“People need love.”
It’s a simple statement, but a real one. Especially for the ladies of Litchfield, who struggle with a simple but desperate desire to be appreciated for whom they are, a desire to be loved. Though there is a strong undercurrent of fear and suspicion that runs through the prison, most of the bitchiness, back stabbing, and betrayal that goes on throughout season three of OITNB comes from the characters’ inability to relate to and understand one another. But unlike previous seasons, in which one or two characters were specifically villainized and others (usually Piper) were put in the role of protagonist, this season focused on the collective and individual stories of each character, exploring their flaws and strengths and humanizing them through the show’s flashback-heavy narrative.
In this exploration, the show’s third season moves away from storylines centered on Piper, switching around to focus on the characters that actually deserve sympathy like Poussey, Dayanara, and Soso. Though Piper is still a main character, we finally get to watch her become the truly terrible, self-righteous bitch we always knew she could be, acting like a stereotypical white girl in her inability to look beyond her own experiences and desires. More entitlement and selfishness ooze from her with each episode as she enters into the business of selling panties worn by her and other inmates (sneaking out the “merchandise” through her brother) and fucks over pretty much everyone who interacts with her for either business or pleasure. The spotlight (or perhaps just my interest and sympathy) is really stolen away from Piper by the stronger focus on the other characters’ pasts. This season is made up of flashbacks that reveal not just how the other inmates became prisoners, but how they became the women they are, the experiences that shaped their lives as they grew up as well as the circumstances leading to their eventual incarceration.
The social commentary in the show also takes a new turn, directly addressing issues of religion, sexism, and racism. Across episodes 7, 8, and 9, the storyline of Norma and her quasi-cult is fascinating because Leanne so clearly becomes exactly the kind of person she should abhor, isolating and casting Soso out just as the Amish elders did to her and displaying how deeply she internalized the shame and guilt they laid upon her. Similarly, in the finale we see how Watson and Cindy suffered under the oppressive religions of their fathers, but, unlike Leanne, Cindy is able to move past her negative experiences and find acceptance in opening herself up to Judaism. During the scene of Cindy’s conversion conversation with the rabbi, I suddenly found myself weeping with an intensity I could have never seen coming from a storyline that began as a joke in episode 6.
Like Cindy, many of the other inmates are given multi-episode subplots that are as deeply emotional as they are humorous, and the balance between pathos and laughter is often well negotiated. But as the season progresses, the stakes are raised and the darker narratives take a few turns for the worse; transphobia once again rears its ugly head, as does sexual violence. Unlike in previous seasons, these issues are actually treated with the serious portrayals they demand, a due and necessary emphasis placed on the silencing of victims that is so pervasive, systematically and individually in our society. In the last two episodes of the season, Sophia and Gloria’s headbutting comes to a brutal culmination as Sophia is brutally attacked by other inmates in a clear hate crime. After the attack, Sophia demands better training in crisis prevention/handling as well as sensitivity and threatens to take her story to a lawyer and the media if they don’t take her demands seriously. Sophia’s refusal to stand down is heartening— or it would be if there were any actual justice delivered, but as too often happens in real life, the (white, straight, cis) men in charge value their profit over her personhood so Litchfield’s solution is to place her in SHU (Solitary Housing Unit) “for her own protection,” essentially blaming her for her own persecution.
The end of this season continues to confront feminist issues without shying away from brutally realistic violence. Pennsatucky is raped by a guard with whom she had been developing an ominously friendly relationship— ominous because the development of their relationship is interspersed with flashbacks revealing the bleakly consistent pattern of violent rape and victim-blaming and shaming that have shaped Pennsatucky’s life since her early entry to puberty. Anticipating the uselessness of the administration, Boo helps Pennsatucky take a different route for protection against her own attacker knowing they will get none from the prison that employs him, and her support and validation give Pennstatucky the courage to finally stand up for herself. As Crazy Eyes says to Poussey in a touching moment of resolution between the two in episode 11, people need love.*
The enemy of love is selfishness, and it was selfishness that pervaded Litchfield like bed bugs, leaving welts of fear, anger, and isolation on everyone locked inside—the selfishness of the individual inmates and the memories of their selfishness families; the selfishness of the COs and the corporation that bought Litchfield, unwilling to do anything for the inmates that might hurt their bottom line. Over the course of this season, however, the inmates finally begin to embrace one another, racial and religious boundaries beginning to break down in acceptance, if only temporarily. As the inmates ran into the open air and dove through the glittering water of the lake, they transcended their selfishness, their fear, and their anger and came together in what was easily the most joyful scene of the series.
But though that final scene at the lake leaves us with an impression of tranquility and freedom, we know that feeling is ephemeral. A series of cliffhangers—the yet-unknown news of Alex’s potential murder, the crossing over of Caputo, Aleida’s lie about the baby, and the conflict between Birdie and Healy—loom over the end of season like the head of a thundercloud, promising bigger storms soon to come.
*Except for Healy and Caputo. Bear with me on this brief deviation: I haven’t seen a sadder or more accurate depiction of the stereotypical white straight man since Gaston. Both of these men believe that the world owes them something, that they are entitled to some fucked up reality they’ve crafted in their heads in which they are worshipped for being “good men.” I’m sorry but I am not having it— y’all have not done shit for anyone but your sorry selves. Healy resents every woman he sets eyes on (apparently because he had a batshit insane mother, not that that’s any excuse), but for all his talk he is, as Soso puts it, really bad at his job. He does not make the slightest attempt to relate to these women, he just patronizes and mansplains until they are so tired of hearing him talk they leave. Caputo seems like an okay guy until shit starts hitting the fan and we get the full scope of his problem nicely summed up by the flashback of his ex girlfriend, after he claims he wasted his life to save her: “I didn’t need saving! …You spend your whole life holding the door open for people and getting angry when they don’t say thank you.” Both Healy and Caputo see themselves as menschs and martyrs and resent any and everyone who doesn’t see them the same way, despite the fact that they make no real effort to help unless someone is around to praise them for it. Though I appreciate the cultural commentary, I sincerely hope we will be seeing less of them next season; this is one of the few television shows premised upon a women-driven narrative— let’s keep it that way.
Equally well versed in the intricacies of The Lord of the Rings and The Black Album, Caroline is a Virginia-bred writer/filmmaker living in Brooklyn. She is strongly opinionated about French fry variations, Ciara, underrated animals (lemurs, goats), and gender issues. Her personal essays can be found on her website and Femsplain; her shorter and more belligerent musings can be found on Twitter @CPConrad