The third season of Orange is the New Black is different from its predecessors. The first season focussed entirely on Piper, and introduced us to everyone else from her perspective. The second season was wider, we got to meet some of the characters from their own points of view, and we also got a super villain (Vee, let’s just say I was glad to see that character gone). The third season almost makes Piper seem like a footnote. Oh she’s in there, thinking up a way to make money from inside prison selling used panties to perverts, and pretending she’s Godfather. Her entitled, princess-y aura grates more than ever, but thankfully, the show rewards our patience with some other beautiful character arcs.
Orange is the New Black may not be the most honest version of a women’s prison. Yes, everyone is glamorous, the salon that Sophia runs inside the prison looks as good as salons I have been to (outside prison), women wear eyeliner at all times, and nobody ever seems to have a bad hair day. But this show has consistently given voice to so many women who might otherwise not be heard, it has given opportunities to actors of wonderful caliber getting to live out stories that are rarely seen.
Pennsatucky’s story this season was one of the most moving for me. We see her as a child, running up to her mother after spotting blood in her underwear. Her mother tells her she is now a-tittin’ and a-hairin’, that she has something precious with her now, men might want to do things to her, but mostly they just go in and come out quickly, it’s like a sting. From that introduction to adult life, where can one go? We later see Pennsatucky letting someone have sex with her in exchange for a crate of Mountain Dew. She doesn’t consider this strange, or awful, she is upset only because the boy won’t stop even after she really gets stung. She meets Nathan, who cares for her in a way she hasn’t experienced until then, and when he teaches her to relax and be intimate with him, we want to weep in joy for Pennsatucky, that at least once in her life, she was treated right. In the present, we see her on van duty with one of the new guards, who looks harmless enough at first. He proceeds to degrade Pennsatucky into behaving like an animal, making her fetch a doughnut with her mouth. He forces himself on her telling her she asked for it, and then gives her cheap trinkets. It is too difficult to watch, especially when Pennsatucky confides in Boo that she was the one giving confusing signals, she led him on, he really likes her and she may like him too. Boo tries to explain to her what rape means. The friendship that develops between Pennsatucky and Boo is surprising, but comforting. We find allies in the most unlikely of places.
Red and Healy form a connection that goes beyond the power dynamic of prisoner-guard. They seem to have developed genuine affections for each other. However, while Healy is being nice to Red, bringing her corn for her dinner night and complimenting her on her looks, we realize just how bad he is at his job. He writes a recommendation for Soso to start taking medication when she comes to speak to him about her depression. Soso almost kills herself overdosing on these pills. There might be all these women in prison, but it is ultimately lonely, and terrifying. Poussey, who battles with her own feelings of loneliness, decides to help Soso. The black women initially resist this idea, but eventually realize they would sooner take an Asian into their group than have her sent to Psych.
The big event that extends across the season is the take over of Litchfield by an evil corporation named MCC. A corporate minion (whose designation reads Director of Human Activity) is put up at Litchfield, and his job is to ensure MCC derives maximum profits from running a women’s prison. The problem with this is that it disintegrates into another “soul-less corporate establishment sucking the life out of the common (wo)man” track, while earlier, we were able to see how The System fails the people it is meant to serve.
This is not to take away from the other stories that play out this season – Suzanne morphing into a writer (science fiction meets erotica in The Time Hump Chronicles) and how this wins her fans not friends, Piper becoming downright nasty (not just selfish), Flaca’s past (another high school kid attempting to make some money to get ahead in life), Norma becoming a cult of her own (and her previous life in a sleazy cult), Sophia and Gloria fighting it out to be the best mothers they can while they remain incarcerated, Black Cindy’s conversion to Judaism (her monologue on why the Jewish faith speaks to her left me in tears).
OITNB tells us stories of women – women from impoverished backgrounds and fanatically religious households, immigrant women, women of colour, broken women, troubled women, real women. It doesn’t offer solutions, it offers us different perspectives, it shows us how women try to keep moving forward in any way they can, while the world conspires against them. It may not make for easy television, all these sad stories that break your heart one episode at a time, but it makes for arresting television.