In its third year, Orange is the New Black continues to deliver solid entertainment, and if the material doesn’t seem quite as fresh as it used to be, it’s mostly because it’s walking on ground it already broke. It’s a compulsively watchable series, thanks largely to its cast of well defined characters, its great performers, and its ambitious subject matter.
While the series still loosely orbits the transforming prison experience of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the events of this season break further from her point of view, spreading the love to the series’ many breakout supporting characters. Indeed, Piper’s storylines this year—her tired relationship sparring with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), and her steady climb into more villainous activities—are some of the weakest aspects of the year. Instead, the show’s political mission seems broader, with the writers turning the pressure cooker of Litchfield into a microcosm, a window onto the world’s wider problems.
Perhaps the most interesting and successful plot angle in this regard is a major plot point: the prison’s privatization. In order to avoid shutdown, Litchfield is sold to a money-grubbing corporation emblematic of western capitalism at its worst. The new regime’s callous excesses bring new workplace challenges for quasi-heroic warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), who becomes a thankless punching bag between undervalued guards below him and thoughtless corporate overlords above. This throughline generates plenty of entertaining friction, particularly when one of their initiatives—co-opting the inmates into a sweatshop-like lingerie business—leads to Piper’s descent into entrepreneurial organized crime. Her illicit side business is ludicrous, with the flavor of standard Jenji Kohan shock tactics, but as an experimental, small-scale reflection on corporate greed and labor exploitation, it’s an effective enough device.
Its other forays into metacommentary are successful to varying degrees. The mindless religious zealotry that develops around the mute, reserved Norma (Annie Golden) is unconvincing, if amusingly scathing. More effective is the surge of transphobic conflict that grows around Sophia (Laverne Cox), and the descent of Soso (Kimiko Glenn) into pitch-black depression. Then there’s a bold storyline that leans into frank depiction of rape and its after-effects; it takes the series down the risky, troubling pathways Kohan is known for exploring. The results are shattering without being exploitative, attempting to be sensitive to the tricky ground it walks on.
The overall results are uneven: powerful, riveting, funny, and affecting, but frequently also undercut by tonal inconsistency and edgy over-reaching. Then again, even mishandled reaching suggests ambition; I’ll take that over bland safeness any day. Orange is the New Black still has plenty of gas in the tank.