When reviewing the first six episodes of Orange Is the New Black’s third season, I remarked that this season seemed lighter and funnier in comparison to others. This wasn’t a bad thing.
No matter how close Orange comes to being the Litchfield Comedy Hour (there is literally a scene in which inmates do improv), there are always going to be heavy doses of pathos sprinkled throughout. And the show definitely delivered this in the second half of the season, which made up for its funnier beginnings by getting depressingly dark — and even going off the rails just a bit.
It’s impossible to go through all of the specifics of this packed 13-episode season or parse each character’s individual trajectory in a single piece, but there were a handful of — very spoiler-y — moments that will surely dominate the conversation for the next weeks. One of the most devastating developments of the third season involved Tiffany/Pennsatucky. She begins a mutual flirtation with a new guard at Litchfield, Charlie, and her episode is interspersed with flashbacks to (presumably) the first time she fell in love and was in a relationship with a guy who treated her equally. It’s a nice glimpse into her past life — the one before her other past life, with its hard drugs and multiple abortions — but it all comes to a head when her boyfriend leaves and she’s raped by a different guy.
Flash forward to the present, and her inmate love life takes a turn, too, as Charlie also rapes her (believing this is what she wants), leaving Tiffany to both spiral into a depression and, along with Boo, plot Girl With the Dragon Tattoo-style revenge on him. The outcome of this storyline, like most of Orange Is the New Black, is both triumphant and sad: Tiffany finds a way out of van duty (faking a seizure) so she doesn’t have to be alone with Charlie anymore, nor does she have to hurt him. But then she watches as Maritza takes her place, leaving the young inmate vulnerable to the same fate.
As if that weren’t enough, Orange Is the New Black found sadness in Daya’s storyline; Bennett proposed but then promptly disappeared, never returning to Litchfield or the show, leaving Daya alone again. She decides to let Pornstache’s mother (Mary Steenburgen!) adopt the baby, but after the birth, Aleida lies and sends the baby home to Ceasar — who then gets busted by the DEA, forcing child services to step in (unbeknownst to both Daya and Aleida by the end of the season).
Orange Is the New Black continued to depress as the season went on. An argument between Gloria and Sophia, revolving around their respective sons, who began hanging out with each other, leads to the spreading of hateful, transphobic rumors — and a vicious attack on Sophia, who ends up being sent to the SHU for her own protection. Angie manages to temporarily escape due to a prison mix-up, but Caputo finds her sitting at the bus stop bench because she has nowhere else to go, and takes her back to prison. At other points in the season, we learn that Healy is clearly in love with Red, Piper fucks over Stella’s release by setting her up, and Soso attempts to overdose in the prison library. Oh, and one of Kubra’s men easily gets a job as a CO and shows up to kill Alex in the greenhouse, leaving her fate unknown as we head into the next season.
If this all sounds like too much, that’s because it sometimes was (and there was a hell of a lot more happening, too). Orange managed to dole most of these twists out slowly over the 13 episodes. It also helped that the more devastating developments were interrupted by a few smaller, funnier moments and arcs: Crazy Eyes is writing smutty stories that lead to other inmates writing fan-fiction, Lorna finally gets married (albeit to a guy she met through letters), and the entire season ends on a temporarily triumphant note, as the prisoners take the guards’ walkout as an excuse to run through an open fence into a lake, giving them just a little hint of freedom.
But even with all of the positive moments this season, it’s hard not to be just a little worried that maybe Orange Is the New Black is veering into later-season Weeds territory by rapidly blowing through plots and piling on too much content for comfort. Also created by Jenji Kohan, Weeds had some masterful and addictive early episodes, but as the show continued to go on (and on and on), its narratives became less engaging and more ridiculously convoluted, with cliffhangers seemingly designed to test whether the writers could manage to successfully (and believably) write them off in the next season (and they often couldn’t). Orange isn’t there yet — and it does bode well for the series that there are so many characters (this season even introduced a Martha Stewart stand-in, who will surely clash with Red in the kitchen) to explore, rather than just going in circles around Nancy Botwin.
It’s also possible that much of my piling-on fatigue could come from binge-watching the season so rapidly, though I can’t believe I’m alone in feeling that Season 3 was more crowded than the previous two. But that all said: I’m still wholly enamored of Orange, and still fully engaged in nearly every character’s story. Season 3 was a necessary emotional comedown from last season’s villainous Vee arc — the finale was full of love and hope (or at least as much love and hope as one can hope for in prison) — and provided a solid balance. Orange just needs to trust itself, that it can slow down and chill out without losing viewers. The series is already conflict-heavy and infinitely watchable; it doesn’t need to add too many plot twists or higher stakes to remain so.