“Orange is the New Black” Seasons 1-2? Must-watch, effortlessly binge-able television. “Orange is the New Black” Season 3? I hate to say it, but my faith was shaken.
(BEWARE: Copious spoilers below!)
What the hell happened? While there was a lot to like this season — including the further humanization of Pennsatucky and the moving expansion of Daya and Aleida's rocky relationship — I came away disappointed overall. Below are 7 major reasons why I think the latest season fell short of expectations.
1. The flashback structure felt forced
In Seasons 1 and 2, the flashbacks felt organically woven in with whatever was happening inside the prison walls. They served to illuminate motivations, deepen relationships and even function as unfolding secondary plotlines that could be equally as gripping as the shenanigans transpiring at Litchfield (see: the Vee/Taystee flashbacks from Season 2). In Season 3, the flashback structure felt much clumsier. Too often they felt compulsory rather than dramatically necessary (i.e. Leanne's Amish storyline, Flaca's deadly “drug” scheme). I love the way “OITNB” illuminates the inner lives of women who are ordinarily rendered one-note ciphers on lesser television series, but the writing this season failed to make their backstories feel seamless.
2. There was no gripping central storyline to provide momentum.
In Season 1, Alex and Piper's on-again, off-again relationship provided much of the drama. In Season 2, Vee's dirty dealings provided narrative drive. In Season 3, the prison-privatization storyline was the closest we got to an “A” story, but it just wasn't as engrossing as needed to give the season the proper thrust. Piper's “dirty prison panties” business was a fun plotline, sure, but it wasn't dynamic enough to keep me invested.
3. Black Cindy's inelegantly-handled conversion plotline
I'll start by saying that Adrienne C. Moore absolutely killed it this season. I've always loved her on the show as a sort of “court jester” presence, but her Big Dramatic Monologue proved she's capable of far more than we were previously aware of. The big problem with Black Cindy's conversion to Judaism is a result of weak writing. Her speech to the rabbi was moving thanks to Moore's Emmy-worth performance, but it didn't get the proper buildup throughout the rest of the season. The turn would have been far more dramatically satisfying if we'd been given some indication previously that her kosher meal-motivated conversion had evolved into something deeper. Unfortunately, her tear-stained speech felt like it came out of nowhere.
4. There weren't enough “woah” moments.
Seasons 1 and 2 kept me coming back by offering a succession of reveals and cliffhangers that kept the dramatic momentum going. The closest this season got was with Pennsatucky's rape at the hands of new prison guard Charlie (one of this season's most dramatically satisfying storylines overall) and Piper's heartless revenge on Stella in the finale. There just weren't enough of them to keep the season from feeling like a slog.
5. I didn't care about Stella and Piper's relationship. At all.
There was a lot of buildup to this season's supposed Stella-Piper-Alex love triangle, but it was too dramatically inert to keep me interested. A lot of the problem was with Stella herself, a strikingly beautiful woman (she's played by Australian model and TV personality Ruby Rose) who also just so happens to be one of the dullest inmates ever to walk the halls of Litchfield. Ultimately she seemed to serve no real purpose other than to highlight Piper's descent into mob boss-style behavior. As a character in her own right, she felt like a collection of “edgy” attributes with no soul.
6. Piper's evolution wasn't convincing.
Piper has gone from main character to ensemble player in the span of three seasons, which in many ways is a good thing. Taylor Schiling does what she can with a frequently-irritating character, but this season Piper became truly insufferable. In Seasons 1 and 2 she at least felt consistent, but her transition into malicious panty kingpin didn't really track from the Piper we knew before. She's always been unpredictable — this is, in fact, Piper's defining attribute — but her metamorphosis this season felt like a bridge too far.
7. The big final sequence didn't work nearly as well as it should have.
God, I really wanted to love this. I really, really did. It started out with such promise: when utility workers remove a part of the chain link fence surrounding the prison, the inmates rush out to the nearby lake en masse to take a dip. But while there were scattered moments of beauty as the women frolicked together in the water, some of the emotion felt forced, and it ultimately played as cheese — a truly unfortunate way to end the season. Great idea, lukewarm execution — perhaps an appropriate epitaph for “OITNB” Season 3 overall. Here's hoping they can turn things around next year.