‘Orange Is the New Black’ season 3 in review

Time to wrap up my coverage of “Orange Is the New Black” season 3 with thoughts on both episodes 11-13 and the season as a whole coming up just as soon as I rebuild my bones with butter…

“It's this place. We are dumped, all of us, in a cage. And it brings out the worst, most selfish parts.” -Gloria

It's been more than a month since “Orange” season 3 debuted, and while a traditionally-scheduled show would still have the rest of the summer to finish out its run, most of you consumed these 13 episodes within a week or two of their release. At this stage of things, I think that's the right way to go. Not every show is built to be binged – not even every Netflix or Amazon show – but “Orange” absolutely is, and I'd like to watch season 4 in much shorter order, if only to see if some of the issues I had with season 3 had to do with how I artificially prolonged my viewing of it, rather than actual choices made by Jenji Kohan and company.

Watched at my pace, at least, season 3 definitely felt like a step down from season 2.

For starters, it lacked the unifying element that Vee provided a year ago. The corporatization of the prison – and the way the executives saw even less humanity in the prisoners than the previous regime did – was perhaps meant to fill a similar role, but with the relatively reasonable and human Danny as the primary corporate boots on the ground, it didn't have the same emotional impact. Some of the end results – Pennsatucky being raped by a guard like Coates who had no business working there in the first place, or Sophia being thrown in solitary in an attempt to discourage a lawsuit – were chilling, and the closing images of bunk beds being installed so Litchfield can accommodate twice the prisoners suggests things may get rougher next year, but the corporate material worked in fits and starts this season, and only sometimes seemed to be directly affecting the stories of many of the prisoners.

The show also moved back in a more overtly comical direction than season 2, and the lighter side of “Orange” has always been its more uneven side. There were moments when Piper's illegal panty operation or Norma's cult felt just as funny and satirical as intended (say, during the montage of the panty business in full bloom, or Piper's patriotic speech at the picnic table), and others where they became too broad and pushed the idea too far.

And the generosity the show has continued to demonstrate towards its entire ensemble showed its downside this year. While the first-time flashbacks tend to be the strongest, there were a few this year like Flaca's that were lacking a strong enough reason for being other than a desire to showcase someone who had been a relatively minor character to that point. The repeat flashbacks were also a mixed bag – Nicky and Alex's both just repeated character themes we already knew, but Pennsatucky's put her rape into even more powerful context – and the need to both do flashbacks in every episode and service the ever-expanding cast meant certain storylines got short shrift.

In isolation, Cindy's conversion to Judaism was not only my favorite moment of the whole season, but an illustration of what “Orange Is the New Black” is all about, in the way it took a ridiculous idea, and a mostly ridiculous character, and found a devastating emotional truth inside the union of the two. The room got very dusty as the rabbi told Cindy to ask him again, and yet as soon as the scene ended, all I could think about was how much I wished there had been even a single moment in a previous episode that suggested Cindy had found something interesting in the Jewish religion beyond continued access to the prison kosher meal. We didn't have to be beaten over the head with the idea, but it ultimately felt like it came out of nowhere, despite a great performance from Adrienne Moore in that scene.

On the other hand, season 3 did a fine job illustrating the multitudes that so many of these people – prisoner and prison staffer alike – can contain. The Caputo flashbacks in episode 11, for instance, nicely illustrated how his good guy attitude is simultaneously admirable and an annoying martyr pose, and we saw throughout the season how Healy can be horrible at his job so much of the time, as we saw with his clumsy handling of Soso, and still have the ability to help a prisoner like Red.

There was a lot going on – even with certain threads like Alex's future (or lack thereof), or Sophia being in isolation, or whether Maritza is also going to get raped by Coates – left hanging for next year – and the impromptu lakeside party in the closing minutes were designed to bring as much of it together as possible, like Daya and Aleida finally making peace, or Poussey (desperate for a girlfriend) and Soso (desperate for friends) connecting in the water. But even that couldn't handle everything, and it's interesting to see Piper absent from the season's climactic event for the second year in a row. (At least she was right near the Christmas pageant when she was beating up Pennsatucky at the end of season 1.)

Maybe watched in a shorter period, I'd have felt more connected to some of these stories. Or maybe season 3 would have felt uneven – at times reminding you why this is one of TV's best shows, at others stumbling around – even if I'd raced through the whole thing in that first weekend.

Some other thoughts from these last three episodes:

* Because most of you were way ahead of me, I had to wait a while to see where all the chatter about Piper being so unlikable this season was coming from. Then I got to episode 10, which included her firing Flaca and smugly dismissing Alex's concerns about the business as jealousy, and I completely understood. Given that a large chunk of the audience already found Piper annoying to begin with, having her do a full heel turn like this – including setting up Stella to go to max as punishment for stealing her money –  is a more surprising, and probably smarter, way to go than trying to make her sympathetic again. I'm sure that's coming at some point next year, but Pipes had definitely broken bad.

* Poor Vince has no idea just how much crazy he has signed up for in marrying Morello. Still, their wedding was an amusing comic set piece, and also continued the great work the show has been doing in the background for a few seasons with Bell and O'Neill.

* I liked that the season opened and closed with episodes featuring flashbacks from multiple prisoners, and in both cases dealing with complicated parental relationships. And I still want a longer Young Healy flashback.

* What Aleida does to Pornstache's mom is cruel, even if she thinks she's doing the right thing for Daya. Given that the kids are now wards of the state after Cesar's arrest – and raise your hand if you were very worried about the baby's safety as Cesar was fighting off the cops with his granddaughter in one arm – having Delia as an option to take in the baby (if not Daya's siblings) would be awfully useful right now.

* I wonder what Pennsatucky and Boo are going to do now that they've realized Coates is very likely to do the same thing to Maritza. Had Penn gone to the authorities right away, they could have done a rape kit, but that moment's past.

* There are times when the show treats Litchfield as second cousin to summer camp – including the stuff at the lake in the finale – but the assault on Sophia was a reminder that there are some nasty, dangerous people in that place. Given Laverne Cox's increasingly high profile and interest in working elsewhere (she has a CBS pilot that's being redeveloped for next season), I wonder if the plan is to keep Sophia in isolation for most, if not all, of next season.

* For that matter, Nicky never returned from max, and I don't expect Stella to, either. The show has been fairly consistent, going back to Miss Claudette, on that being a one-way journey.

* As expected, Blair Brown's Judy King turns up at Litchfield in the finale (with Richard Masur as her husband), and I look forward to seeing her interact with all her fans next season – and also to see how quickly the show decides to let Judy be more than an easy Paula Deen parody.

* Soso, who came to Litchfield early in season 2, mentions being there for six months, and of course Daya's pregnancy lasted around 9 months. That means that so far, the show has tried to have each season cover about three months. Piper's initial sentence was 15 months, so if she didn't get parole – or didn't get her sentence extended for, say, running an organized crime ring out of Litchfield – the show could run five seasons before having to decide whether to continue without her.

So that's it for me this season. As suggested above, I don't think I'm going to take this weekly approach again next year, and will simply watch them all and weigh in at the end, however long that takes. I like being able to look at some of these individual moments from episode to episode, but not enough to continue this particular experiment.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com