Photo: Flickr / Steve Rhodes

Review: Orange is the New Black Season 3

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[dropcap]G[/dropcap]oing into this season of Orange Is The New Black, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. Before I’d even got around to watching the first episode on Friday evening, I had already read several negative comments online from those intrepid fans who binge watched it in the space of a day. Could this show – which had always been so reliably high in quality – have really gone off into the deep end?

Fortunately, however, upon viewing, I personally found these criticisms to be unfounded.

A common issue appeared to be the relatively stagnant nature of this season’s plot. Whilst it feels slightly perverse to argue that a lack of overriding plot can be a positive in television, I would say that, with regards to this show, it makes perfect sense.

This has always been a series innately grounded in character, and Season 3 acts as the most powerful example of Orange is the New Black as an ensemble piece to date

Simply spending time observing the day-to-day lives of these wonderfully complex women is interesting enough and, by this point, the cast is so universally strong that almost all the characters feel as though they could take centre stage.

Several members of the Orange is the New Black cast. Photo: Flickr / Peabody Awards

Several members of the Orange is the New Black cast. Photo: Flickr / Peabody Awards

Indeed, having concluded episode three and seen Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) dragged off to Max, I was expecting to feel a hole at the heart of the narrative. However, although Lyonne is (as always) captivating in her three episodes here, it never truly feels as though the show is detrimentally affected by her exit, as other characters simply step forward to take precedence.

The show also makes use of its format to subtly lay the foundations for character development across the course of the season.

This is perhaps most noticeable in the character of Soso (Kimiko Glenn), whose arc this season never truly dominates but, upon reflection, is always present in the background of events. Thus, when she ultimately attempts to kill herself, it doesn’t seem like a gratuitously shocking cliffhanger, but an entirely natural progression for a character whom the viewer has seen systematically broken down across the course of thirteen episodes.

This speaks volumes to the strengths of the show’s characterisation — for a character who spent the previous season merely popping up to be endearingly irritating, to become so emotionally engaging is a testament to both the writing and Glenn’s performance.

Taryn Manning (Tiffany 'Pennsatucky' Doggett). Photo: Flickr / iDominick

Taryn Manning (Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett). Photo: Flickr / iDominick

This was also the season of Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning).

Whilst Pennsatucky has always been a resonant character with fans in previous years (her dominance of memes is certainly impressive), at times it has felt as though she has been simply moulded to whatever purpose the writers require without much stable identity; moving from antagonist in Season 1 to a figure of comic relief in Season 2.

This year, however, she emerges as a fully drawn, deeply complex individual.

There is currently a great deal of (rightfully concerned) debate with regards to using rape as a storytelling device on television, so when Tiffany is assaulted by Coates (James McMenamin), I was concerned as to how the aftermath would be explored. Thankfully, this is not a storyline that simply goes away; the effects of the attack upon Tiffany are clearly explored, and it does not feel as though it is suddenly ‘over’; the finale indicates that its consequences will be prevalent in Season 4.

Manning turns in an absolutely heartbreaking performance, thoroughly deserving of awards consideration, both as present day Tiffany and in her character’s central flashback.

The flashbacks themselves surprisingly still feel relevant throughout Season 3

Where Lost began to lose momentum by its own third season thanks to this narrative technique, Orange is the New Black‘s advantage lies with the sheer range of its characters.

As of this point, it still feels as though there are several individuals left on the show whose flashbacks would be welcome (Maritza (Diane Guerrero) and Gina (Abigail Savage), I’m looking at you!).

Indeed, flashbacks never become a simple means of filling time, but always feel as though they are revealing something new and essential to our understanding of these individuals.

Leanne (Emma Myles), a character whose religious faith has always felt like a point of mockery, is seen in a new light after the revelations about her Amish background, and even though the prospect of a Caputo (Nick Sandow) flashback episode didn’t initially seem like one of great interest, I eventually found myself just as engaged in his story.

Taylor Schilling (Piper Chapman). Photo: Flickr / iDominick

Taylor Schilling (Piper Chapman). Photo: Flickr / iDominick

Although the selfishness of Piper (Taylor Schilling) has been a cause of vocal anger from elements of the show’s fan base, I personally think it’s a joy to see the writers fully embracing the manipulative aspects of her personality. Her transformation into used-underwear-dealing Mafia-style boss is a great source of comic enjoyment, particularly when Schilling tackles it with such aplomb.

Where the show falters is in the rushed nature of her relationship with Stella (Ruby Rose).

Ironically, given that Rose seems to be the biggest thing to come out of this particular season, based on social media reactions, it never truly feels as though she has a strong grip on the character, and the writing does not provide her with much sense of development.

Conversely, it has always felt previously as though the writers have had an issue with how to individualise the character of Alex, and all too often it’s been the case that Laura Prepon has been given only one note to play: cocky. In this season, however, whilst there is still a noticeable lack of integration for her among the rest of the prison community, the writing provides her with a greater sense of vulnerability and character, rather than simply existing as ‘Piper’s girlfriend’.

The season ends with a strong sense of momentum for the stories of next year: the new arrivals at the prison; Sophia (Laverne Cox), who is still in SHU; the revelation of Alex’s fate; and the continuation of the Pennsatucky storyline.

However, what’s impressive is that the finale doesn’t leave the viewer with story, but with character

The concluding scene of the prisoners simply enjoying being free by the lake is some of the most euphoric and uplifting television I’ve seen in a long time, and most importantly it feels earned.

So, now we face the yearlong wait for Season 4 — it can’t come soon enough!


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