‘Orange Is the New Black’ Embraces Humor and Focuses on Motherhood in Season 3

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It’s fitting that the first episode of Orange Is the New Black‘s third season takes place on Mother’s Day, because the season, at least in its first half, is largely concerned with various ideas surrounding motherhood. This isn’t too much of a divergence from last season — in which mothers, biological or otherwise, were occasionally the source of conflict within Litchfield — but the theme has now become even more dominant and a bit more complicated. And that’s how Orange generally plays out: complications at every turn. Season 3 is no different, though it’s noticeably funnier than previous seasons, as if actively trying to make up for last year’s dark and distressing Vee-centric fare.

But that’s the biggest change in Orange; most everything else we loved about the show is still there: the overwhelming empathy, the pop culture references (particularly when it comes to books), the well-done (and well-timed), insightful flashbacks helping to explain inmates’ crimes or at least provide a glimpse into their slow rise to a rapid downfall, the wonderful side characters who are increasingly taking over the main event (Poussey, Taystee, Chang, and even the brainless meth-head duo who are becoming more and more like Beavis and Butt-head every episode), the inmates’ inventiveness (using maxi pads for blindfolds and makeshift mattresses), and, of course, the Piper/Alex love/hate relationship — though it’s worth noting that this dynamic is starting to feel very stale.

Last we left them, Piper had schemed to get Alex back into prison by finagling a call to Alex’s parole officer about the gun she kept in her apartment. The plan was successful and Alex is back in Litchfield, unsure exactly how this happened and definitely unhappy. But by now, their back-and-forth is too repetitive to remain thoroughly engaging. They love each other; they hate each other — we’ve already seen this. The majority of their reconciliation consists of hate-fucking in various places around Litchfield, but I can’t imagine even the most devoted shippers being particularly invested in this new (but old) development.

Piper went from being an obnoxious-on-purpose yuppie and a useful Trojan Horse, introducing viewers to a setting they might not naturally embrace, to a character whose continued presence is no longer wholly necessary. Litchfield Prison — and Orange Is the New Black — is full of rich, wonderful, and dynamic characters whose stories are consistently outshining Piper’s, and the show is often better when she fades into the background. It tends to be less engaging when she pops back up.

Thankfully, Orange Is the New Black still generally succeeds at juggling multiple characters and various storylines — so well, in fact, that there are episodes that seem positively slow, despite how much is going on (and there is always a lot going on) — and we get enough of everyone else to distract from the Piper/Alex repetition. The aforementioned mother-heavy plots revolve around maternal relationships involving everyone from Boo to Daya to Sophia to Healy. Inmates lose their “prison mother” or fight with their biological mother during visitations; flashbacks reveal complicated familial relationships; one inmate sadly mentions her mother’s passing while another boldly declares that she’s simply “done with mothers.”

As always, the episodes’ flashbacks remain some of the most thrilling and teasing sequences. Within the first six episodes, we’re treated to a new understanding of characters like Chang, Boo (finally!), and Flaca with revealing backstories that both illuminate and devastate. There are also some deeper dives into characters who already had flashbacks, and a couple of telling glimpses into the past lives of some of the correction officers.

But the past is not to be outdone by the present: We have some new faces (Mary Steenburgen as Pornstache’s mother, who becomes embroiled in Daya’s and her unborn baby’s lives; Mike Birbiglia as a corporate guy with some spoiler-y intentions for Litchfield, and Ruby Rose as a mysterious, new inmate) and a big, new conflict about the prison’s future. Litchfield’s COs have an actual compelling plot here (that doesn’t take away from the inmates’ stories at all), the prison faces one of its most terrifying occurrences yet — an infestation of bedbugs! — and a certain inmate getting shipped down the hill to max has rippling effects throughout.

Within the bigger stories, plenty of little plot gems remain: Poussey, thanks to piss and a squirrel hunt, has to face her alcoholism head-on; Suzanne/”Crazy Eyes” is haunted by Vee’s death from last season and seems to be going further off the rails; Morello has a questionably new hobby involving strange men; multiple inmates find themselves sucked into “mumbo-jumbo” voodoo/Santeria beliefs; there’s a budding friendship between self-proclaimed bull-dyke Big Boo and religious fanatic Pennsatucky; and a new work assignment threatens to disrupt the flow — and the families — of Litchfield, sending nearly everyone into a frenzy.

The series’ flaws are still there — the reliance on Piper and Alex, some slight pacing issues from episode to episode, occasional moments of off-kilter prison cuteness. (This season in particular seems overly concerned with humorous hijinks, which is only a shame because Jenji Kohan has proven so adept at mining humor from some dark and fucked-up places. The fact that the show seems decidedly lighter this time is especially ironic considering Orange is not permitted to compete as a comedy in the Emmys.) But there are fixes to previous seasons’ problems, too. Season 3 doesn’t quite have a main villain, which is good, considering the mixed reactions and strange feel that Vee brought to Season 2. Overall, this is still the refreshing, empathetic, and remarkable Orange Is the New Black that we know and love — and that we will eagerly consume in one sitting over the weekend.