This story contains spoilers for Orange Is the New Black.
Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black started with a meta-joke: Instead of going live at midnight, the show was “early released” Thursday evening, a play on the early release narrative of the first few episodes, and some synergistic promo for Orange Con, a fan event that took place last night. That’s a smart move on Netflix’s part; it gave fans (and media) a head start on crafting their takes.
Indeed, the takes on OITNB have been hot and plenty. The Netflix original has inspired conversations about race, feminism, queer and transgender issues, female friendships, and prison reform. Those elements all return in episode 1, “Mother’s Day,” which uses a family visitation day at the prison as a narrative door into several inmates’ relationships with their mothers, and a means of getting viewers reacclimated at Litchfield.
We drop into the backstories of Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), and Boo (Lea DeLaria), and a scene in which Pennsatucky has a faux funeral for her unborn children leads to a conversation with Boo, who is dressed as a clown, about Freakonomics and the societal and economic upside of her abortions. Elsewhere, the visiting kids try to dismantle a piñata without sticks. When it’s found to ultimately be empty, Soso (Kimiko Glenn) remarks, “This is such a metaphor for their lives.” The episode’s best joke, however, comes from Chang (Lori Tan Chinn), who asks a young black girl visiting her mother, “What are you in for?”
And of course Alex (Laura Prepon) is back, though her relationship with Piper (Taylor Schilling) has become a bit tedious in season 3. The second episode, “Bed Bugs and Beyond,” causes the inmates to have to strip down to their undergarments, which is the perfect opportunity for Piper and Alex’s newly minted humiliation-based relationship to bloom. However, their sex scenes are cringeworthy, and one over-the-top romp in particular features a cheesy metal soundtrack that just feels out of place. (This misstep is somewhat corrected with the inclusion of 2 Chainz’s “Boo” at the end of episode 4.)
As we’re told in episode 1, the prison environment is different now; it’s a kinder, gentler place. As one inmate relates, “Wiccans get a night walk” now. This is juxtaposed against the threat of budget cuts and the dismantling of the prison’s structure as a bedbug infestation takes hold.
That change in tone is palpable. Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), season 2’s dead-eyed antagonist, is “gone”—though Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) still can’t forget—and the first few episodes are light on heavy emotional turmoil. In episode 3, “Empathy Is a Boner Killer,” the inmates even do improv.
Creator Jenji Kohan said last month that the new season would focus on faith and motherhood, a way to balance the scales after they “went to Oz” in season 2. After the highs and lows of the first two seasons, this new era feels like the comedown after the binge. And perhaps that’s where it needs to be in season 3.
Still, OITNB is best when it’s telling us something about women’s identities. Piper is no longer the focus of the series: She was the channel into the other characters’ stories, and as we wade into season 3, her absence is hardly even noticed. The plight of actual mothers is the focus. In “Mother’s Day,” Sophia (Laverne Cox) attempts to give her son advice about girls, encouraging him to find an “insecure girl” to practice with so he’ll be experienced when he meets someone he really likes.
“You really want to be a lady in a world where men do that?” he asks.
“God help me, I do,” she replies.
Photo by JoJo Whilden/Netflix