The new season of Orange is the New Black sort of crept up on me. While I’ve enjoyed the show up until now, it’s never quite been one of those shows where I find myself counting the days until the beginning of the season. Though that doesn’t stop me from burning through an entire season in a week once it eventually arrives.
There may have been external reasons for my forgetting about the show this year though. Honestly, so far this year I have not been enjoying Netflix’s output as much as I have done in the past:
- Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt didn’t work for me, outside of its amazing opening theme.
- Grace and Frankie tried to tackle both comedy and drama and didn’t quite deliver on either.
- As I outlined in an earlier review, Daredevil didn’t quite live up to its potential. Or to the hype.
- House of Cards Season 3 was a big disappointment compared to what came before.
As a result, I approached the third season of Orange is the New Black somewhat cautiously. I had enjoyed the previous seasons of the show, but it has always been a bit unpredictable. With such a massive ensemble cast, there have always been characters that I find fascinating splitting screen time with others that I don’t particularly care about. And with so many different stories running at any given time, those that captivate me have always had to compete with those that bore me.
I would be exaggerating if I claimed that Season 3 did not share these same problems. But they have become a lot less noticeable. Most of what’s going on in this season is compelling in some way. And some of the stories that are most engaging come from the characters that you would least expect.
With that being said, I’m going to break down what I didn’t like about the season, and more importantly, what I did enjoy.
As in Season 2, Piper’s material is among the weakest. However, by now she no longer comes across as the protagonist of the show, and she doesn’t get more screen time than a lot of the other major characters. Now she’s just one part of a larger ensemble, and she’s probably more suited to this role.
Without spoiling too much, Piper’s story this season involves her flirting more with the dark side of prison life. It’s not a bad direction for her character, and I think it could lead to greater things in future seasons. The problem with Piper’s stories is rarely Piper herself, but those that she associates with. I’ve never found Alex particularly interesting, and a new potential love interest (played by Ruby Rose) is only there to look pretty.
However, while those characters might be bland, at least they’re not actively off-putting like Piper’s ridiculous brother. He seems to exist only to facilitate implausible interactions between Piper and the outside world. He’s not just a plot contrivance, he’s a full-blown cartoon character, and he shouldn’t exist in this universe. While he doesn’t get much screen time, when he is on screen he’s easily the worst part of the entire show.
Another minor pet peeve I had with the season was that it seemed to move on from the events of Season 2 a little too neatly. Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren has trouble coming to terms with the death of Vee, but many other characters act like the events of the previous season never took place. It only serves as a minor annoyance, but I imagine it would seem odd if watching the seasons back to back.
Finally, because the show has burned through the back stories of so many of the major characters, a number of the flashback episodes this season focused on more minor players. Not all of them could live up to what came before.
Fortunately, some of the other minor characters really come into their own. Halfway through the season, I really started to appreciate the quality and depth of this cast. Certain actors – who served as little more than background noise in previous seasons – put forward great performances when called upon.
Jackie Cruz was particularly impressive in portraying Marisol ‘Flaca’ Gonzales. After receiving her own flashback episode, Flaca begins to play more of an active role in the show, and the actress is more than equal to the task.
In general, the show runners seem to be getting more comfortable with varying things up with their cast. Not only are they now focusing on more characters, but some of the established characters are allowed to drift into the background from time to time so they don’t wear out their welcome.
Not only that, but this season introduces several brand new characters, while others are removed from the show. Maybe permanently. Many might mourn the loss of some of their favourites; and I imagine one particular departure from this season might upset quite a lot of people. But overall, I would say this is a positive for the show. It keeps things fresh and interesting. It makes things more unpredictable. And these are the kinds of decisions that give a show staying power.
The main story this year involves the prison itself being in jeopardy, and the knock on effect that this has on the staff and the inmates. It’s an interesting direction for the show to move in. While we’re used to each character occupying a moral grey area, this new development gives us something that we can support 100%: the welfare of the prison itself.
Creating an external threat also allows the creators to dial back the internal conflicts between characters a little. The main source of the drama is coming from elsewhere, so there’s more of a focus on friendship this season. Poussey is in search of a real relationship. Soso is dealing with the fact that nobody likes her and trying to make new friends. And we have some new pairings that work surprisingly well together.
Chief among these is the relationship between Big Boo and Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett. Orange is the New Black has made a habit of taking its most loathsome characters and humanising them, but what they accomplished in Season 3 with ‘Pennsatucky’ has to be their crowning achievement. The first season closed with Doggett attempting to murder Piper. At that point she was the closest thing the show had to a true villain. Just two short seasons later, she has become sympathetic and even likable.
Even the writers of Game of Thrones would have had trouble redeeming a character this terrible so successfully.
Doggett and Boo are the highlight of the entire season. At first they’re just a fun, comedic pairing. As the season progresses though, their relationship becomes genuinely moving. They obviously begin to care about each other and help each other through some dark moments.
If that relationship is the highlight, then Kaputo is probably in second place. He’s endearing as the nice guy who can’t catch a break, and his fighting for the rights of the staff and prisoners alike makes for compelling television. He’s still a creep, but that only adds depth to the character. Without those flaws, he’d be too white bread to be truly interesting.
And acting almost as a counterpart to Kaputo, Counsellor Healy has been one of the most captivating characters of the show since Season 1. He seems on first glance to be an amiable sort of man, but the more we learn about him, the more we see how much ugliness there is inside of him. Healy has always seemed terrifyingly realistic to me. There are probably thousands upon thousands of men like this out there in the world, browsing MRA forums and corrupting their social groups with toxic opinions. As always, his material in Season 3 is highly compelling. Particularly as he is often working across from fan favourite ‘Red’.
Having enjoyed Season 3 thoroughly, I guess the most important question remaining is whether I’m excited to come back and watch Season 4 next year. The answer would be a resounding yes.
The final episode sets up a number of intriguing angles for the next season. Without spoiling anything, there appear to be some major changes coming, both for individual characters and the prison as a whole. Now that we’re a few seasons in, it’s comforting to know that the show runners don’t plan on resting on their laurels. They’re not repeating old stories or settling into an obvious comfort zone. They’re still trying new things and moving the show forwards.
A lot of the better television shows out there at the moment seem to peak early. Even if they’re still going strong, their best days might be behind them. Which is why it’s such a treat to think that Orange is the New Black probably has a number of seasons left in the tank. And the best might be yet to come.
RATING (out of 100): 77, “Good”
Steve Hanley is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.