This past week I finished watching season three of the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black, starring a cast that is at this point too widely relevant to write them all out. While typically I don’t want to review content without having done so from the beginning, I’ve written about the series previously, and I thought I’d make an exception this time with the latest season still fresh in my mind.
When I last wrote about the series, specifically talking about season two, I praised it for having an evolving narrative. While Piper Chapman and her transition into prison life was the focus of season one, season two evolved the story to encompass the varied cast around Piper more prominently. Season three took this a lot further, in ways that I liked but also had some problems with.
In a way, I’m reminded a lot of Game of Thrones. There isn’t one set protagonist, but many different characters following independent and intersecting storylines that exist in the same world. In the case of Orange is the New Black season three, that world is a lot smaller in the form of Litchfield Penitentiary. While Piper is featured a lot, seeing as she was our protagonist going into the series, episodes do not dwell on her or give that much more weight to her story when compared with others taking place.
On the one hand, I really liked this. Piper’s story only had so much mileage to carry the show, and considering the creators’ desire to tell more than just her story, I was happy to see it go in this direction. This season saw a lot of characters get fleshed out more, many relationships develop and change, and a lot of paradigm shifts for the setting as a whole. This allowed for a wide spectrum of stories to be told, also resulting in some of these plotlines being darker than we’ve ever seen thus far.
This wide range of storylines left this season feeling unfocused to me, however. The closest thing we get to a story that arches the entire season is about Caputo and prison operation, where in seasons one and two their respective major plotlines were more defined and impactful. Instead, we are given a menagerie of different stories to follow. While this never became too cumbersome and they were all compelling, it was also more all over the place than normal.
This lack of a clearer focus became especially problematic to me when faced with stories that took particularly darker turns. I feel that there were so many narratives going on that were given more attention that I’m not confident the less explored yet much darker ones were given as much care and attention as they perhaps should have. This is not to say that they were downright objectionable as a result, just that I feel they could have been more strongly constructed.
All things considered, Orange is the New Black season three is still a solid entry in the series and has me excited to see what comes next. Despite my grievances, characterization and performances throughout were strong, which is more important for this type of series. This show continues to display characters with a lot of dimension to them. They can appear likeable and sympathetic one second, and downright despicable and aggravating the next, leaving them ultimately very human. Not the strongest season, but it set up a lot for stories to develop further in the future.