In the third season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (reviewed here!), the space station-based science fiction show got a starship and a more tightly serialized plot; in the third season of Lost (reviewed here!), the other occupants of the island were explored and two random new passengers from Oceanic 815 were thrown into the cast; Orange Is The New Black has a similarly transformative third season.

The third season of Orange Is The New Black picks up a short time after the second season (reviewed here!) and it is impossible to discuss the third season without some (generally minor) spoilers from the prior season. The second season of Orange Is The New Black is essentially a war story; the third season redirects from the tightly serialized plot and belabors the characters who are residents in Litchfield Women's Prison. After a season with a well-developed plot and characters who had shifting allegiances, the third season of Orange Is The New Black minimizes the plot and focuses on character backstories and building the relationships between the characters.

It is, arguably, the best season of the show so far.

Orange Is The New Black is essential on the plot-front for key elements like a new company taking over the management of Litchfield, the return of Alex Vause, and Dayanara having her baby. Beyond that, all of the essential elements of the third season are character-based, character-focused moments and movements. The show, in its third season, focuses on relationships and the effects of business. Instead of having dramatic plot turns, people in the third season form and react to communities and enterprises and the change in pace has the effect of making viewers care more about the characters they have known for the two prior years. Just as with the second season, the third season of Orange Is The New Black plugs ahead without maintaining a focus on characters who have been previously established (Alex Vause gets an episode flush with flashbacks, whereas Piper Chapman does not) and there are two episodes that actually feature flashbacks for multiple characters (on my second viewing of the season, I watched like a hawk, but there are still no "easter eggs" wherein one inmate's backstory has other Litchfield characters peppered in!) instead of maintaining a tight focus on a single character.

On the plot front, the season opens with Doggett driving the new prison van as Mother's Day approaches. With most of the inmates preparing to be visited by their children for the day, Piper and Alex reconnect as Red, too, returns to general population. In the wake of Figueroa's embezzlement and dismissal, Caputo finds it difficult to keep the prison financially viable. While his solution is to get rid of prisoners through early release, the savings he generates are soon eaten up when he has to replace all the mattresses, thanks to one of the children bringing bedbugs into the prison. The financial crisis escalates until Caputo has to turn to a private company, Management And Correction Corporation, to take over the management of Litchfield.

The reign of MCC is fraught with problems: the guards are off-put by being cut down to part-time and losing their benefits, Caputo finds himself working for the son of MCC's director and trying to re-find his footing in the new corporate structure, and the inmates are turned on one another for a job at the prison that pays $1/hour. While a cult forms around the usually-mute Norma, Piper exploits the new business (the prisoners are tasked with making underwear for a company analogous to Victoria's Secret) to start an enterprise of her own. Piper and Alex manipulate one of the new MCC guards into exporting panties from the prisoners for Piper's brother to sell online. With the prison panty business growing, tensions begin to rise between Piper and her workers (the other prisoners), while Piper and Alex's relationship hits a rough spot. While Piper is tempted by Stella, Alex believes she is being hunted by Kubra within the prison, which leads to Piper not being there for Alex when her girlfriend needs her most!

The longer the third season of Orange Is The New Black went on, the more I began to think about Vicky Jeudy. Jeudy plays Watson and my mind drifting continually to her probably because I was watching most of the third season while stationed at a table next to Denise Crosby at a Star Trek convention the weekend it made its debut. Crosby is famous for leaving Star Trek: The Next Generation in its first season (reviewed here!), ostensibly for having so many episodes in the early first season that were focused on her character Tasha Yar. As the season progressed, the writers had to focus on other characters and Crosby felt a bit of bait and switch (many of her mid-season episodes had Tasha Yar simply saying "hailing frequencies open"). In the first season of Orange Is The New Black (reviewed here!), Watson was one of the most significant characters. Jeudy had a very minor part in the second season's war within the prison (one has to wonder if Jeudy was disappointed that her character, Watson, who had real integrity bought into Vee's cult from the moment Vee had cake brought to her!) and in the third season, Watson is a virtual non-entity. Watson has one snarky utterance and a single flashback that does virtually nothing to enhance her character. Such is the nature, it seems, of Orange Is The New Black; characters important in one season are usurped by characters that were virtual non-entities in the prior seasons. The third season of Orange Is The New Black is very much Jeudy's "hailing frequencies open" season; viewers will have to wait a year to see if that is enough to make Jeudy jump ship.

As Waston continues her descent into utter anonymity and Sister Ingalls joins her on the road to being a forgotten member of the ensemble, Norma, Marisol ("Flaca"), Doggett, Cindy, and Boo continue their ascent to the forefront of the narrative. While Stella leaps into the narrative for the latter half of the season, Susan, Tasha ("Taystee"), Poussey, Gloria, and Sophia vie to maintain the airtime and storyline attention they built in the prior season. Arguably, only Red and Healy have the same level of attention in the third season as they did in the prior two.

Because of its lack of a strong story for its third season, Orange Is The New Black is obsessed with characters in its third season. The essential characters for the third season of Orange Is The New Black are:

Piper Chapman – Passing the midpoint of her imprisonment at Litchfield, she reconnects with Alex. Alex's return to Litchfield is accompanied soon after by Piper confessing her involvement in her return. Soon, she declares Alex her girlfriend and the two begin an honest, loving portion of their relationship. When Piper goes to work for the lingerie company brought in by MCC, she discovers how much material they waste and repurposes it to making extra panties of her own. But as her business begins to take off, she starts to trust Stella and distance herself from Alex,

Alex Vause - Back in prison after betraying Piper in Chicago and flipping on Kubra, she becomes convinced that Kubra will send someone to kill her. She becomes instantly suspicious of Lolly, who arrives shortly after MCC takes over and seems to be performing surveillance on her. She becomes increasingly paranoid,

Red – Returning to the prison wounded and soon learning her husband has destroyed her business on the outside, she befriends Healy (though Gloria is convinced she is just playing an angle). With MCC's takeover, she manages to get back in the kitchen, where she finds herself unable to bully Norma. She starts at the bottom, but when Gloria freaks out, she is a positive alternative for Caputo to choose. She spends most of the rest of the season telling inmates that the crap MCC is serving is not representative of her cooking . . . though she does manage to execute one awesome meal, thanks to the garden the seniors have,

Nicky Nichols – After working with Boo to try to get rid of the heroin Vee left behind, she finds herself tempted by it. She tries to enlist Luschek to export the drugs . . . with disastrous consequences for her,

Daya – Her pregnancy progressing, she is alarmed when Bennett flees his post. When Pornstache's mother pops up and she learns her own mother is extorting her, Dayanara begins to debate whether to keep the baby or give it over to Mendez's mother. She finds herself in conflict her mother and her own conscience,

Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” – Mourning the disappearance of Vee (and believing she is still alive), she becomes a handful for Tasha. When a new prison counselor comes into Litchfield, she begins to express herself creatively. That leads to her writing a serialized sex-filled book that has a number of the inmates obsessed,

Leanne – Her past is revealed as she begins to organize a religion around Norma. She finds herself bullying Brook Soso and basically filling the niche Pennsatucky once had,

Poussey – Still wrestling with feelings for Tasha, she finds herself listing . . . especially after the bedbugs lead to the destruction of the prison library. She keeps getting drunk to avoid the pain of facing a life without a romantic partner. Initially interested in the cult forming around Norma, she rejects the hive mind when Leanne organizes the group and start treating Brook poorly,

Tasha – "Taystee" is convinced Vee is dead (how no one traced the course from Litchfield to the quarry where Rosa crashed the truck and found Vee's body along the way is a pretty major plothole in the season) and struggles to move on. She slowly grows into the role of new denmother for the black women at Litchfield, especially working to keep Suzanne in line and out of psych,

Lorna Morello – More and more unhinged, especially after Nicky is taken away, she starts corresponding with various men to get money for her commissary account. But her scam quickly turns into genuine affection for one of the men who visits her (arguably because he goes and beats up Christopher for her),

Gloria Mendoza – Running the kitchen leaves her too busy to pay attention to her son on his occasional visits. After worrying that he will become a thug, she works out an arrangement with Sophia so Sophia's wife will bring him to Litchfield on visits. That soon leads to conflict when Michael is a bad influence on her son and she loses her position running the kitchen trying to spend time with her son. Complaining to Daya's mother leads to a hate crime against Sophia for which Gloria feels guilt, but fails to do anything about,

Doggett – Her backstory is more thoroughly revealed and the tragedy of her white trash upbringing is mirrored in the way a new guard begins to use her. She and Boo continue their unlikely friendship and when the new guard assaults her, they work together to get revenge,

Big Boo - After working with Nicky to make money off the prison's drug stockpile, she and Doggett hang out more and more. She tries to use Doggett's religious extremist community to make money for her own commissary account before returning to her roots. She supports Doggett during her flirtations with a new guard - especially because it gets her doughnuts, but quickly recognizes when things turn in that relationship. She orchestrates a revenge plan with Doggett and is incredibly compassionate to her unlikely friend,

Norma - Still silent in the prison, her backstory is revealed as that of a cult member for a charismatic hippie. She tries to do nice things for people and, in the wake of the Spanish magic that she and Gloria believe led to Vee's disappearance, comes to believe she has special powers. Attempting to bring miracles to the prison leads to others to try to build a religion around her, which she seems mostly okay with,

Sophia - Worried that Gloria's son is a bad influence on Michael soon turns problematic when Michael acts out and acts violently against other children. She sits out most of the season until the situation with Gloria escalates and she tries to break up Michael and Gloria's son, much to Gloria's anger. Attacked by Gloria's allies, she turns to the only person she still considers a friend,

Marisol - "Flaca" is given a backstory wherein she avoids her mother's sewing business and cranks out fake drugs until she is caught. She ends up working alongside Piper in the new sewing job. Frustrated by that, when she realizes how much money Piper is making on the outside, she organizes the labor for better terms,

Cindy - Taking a cue from Lolly, she begins getting the Kosher meals when the food at Litchfield gets terrible. Her scam is soon caught, but she decides that Judaism is actually for her and she moves to convert,

Stella - An inmate who is suddenly noticed by Piper, she expresses interest in Piper, though her intent is not immediately clear,

Joe Caputo – Trying to be a good guy, he sells out the prison to try to save the jobs of the guards who are complaining when it becomes apparent the prison will close. He hatefucks Figueroa and helps to organize the guards when MCC breaks up their union. Tired of being constantly beaten down while trying to do the right thing, he takes advice from an unlikely source after Sophia is put in protective custody,

and Sam Healy – Still struggling with his mail-order bride, he begins to bond with Red. As his marriage falls apart, he starts to do nice things for Red. He is frustrated when a new counselor moves in on his turf and other inmates, like Soso, tell him how bad he is at his job.

Orange Is The New Black continues to have excellent performances in its third season, especially from new players (in this work) Mary Steenburgen (Delia Powell, Pornstache's mother) and Ruby Rose (Stella). The real winners on the acting front in the third season of Orange Is The New Black are Taryn Manning (Doggett) and Lea DeLaria. Manning's Doggett is given an expanded role which makes her incredibly sympathetic. But the writing that does that would be nothing without Manning's performance. Manning makes Doggett's powerful scenes entirely heartbreaking, from tears to dead-eyed expressions at horrible moments, Manning illustrates wonderful range in the third season.

Lea DeLaria plays Boo and in the third season she has the chance to explore her character's character more. What DeLaria does very well in the third season is take a character who was reliable for edgy lines in prior seasons and makes her into a viable person. Boo is furious when Doggett is taken advantage of (my muted terminology is only for minimizing spoilers!) and DeLaria plays the role of "big sister" to Doggett with the right balance of aggression and compassion. It's a fine line and DeLaria walks it with impressive ability.

Ultimately, the third season of Orange Is The New Black leads to a surprising place that puts all the actors (not characters) in jeopardy, but makes for an astonishingly solid season that deepens the characters trapped in Litchfield prison . . . even if very little occurs within the season.

For other works from the 2014 – 2015 television season, please check out my reviews of:
Sense8 - Season 1
Grace And Frankie - Season 1
Agent Carter - Season 1
Daredevil - Season 1
The Newsroom - Season 3
House Of Cards - Season 3
Doctor Who - Season 8
True Blood - Season 7
”Shadows” - Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.
”City Of Heroes” - The Flash


For other television reviews, please check out my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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