If there’s a mantra for Orange Is the New Black’s third season, it could be the line from The Crow about “mother” being the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children. It’s an unsubtle, meme-worthy sentiment, but then, this season’s metaphors aren’t exactly restrained. The simple logic of cause and effect is constantly being identified throughout the season; “I had a terrible childhood” is the ubiquitous root cause of why this vast, unique community of women ended up in prison. The series is more captivating when it’s exploring motherhood in service of placing its characters on more stable ground than where season two left them, as in Red (Kate Mulgrew) clawing her way back to the kitchen now that she can’t pour her love into Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), who’s fallen back into bad habits. Or watching Taystee (Danielle Brooks) gradually grow into the kind of ersatz maternal figure the black girls in her clique absolutely need.
Other characters don’t fall into new roles with such ease. Long-faced, judgy Leanne (Emma Myles) finds not only a new mother, but a new Jesus in a bizarrely canonized Norma (Annie Golden), who apparently heals with the power of touch—at least that’s what her new gang of prison apostles think. Leanne takes the opportunity to use her newfound sense of self-righteousness about being on good terms with Norma against other inmates. Particularly, Brook (Kimiko Glenn), who spends the season slowly and tragically being broken in half by prison life—and that’s before she’s even landed on Leanne’s radar. Their storyline offers echoes back to Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and Piper (Taylor Schilling) butting heads at their season-one worst. Leanne doesn’t quite scream “psychotic” and “dangerous” the way Pennsatucky did, but she achieves some truly mean moments of fundamentalist nasty. It’s an ironic turn of events, considering this happens in the same season where Pennsatucky becomes a welcome, empathetic presence, finally catching on to the way the wider world works, and Piper is fast on her way to becoming a truly odious human being.
Indeed, this is the season Orange Is the New Black outgrows the need for Piper. Even as the series begins to paint her as a burgeoning minor-league Walter White, this story thread has nothing worthwhile to offer, besides mutating Piper’s unchecked egotistical privilege into something even more hideous. When Piper takes up the crime banner, it’s a mantle she can drop and walk away from at any moment, which renders any sympathy for her troubles nil, and paints her ill-informed decision-making as more pathetic than amusing. In ditching Jason Biggs’s Larry, the showrunners should have set Piper free. Instead, they’ve created a rudderless monster.
Fortunately, the series is able to carry on making the ebb and flow of life at Litchfield matter even in spite of the writers’ efforts to keep Piper at the center. Even the prison guards and a vastly more sympathetic Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) manage to become fully fleshed out characters instead of staid caricatures, mostly thanks to a running plot involving the prison being handed over to private ownership, with comedian Mike Birbiglia as the perfect, sniveling, WASPy corporate stooge sent to keep an eye on the assets. It’s a too-convenient device that allows for some borderline unbelievable scenarios, saved again by the believability of the inmates’ reactions to them.
Ultimately, aside from Piper testing the villainous waters, season three breaks the cycle the previous two established of creating an obvious antagonist. Litchfield is a place of everyday miracles, the kind of place where a simple meal made from real vegetables instead of unappetizing prison slop makes a room full of female prisoners into queens holding court, and 20 minutes swimming in a clear lake on a sunny day is like God’s blessing. Even as idiocy, greed, and malice run rampant, each one of these people is allowed to find the common ground, a great passion, and all the unconditional love one can possibly have into it. The finale allows us to see a group of people literally wiping away the stratified distress of prison, finding forgiveness for the past, the mothers that led them to Litchfield, and no small measure of hope for moving forward. Most importantly, season three painstakingly confirms almost every single one of them deserves it.