Making our annual return to the Netflix original creation by Jenji Kohan, based upon Piper Kerman’s real-life prison experiences memoir, the third season of Orange Is the New Black is admirable for its directional ambition. Unafraid to contravene the dramatic plot-driven status quo it established in its inaugural season, which we saw to a transitional extent in the second, here, comedy and character are the focus, and while they too often fail to pull you to the edge of your seat, there’s still reason enough to sit and watch.
Slow-building, the new season of Orange Is the New Black further expands the series’ ensemble, opting for thirteen primarily character-driven episodes taking place inside, outside and within the walls of Litchfield Penitentiary. In deviating from a season-long narrative arc, this promising offensive aims to develop and humanise the people of Litchfield more, but its repercussions are, at times, unremarkable.
As a consequence of this new direction, attempting to summarise the season’s events is a challenge, and that’s probably because far too many things happen in each episode. Season 3 is overstuffed with characters and conflicts, backstories and bureaucracy, and many of the myriad of arcs covering the basis of this year’s chapter of Orange Is the New Black just aren’t all that interesting. Well, that’s unfair, they are interesting, but because of the shift in storytelling centralising around what the characters say rather than what they do, we are told rather than shown key developments; they are plainly described rather than allowed to flourish and be realised over time.
Litchfield is acquired by private corporation MMR to save it from closure (and corporations are bad for working men and women), Boo (Lea DeLaria) is appointed liberal crusader of the show with prolonged preachy speeches, and just about everyone feels the need to tell everyone else how lonely they are. It’s not that these events, themes and details aren’t valuable and important, but more so their blunt and repetitive expression which squanders their potential. As a result, they lack any sense of urgency or tension within the prison walls as the messages too brusquely seek to break free to reach the audience at home.
Where the season succeeds is in its more subtle moments, or at least those worn on khaki sleeves a little less visibly. Actions speak louder than words, and the season highlights which showcase this most effectively include the appropriately-titled episode seven, “Tongue-Tied”, in which we see the silent Norma (Annie Golden) deal with the loudness around her, as well as Piper (Taylor Schilling) begin a new venture. Also written by Sian Heder, episode eleven, “We Can Be Heroes”, invites us into the history of gatekeeper Caputo (Nick Sandow), revealing the cost of his benevolence. Finally, season finale “Trust No Bitch” features a fabulous euphoric climax. For the closing 10 minutes, little is said, but little needs to be, as the inmates of Litchfield experience a sense of freedom: to them, a miracle.
In the midst of the season, Piper protects her position as protagonist, clinging onto the most exciting serialised arc. After Litchfield is taken over by MMR, the corporation essentially opens a sweatshop where chosen inmates sew lingerie to be retailed to the rich, opening a new opportunity into the prison economy in more ways than one. Entrepreneur Piper begins smuggling unused materials out of Litchfield, setting up her own secret panty-sniffing business from the inside. It’s funny, smart, unexpected, and at times extreme, as it feeds into her gradual process of “Walter Whiting” which only promises to intensify in the announced fourth season to be released next year.
Even with its barrage of character arcs, it must be noted that the season is paced coherently thanks to the consistency in editing and visual gloominess. Once the fact there will be no majorly built-up conclusion is cognised, Orange Is the New Black can be enjoyed for its other qualities: its realised setting, crazy comedy, oddball characters and resonating themes of loneliness, prejudice and injustice, albeit in overkill mode and much less investing the third time around.
On the whole though, it is disappointing, and even at times repetitiously dry, but difficult to deny of its commendable objective in becoming more character-driven and soulful. Unfortunately, with an overcrowded populace, this is too great a challenge to achieve, and with Litchfield only looking to increase its inhabitants, hopefully the trend of this season’s controlled cluster can improve in how the ensemble is balanced and explored for season four.