The third season of Orange is the New Black stayed remarkably consistent with the quality of the first two years, and though it lacked a compelling ongoing storyline comparable to Piper's first year adjustment to the prison or Vee's reign of terror in season two, the return to the more humorous nature of the first season helped the more episodic storytelling this year to be just as entertaining as ever.
Even though I thoroughly enjoyed Orange this season, I will say that for the first time, as the show dispensed with some of the series regulars in favor of more exploration of the smaller side characters, we do get a taste of the acting limits in the massive ensemble the show has employed in a way that we hadn't seen before, perhaps with good reason. The true value of Taylor Schilling's Piper as the lead of the series seemed to assert itself as more necessary than the show may have realized, and not just Piper as a narrative device to introduce us to this world, but Schilling as a good actress more than capable of carrying the series and multiple storylines in a way some of these other actors probably are not. For example, this year saw the early exits of fan favorite Natasha Lyonne's Nicky, and Matt McGorry's Bennett, and some new focus on characters who were extremely minor in the past, like Chang, Norma, Leanne and Flaca, now getting their own backstories and ongoing prison arcs.
And every single one of those backstories and arcs were essentially unneeded, as far as I could tell. I'm sorry, but Norma running a prison cult couldn't have been a sillier subplot this season, and Flaca's mistaken arrest for selling phony drugs didn't do a thing to develop her character or make her at all interesting in the present day. I'm not saying they've reached the limit on interesting characters who reside in the prison walls (I'd still like to see flashbacks for Maritza and Yoga Jones, for example, but since the actresses singled out this year also didn't leave much of an impression on the material they had to work with...let's just say it made me think the original regulars were regulars for a reason).
But enough with the negative- this season was filled with fantastic moments alongside some irrelevant side stuff. The "Mother's Day" premiere episode was among the best the show has ever done, and the recurring season long theme of motherhood worked wonders for some of our best characters, most perfectly the relationship between Daya and Aleida, which culminates as Daya finally gives birth to her baby and wonders whether to keep the child given her circumstances. Another outstanding plotline this year belonged to Pennsatucky (or Tiffany Doggett), whose relationship with Boo continued to develop and who had been sidelined last year only to come back with a subtle and layered performance from Taryn Manning, who proves she can handle whatever she's given, as she battles the darkest part of the season- the recurring attentions of a predatory prison guard who sets his sights on her with tragic consequences, made even worse by Tiffany's revelatory backstory. (Hint to the show: Taryn Manning deserves as much screentime as possible and she's got a great character to work with who justifies the extra focus).
Taylor Schilling herself was given lighter material this season, as she resumes her passionate, love/hate relationship with the returning Laura Prepon's Alex, and then takes it upon herself to become a panty-producing prison "godmother," as it were, but Schilling's handling of all this once again proved that she can handle dramatic and comedic subject matter and ace all of it, making me notice that while we may spend some filler time with people like Leanne and her silly Amish flashback story, Piper alone is interesting, even when she's selfish and self-absorbed, and her brother Cal adds to riotousness with a bigger recurring role this year as her partner in crime in the outside world (much easier to spend time with than Larry, who's now thankfully gone). How can she produce panties you might ask? Well, that brings us to the actual throughline of the season, which was the takeover of Litchfield by a private corporation, a situation produced by new administrative head Caputo (Nick Sandow) in order to save it, and who becomes a co-lead this year as he battles the new owners and their designs on the prison, which involve giving out sludge for food to save money, using the prisoners to make the lingerie in question, and hiring new guards with no training, which endangers the inmates in ways both anticipated and not.
The struggles of running a prison for profit is interesting, especially with the real world implications it involves and Sandow is great as the well-meaning but long suffering Caputo, who wants to help both the staff and the inmates but finds himself often on the other side of the business, but it's just not quite as intriguing as Vee and her villainous plotting within the prison and among the various subgroups last year. Still, I give the show a lot of credit for drawing attention to this issue at all, which is important and not nearly given enough voice in the public. Maybe Jenji Kohan does want to make a political statement here, on top of all the raunchy, comedic moments that stand out as the memorable ones of the season (Healy and Red's weird, unrequited romance and Lorna's ultimately requited one with with a new guy she finds while wooing pen pal suitors). And did I forget to mention two of the best season long subplots? Suzanne and her smut novel that becomes a prison sensation leading to her finding an actual, real life love interest (awww!) and Cindy's quest to convert to Judaism for the kosher meals ultimately culminating in a genuine and touching moment as she realizes in front of a rabbi that she does want to be changed for the better. This is a show with so many great moments and great characters that even the irrelevant subplots are quickly drowned out by the great ones, and whatever missteps I found here that didn't exist for me in the first two years were more than made up for by all the classic scenes that added up to a very good season indeed. I just love this show, guys.