A question popped into my head just a few short episodes in to my epic binge of the third season of Orange is the New Black. It was a question that, perhaps, tainted my viewing of the entire season, one that I was unable to shake throughout its 13 episode run. Like a particularly virulent sickness, its grip on my thoughts was un-relinquishing, popping up once more just as I thought it had been contained. As is the case with any good plague, it absolutely refused to be extinguished.
“Am I witnessing a shark jump?”
Try though I did to keep the faith—of which there was plenty; the first two seasons of Orange is the New Black were a bit of a revelation, proving that Netflix could compete with the best that traditional TV had to offer while also showcasing some much needed diversity—it was tested again and again as season three meandered repeatedly into the asinine and the inane. While it never quite reached the same levels of “what the actual fuck” as the final few seasons of series creator Jenji Kohan’s previous television outing Weeds did, there were more than a few moments this season that tread dangerously close to crossing those lines.
Fluidity has always been one of the trademarks of a Kohan show. As her series progress, the scope of her narratives tend to grow and grow, eventually (as was the case with Weeds) becoming an ungainly monstrosity so far removed from their original intent that you forget what hooked you in the first place. As with biological evolution, these changes are slow at first, and then all at once. The farther I got into season three, the more I wondered if I wasn’t seeing the slow beginning of what will turn into a quick decline.
The first season, as you’ll recall, introduced us to the world of Litchfield Federal Penitentiary by showing it to us through the eyes of the lily white Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the WASPiest of WASPs whose youthful misgivings came back to bite her right as her life was starting to congeal. It was your classic fish out of water story, told with an originality and freshness that kept us all glued to the couch and chattering on social media for weeks and months after its premiere. Season two moved us slightly away from the Piper story, giving insight into the lives of the other women locked up beside her and adding depth to a cast that had, until then, been supporting. Despite its expanded focus, season two remained more or less Piper-centric; its narrative arcs, while independent of Piper’s larger story, were passengers along the ride down Chapman trail.
As of season three, it’s clear that this is no longer Piper’s show. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the other inmates of Litchfield have proven themselves to be every bit as engaging and intriguing as Piper was in season one, so giving them their chance to shine—even at the expense of Piper’s story—doesn’t need to be a negative. However, especially during the first half of the season, there was a blatant and glaring lack of focus that keeps season three from reaching the heights of its predecessors. This lack of focus turns season three into a sort of ensemble picaresque wherein lots of things happen but very little progresses.
Perhaps the writers felt the need to tone it down a bit after the intensity of the second season. Indeed, Vee’s presence on the show gave us a solid villain after the declawing of Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) at the end of season one. Lorraine Toussaint’s performance as the conniving new badass in town injected new flavor into what many had suspected would be a one note show. Of course, she met her unceremonious demise at the end of the season, and her absence is noteworthy in season three.
Actually, it’s not just her absence, but the absence of any villain in particular that keeps season three feeling somewhat stunted. There’s a decided lack of urgency to any of the inmate’s lives this season; they do little more than simply exist—and their existence is quite cheery, I might add, given the nature of their situation. Never before has prison looked so…relaxing. The women of Litchfield do a whole lot of just hanging out this season, and with that a whole lot of laughing and playing around. Their problems rarely expand beyond “god I’m bored” which, well, is about as exciting as it sounds on paper.
That’s not to say that there are absolutely no stakes. Fights happen. Hearts are broken. Issues are discussed. But the whole thing feels decidedly surface. Plotlines that could’ve gone deep instead stayed safe, to the point where one character’s attempted suicide feels at best tacked on. What could’ve been a shocking look at the nature of depression is played as little more than a thing that happens. I suppose that thing isn’t out of bounds for prison—suicide attempts do, in fact, happen in prison—but narratively speaking, it’s a bit weak. And there’s a lot about season three that feels pretty narratively weak.
I don’t mean to suggest that the whole thing was a complete wash. There were enough high points in the series to keep me from throwing in the towel all together and the show is, somehow, every bit as watchable as it ever was. If there’s a main plot of season three, it has to do with the privatization of Litchfield, and the corporate cluster fuck that ensues thanks to it. This plot provides some of the best moments of the season as we explore the increasingly labyrinthine world of the guards and bureaucrats that operate the microcosmic universe of Litchfield. Comedian Mike Birbiglia is a welcome addition to the season as the new corporate overlord looking over the shoulders of newly promoted warden Caputo (Nick Sandow) to ensure maximum profitability from the prison. This was an interesting dynamic to explore and personally I’m happy to see someone taking a look at this troubling trend of for profit prisons, but even this had a certain lack of depth that left much to be desired.
The season does eventually find its footing, leading to an interesting final few episodes that ultimately save this season from being the disaster it almost was. But boy is it ever a hike to get to the good views on this mountain. While it would be unfair to say that Orange is the New Black has jumped the shark, the show certainly appears to be circling it. Hopefully, this will prove to be a fluke—even the greatest shows have their weak seasons—and not indicative of a Weeds-esque descent into the absurd.
The third season of Orange is the New Black is streaming now on Netflix.