The ladies of Litchfield are back. S3 presents a kinder, gentler prison series that is more expansive in its storytelling, even if it lacks a sense of urgency.
Let’s bitch it out…
3×01 ‘Mother’s Day’
After removing the key antagonist in the S2 finale, ‘Mother’s Day’ is a reboot of sorts. After a year without new episodes, 3×01 is a broad overview of where we left off with all of our characters. It offers a few tantalizing hints of conflicts and heartbreaks to come, but in general this is a fairly chill episode. Not unlike the first episode of season two, this episode is a break from tradition – ‘Thirsty Bird’ was a Piper-centric episode that didn’t include anyone from Litchfield; ‘Mother’s Day’ is unique because no single individual receives all of the flashbacks. Instead we get brief tasters from a number of folks (seemingly at random), all organized around the titular holiday at the prison. Apparently Mother’s Day is like Christmas at a women’s prison (makes sense) and the entire population is working to make it a special day. This fact doesn’t always sit well with the childless and the orphaned, who are pressed into service despite the fact that it is a decidedly less celebratory day for them.
If there is one big take-away from this first episode back, it is a strange lack of conflict. Premieres are, by their very nature, a different kind of television because they have to reintroduce all of the dangling plot threads. Leaving Vee dead on the side of the road removes some of the urgency, but throughout the hour, as we touch in with familiar faces, it is clear that there are a number of residual issues that can (and likely will) come to the fore in the next few episodes. This includes (in no particular order):
- Big Boo’s (Lea DeLaria) emerging friendship with Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning). Here it takes the form of counselling the newly shorn meth head about the silver lining inherent in her five abortions.
- Boo is also getting into bed with Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) in their plot to move Vee’s heroin – currently stashed in the air vent in the laundry room.
- That could be tough considering Red (Kate Mulgrew) makes a seemingly hasty decision to cover up the drug tunnel in the greenhouse in anticipation of her release in two year’s time. The excitement on that may dim, however, since Red also learns that Piper (Taylor Shilling) lied to her about how well her shop on the outside is doing (reminder: it’s dunso).
- In Piper news, her anonymous report that Alex (Laura Prepon) violated her parole pays off when the “hot one” is sent back to prison, looking both embarrassed and frightened.
- Vee’s memory looms large over the black contingent, particularly Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) who lashes out at anyone who takes her former mentor’s name in vain.
- Finally, there’s still tension in Daya (Dascha Polanco) & Bennett’s (Matt McGorry) relationship, though it’s mostly to do with Mama Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who isn’t exactly mother of the year material.
On the whole, ‘Mother’s Day’ is a solid reintroduction to the characters and the aforementioned percolating issues. As a standalone episode it has some genuinely amusing moments (the candy-less pinata, Black Cindy yelling at the kids at the ping pong table, Pennsatucky’s 5 B-named abortions), some heartfelt moments (Jessica Pimentel’s Ruiz perfect day ruined when her baby daddy refuses to bring their baby back to the prison) and some just plain emotionally manipulative moments (the mother who abandons her baby to do coke in the toilet; the woh-woh red balloon floating skyward after the alarm sounds). All in all, this is an effective premiere, despite the lack of a real hook.
- Kimiko Glenn’s Soso (surveying the kids and the empty pinata): “It’s like a metaphor for their lives!”
3×02 ‘Bed Bugs And Beyond’
3×02 takes the same general survey approach of ‘Mother’s Day’, but anchors it to an amusing comedic premise. After an outbreak of bed bugs is discovered in the opening scene, Litchfield turns into a nudist camp / paper dress factory. It’s a very amusing conflict, albeit one that is skin-deep: at times the infestation seems more like an excuse to parade Litchfield’s bodies around half-naked or in a series of amusing costumes (my favourite is Alex’s garbage bag dress because it perfectly matches her glasses!) Funny? Definitely. But unfortunately it doesn’t go much beyond silly comedy, leaving the majority of the episode to busily check in on everyone.
Part of the problem may simply be that Orange Is The New Black is filled with so many interesting and dynamic characters that sitting a few of them out for even an episode is unthinkable. Still, with such a large cast, it can be difficult to ensure that we spend more than a few minutes with any of them (a similar problem has cropped up on fellow Netflix series, Sense8). I’m not complaining too much because I enjoy approximately 98% of these characters, but heading into the third episode there’s still a lack of urgency in the slow roll-out of so many stories.
That may change quickly, however, after Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) learns that Litchfield is scheduled to be closed in two months and no one knew. This blindside helps to recontextualize the bed bug outbreak from an amusing episode-long visual gag into a more institutional/systemic issue. Initially I thought Caputo would learn that the bed bugs are just a persistent issue in prisons (sort of like Figueroa’s ongoing issue with the clogged bathroom drain last season). Instead the annoying infestation is reframed as a minuscule problem in the grand scheme of things, just another example of how the prison system fails these women (and the staff who monitor them). I wonder how Caputo’s happy, new prison reforms will look now that he no longer has any investment in Litchfield?
- As predicted, the Diaz/Bennett baby drama escalates when Mama Diaz secretly invites Pornstache’s mom (Mary Steenburgen) to visit in the hope of securing a handout. It’s another painful realization that the lie they told is headed for a future where baby is separated from mother. The fairytale romance holds out a bit longer when Bennett proposes, but this is sharply contrasted when he visits Diaz’s family and witnesses the deplorable condition that the kids are living in. Suddenly Pornstache’s mother doesn’t look like such a bad option. There are probably fewer guns pulled for not eating microwaved french fries in her house.
- Our flashbacks belong to Bennett, who we learn never actually saw active combat and lied about how he lost his leg. Most revealing of all is the fact that there is a video of a bare chested Bennett doing a sing-along to Gwen Stefani’s ‘Hollaback Girl’ somewhere out on the Internet. Is this a real thing that exists?!
- I quite liked the Red scenes. She quickly puts Piper in her place for lying, then makes another impromptu decision to restrict her husband from visiting. Healy (Michael Harney), perhaps projecting his own marriage issues, not only challenges Red, he issues her a verbal smackdown and boots her out of his office. I like their relationship because it is so very unconventional.
- Nichols and Big Boo go to make their move, but the drugs are gone. My money is on the laundry girls, though Electrician Luschek (Matt Peters) could just as easily be the culprit.
- When Alex continues to unravel, Piper makes a capital mistake and confesses her role in Alex’s re-arrest. Alex calls her a manipulative bitch, Piper gets introspective and they have hate sex in the library. DO NOT CARE.
- Finally, I applaud the ladies for their ingenuity after their mattresses are removed to be burned. They really come up with a plethora of creative solutions and alternatives, including (but likely not restricted to): pads, leaves and cream around the legs of the bed frame. Piper’s roll of toilet paper for a pillow is uninspired, as expected.
- Mama Diaz (discussing Pornstache, his dentist brother and art historian brother): “So you raised a sadist, a dentist and a homo. Two sadists and a homo”
- “That’s my colour, I’m wearing it”
- Black Cindy (countering the argument she’s neglected her hygiene): “I’ve been washing my pits, tits and naughty bits”
- Suzanne (after nearly attacking Pennsatucky): “I will potato her at a future time.”
- Leanne (to Soso): “If you say bean leaves one more time, I’m going to punch you in the fuckhole. One of them at least.”
3×03 ‘Empathy Is A Boner Killer’
The third episode brings to a close the first of S3’s mini-arcs as Nichols’ drug scheme ends disastrously. We learn via flashbacks that Nichols’ addiction has always manifested itself as a selfish destructive streak, a fact that isn’t all that unique. Drug addicts are frequently depicted as selfish and in that respect, Nichols is no different. What’s interesting about the sober version of Nichols we see in Litchfield is that she has a self-awareness that isn’t present in her flashbacks. The reveal that she is the one responsible for stealing Vee’s heroin is less about selfishness than it is about self-preservation: Nichols is worried about the drugs getting back into the system where she will have access to them. In this sense Nichols is smart because she’s aware of her limits and she uses Luschek to help ensure that the temptation is removed. Unfortunately, as we’ve already seen when she moved the drugs the first time, when it comes to her addictive, Nichols is her own worst enemy. The fact that she keeps a small stash, unbeknownst to Luschek, isn’t surprising; it’s the logical end to a story about a girl who literally can’t help but tear her life apart for her vice. And so down the hill she goes to maximum security (hopefully not forever).
The other significant development in ‘Empathy Is A Boner Killer’ is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for the prison’s future. Caputo blackmails Fig (Alysia Reiner) for a favour and while she can’t use her newly elected husband’s connections, she does have an ace up her sleeve in the form of privatization! As a Canadian, the concept of private prisons is a foreign concept, but I imagine that this will introduce a whole host of new complications into the day to day operations (and likely combat all of the pleasant niceties introduced by Caputo throughout his brief tenure). This is a nice reminder that Caputo does legitimately believe in Litchfield and will do whatever he needs to to protect its staff. It should be interesting to see just what this change in management will entail.
- I just can’t with the Piper/Alex stuff. They spend the episode having hot, angry sex until Rogers’ (Marsha Stephanie Blake) acting class forces them to “act out” their issues. I did enjoy Piper’s dedication to maintaining the scenario with her extended fruit metaphor, though.
- There’s a connection growing between Red and Healy. They’ve always had respect for each other, but the moment that Red defends him to his Russian mail-order bride feels like the start of something new…possibly something romantic.
- The most amusing part of the episode is Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) eulogizing the burnt books. Love these two together.
- There’s something more happening with Norma (Annie Golden) than meets the eye. For now her “powers” are being used for comedic effect – most memorably when the meth heads in laundry believe Nichols’ heroin is the result of Norma’s spell – but this is a quietly recurring story line. I have the feeling this will grow into something some substantial throughout the season.
- Finally: after playing a pivotal role in last episode, Bennett is completely absent here. Daya is clearly unaware of where he’s gone, which only serves to make his disappearance that much more intriguing.
- Nichols (when Luschek threatens to give her a shot): “For not giving you heroin?!”
- Flacas (when Daya suggests she may get married at the courthouse): “A person only gets married once or twice in their life.”
- Sister Ingalls (when Piper argues humans evolved out of incisors): “You’re saying our mouths evolved for blowjobs?”
- Healy (trying to get in the spirit of acting class): “Look who’s late? It’s Alex Voss. You dumb bitch”
- Poussey (listing the books they’ve lost): “All the David Sedaris’ <pause> Sedari?”
- Soso (when Piper and Alex get their improv scenario): “No. You’re never supposed to begin an improv with a transaction”
- Black Cindy (riffing off a previous improve joke): “Uh uh, that’s a dick”
- Figueroa: “So long, beer can.” Caputo: “See you, fangs”
Your turn: what are your thoughts on the first three episodes? Did Mother’s Day underwhelm you as a premiere? Will you miss Nichols? Is something happening between Red and Healy? Will Norma’s reputation as a magician expand? Are you tired of the Alex/Piper drama? Who do you hope gets a flashback this season? Sound off below, but please refrain from discussing future episodes.
Orange Is The New Black is available in its entirety on Netflix. Check back on July 2 when we tackle episodes 4-8