First look Netflix TV review: Orange Is the New Black Season 3
Ivan Radford | On 11, Jun 2015
This contains spoilers for Orange Is the New Black Season 1 and 2 and minor spoilers for Episodes 1 and 2 of Season 3.
“Everything is different the second time around,” sings Orange Is the New Black’s theme tune, as the show returns for another run. Now in its third season, though, things have changed quite a bit.
Season 1 of Jenji Kohan’s prison series followed spoiled white woman Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), as she acclimatised to life in an orange jumpsuit. With her she brought her prejudices, self-preoccupation and personal baggage (in the form of Alex Vause, her former lover – the fantastic Laura Prepon). Chapman, though, was our window into Litchfield’s diverse population: it soon became apparent that the series was just as interested, if not more so, in her inmates.
Season 2 shunted Piper into the sidelines, evolving from a kaleidoscopic comedy to something approaching a gangland war, as the villainous Vee returned to wage conflict between the black and Latina convicts, a battle that brought out a new side to ageing kitchen veteran Red (the deliciously drawling Kate Mulgrew), Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Suzanne, aka. “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba). It was Rosa (Barbara Rosenblatt), though, who emerged as the surprise heroine of the piece, as the cancer patient busted out from behind bars and, in the season’s final minutes, ran over Vee with the Litchfield minibus.
After such a shocking, even beautifully uplifting, climax, Season 3 starts by not even referring to it. It’s a surprise, until you realise that the ladies of Litchfield have something else on their mind: Mother’s Day.
The result is a slightly lighter beginning than the weighty rivalry of last season. Here, the suspense arises from the ensemble’s attempts to recreate a slice of normality within the cell walls. A gentle sense of unspoken tragedy surrounds the silliness, as the group arrange a yard party for the visiting kids: Chapman creatively crafts a crazy golf windmill using an electric fan, but the blades spin too quickly for anyone to ever stand a chance; someone buys a piñata, but forgets the stick; Suzanne builds a kite, but isn’t allowed to fly it. No matter what they try, these people remain cut off from their loved ones, be they unborn babies, departed parents or – in the cast of Crazy Eyes – missing role models.
The cast turn these tiny moments into significant ones – often without doing a thing. After years of getting to know these women, just a look tells us how they’re feeling. Aduba’s reaction to a discussion about Harry Potter is hilarious, while the fake smile of Morello (Yael Stone), as she gets her hair done for the occasion, is full of heartache.
The flashbacks continue, of course, a narrative device that feels more and more like a device. But rather than show us the crimes that cause our convicts’ incarceration, they increasingly prefer to reveal childhood memories, a focus that re-emphasises the programme’s prioritising of people over plot. Even among the old familiar faces, it’s surprising how many new tales there are to tell – there is a welcome hint in the first two episodes that the back-story of Nicky (played by queen-of-eye-rolling Natasha Lyonne) will be explored.
Alongside the brutal territorial dispute, Season 2 marked a growing appreciation of the guards’ perspective, something that Season 3 makes clear will keep going, as we see more of both Michael Harney’s Healy and Matt McGorry’s Bennett – the latter a welcome way to flesh out the romance between him and Daya. A shift of focus onto the challenge of keeping the prison’s day-to-day operations running, particularly in the wake of last season’s transfers and scandals, also adds a welcome note of sympathy to Nick Sandow’s subtly performed Caputo, a warden whose sleazy exterior hides an endearingly honest heart.
There is a sense that, like its ladies, the show has matured. The writers are now smart enough to know when to avoid exposition: one of Daya’s favourite anecdotes is related to Bennett through her brother, who undersells it completely. “You’d have to hear her to tell it,” he finishes, lamely, after it fizzles flat. It’s that kind of nuance that stops their forbidden, still distanced, relationship becoming staid or sliding into soap opera. The same is true of Alex and Piper’s bond, which is threatened by the discovery that Piper grassed her up, just to bring them back together – a story line that, were it not for the array of other lives surrounding it, could easily verge into steamy melodrama.
That, as always, is the show’s greatest strength: each person is defined by – and thrives as part of – Litchfield’s overall family. (It will be interesting to see what impact the pending arrival of Ruby Rose as new inmate Stella Carlin has upon Piper and Alex.) Amid the trademark snappy dialogue – Red, as ever, bags the best lines – these opening hours ease us back into that comfortably familiar dynamic. They remind us, too, of Orange’s ability to use familiar reference points (Piper, Mother’s Day) to mine its unfamiliar environment for relatable human drama. After two years of stealing scenes, Laverne Cox’s hairdresser, Sophia, is thrust centre-stage, as she has to work out whether to give motherly or fatherly advice to her visiting son; a simple dilemma that combines the show’s knack for the on-the-nose speeches and sincere emotion.
Without Vee or another big bad to drive the plot – apart from the new challenge facing Kaputo – Kohan’s equal-opportunities approach to story-telling means that Season 3 feels less structured and more like a free-roaming tapestry of faces and feelings than ever. But that gentle pace only means more opportunities to enjoy watching these rounded, engaging characters interact. Things might be different around Litchfield, but some things never change.
All episodes of Orange Is the New Black Season 3 are now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.