‘OITNB’ Season 3 changes power dynamics, makes Piper a possible villain

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Before we get into things, let’s clear one thing up: Red did not make the food. She had nothing to do with it, and she’s very sorry.

But actually, the terrible bags of slop that replace genuine cooking in the kitchens are an effortless metaphor for the greater themes in Season 3 of Orange is the New Black. They’re tasteless drudgery, corporate sludge. While they look great on paper economically, in canon, they quickly lose money when everybody swaps over to kosher meals. And they’re isolating. The kitchen has no warmth or heart when the food turns to crap. Comparing the warmth of Red’s dinner parties to the disgust that permeates the cafeteria for most of Season 3, this is immediately apparent. The kitchen hierarchies have caused contention throughout Season 1 and 2, but this season the community and human warmth that came from real cooking is sorely missed.

I would call it Caputo’s season, in the same vein of how Season 1 was Piper’s season.

The themes of corporate apathy lay heavily on the season from the moment Caputo bails out Litchfield by courting a private corporation. Caputo’s life as an employee (and to some extent, his inner life) are explored more deeply than ever in season three. In many ways I would even call it Caputo’s season, in the same vein of how Season 1 was Piper’s season, and Season 2 belongs to Taystee and Poussey. Incredibly, I didn’t despise this.

In theory, the concept of a season of an Orange is the New Black that puts the inmates in the backseat to spotlight the white dude administrator sounds like a bonus level in the circles of hell, but, well, Caputo is interesting. He’s not necessarily likeable, and he’s not always right, but there are a lot of contradicting layers to Caputo that make him fascinating to watch. Caputo is someone who wants so badly to do the right thing, but also wants badly to be thanked for it. This makes him resentful, and at times awful, but also very, very human. How he pushes this trait past its limits of decency is really summed up in his flashback episode, when he raises another man’s baby–doing “the right thing,” but in the pushiest, martyr-iest way possible. It also helps that it doesn’t feel like too much time was sacrificed from the ladies of Litchfield to make room for Caputo’s storylines. In fact, it feels more like he was given the screen time formerly dedicated to Larry, who was nowhere in sight all season (cue a choir of angels.)

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[Piper’s] made it impossible to root for her, because she’s proven repeatedly that
she becomes a jerk when she gets what she wants.

And what was Piper doing without an on again, off again fiancé to hold her attention? Her girlfriend, initially. Piper is finally, officially with Alex this season — and I’m gonna be honest, this is also the season that we learn that Piper is kind of an asshole after she gets the girl. Piper gets Alex thrown back into jail, reunites with her, begs Alex’s forgiveness and against all odds gets it — then totally turns on Alex when she does not meet her bogus expectations. This starts slow and strange, with Piper sniping when Alex won’t hate fuck-her anymore. “Can’t I love-fuck you?” Alex asks, and Piper sneers. It turns even nastier, when Piper starts distancing herself from, being rude to, and eventually cheating on Alex when Alex’s paranoia and (ultimately founded) fear of getting axed by her former drug cronies makes her not a fun gal to pal around the cell block to make out with.

With her ruthless role as the ring leader of a used panty ring this season, it’s a strong possibility that Piper is on the road to villainy (not Walter White, but Walter White-ing, as her brother says). I hope this happens, because it would at least make her bearable to watch. Piper is at her best this season when she’s not pretending to be nice, and when she’s a little bit off the rails–when she sets Stella up to go to max, or when she’s giving herself ink, muttering crazily over the buzz of the tattoo gun. She’s made it impossible to root for her, because she’s proven repeatedly that she becomes a jerk when she gets what she wants. But as a villain, inevitably doomed? There might be some potential left there.

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Poussey, who is as endearing as Piper is irritating, is so achingly lonely this season.

Luckily, Orange is the New Black has no shortage of truly heroic underdogs to pick up the slack. Poussey, who is as endearing as Piper is irritating, is so achingly lonely this season that I desperately wished I could leap into my laptop screen and hug her. It was so wonderful to see her connect with the equally lost Soso at the end of the season. Soso is a motormouth and clearly privileged, but she’s also sweet and idealistic–watching that get crushed all season was heartbreaking. If Season 4 is just the tender courtship of Soso and Poussey, I’ll mark 2016 a banner year.

There’s also Suzanne Warren, who somehow manages to be the breakout character of the season in a completely different way every year. Her popularity as a surrealist erotic fiction writer was a bright spot in an otherwise nihilistic season. Suzanne has had such incredible growth since she slid in through the gate and peed on Piper’s floor in season one, going from the butt of every joke, to Vee’s watchdog, to someone carving out her own corner of friendship and creativity in the harsh world of federal prison.

And of course, there’s Taystee, whose big laugh and heart of gold lights up every scene she is in. Taystee takes on a much more maternal role throughout the season, watching over Suzanne, telling Cindy when she needs to back off, and fretting tirelessly over Poussey, whose melancholy drives her to guzzling prison hooch. At the end of the season, Taystee has a horrified moment when she realizes that she has become the de facto leader of her clique, and begrudgingly accepts it.

Taystee is at a crossroads alight, with tremendous possibilities right now. She exists as one of Orange is the New Black‘s first leadership roles who oversees with love instead of harsh terror — even Red, who loves her girls fiercely, was ruthless when she ruled the kitchens. It will be interesting to see if Taystee will be able to retain the strong currents of integrity and sweetness that run through her while making hard decisions — particularly as a foil to Piper, whose potential for goodness looks like it will only continue to shrivel.

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This season’s emotional tether would have to belong to the Latina women.

But if Taystee, Poussey, and Suzanne have the potential to be the heart of the show next season, this season’s emotional tether would have to belong to the Latina women. Family ties and the give and take of motherhood weigh on Gloria, Aleida, Daya, and even Flaca to some extent. Much of this revolves around Daya, as she prepares to (finally) give birth to her prison baby. Aleida has rarely been a very good mother to Daya, but this season, we see shades of how very hard she tries, and how she struggles with selfishness, and knows that she does, but still loves, loves, loves her daughter.

We also see Gloria as she struggles with her relationship with her son. Gloria worries that by not being around, her son will grow up too angry, and too tough, and what seems at first like the perfect solution–her boy carpooling to visitation with Sophia’s family so she can spend more time with him–quickly causes a rift between both women as their kids lash out at the world in angry ways, and they blame each other. The feud spirals into violence that Sophia takes the horrible brunt of, and Gloria ends the season carrying the heavy and unresolved guilt of this.

Gloria’s guilt is nothing against Sophia’s predicament, when after she is made the victim of transphobic violence, she is shuttled off to solitary confinement “for her own protection.” At the end of the season, Sophia is still in the Shoe, and while I know it’s a scenario that has to come to a head in Season 4, there’s something about Sophia being forced to stew in this injustice for a year of real time that makes me really uncomfortable.

Season 3 ends itself on a more open ended note than ever seen before on Orange is the New Black. Sophia is in isolation, Piper is on the brink of megalomania and Alex’s fate is completely up in the air after she comes face-to-face with a hitman. The corporate underpinnings that shaped so much of the season are poised on the brink of collapse, and in the last moments of the finale, a new and uncharted shipment of inmates are ferried into Litchfield. It’s a season marked by hopelessness, but a game changer in terms of power structures and dynamics.

And the food still sucks. But of course, Red had nothing to do with it.

Images via Netflix

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