Hands up, who’s still rooting for Piper? Though she was certainly never the most likeable lead, she had her moments. She’s self-centred, selfish and ignorant to other people’s feelings yes, but she had a certain charm about it at the same time. She was, after all, our Piper. She was our “in” into Litchfield Penitentiary, we were introduced to the prison through her, with her opinions, prejudices and preconceptions of her fellow inmates colouring our own. But somewhere along the line the show became less about her, and more about those other inmates she judged as being lower than her, and in turn, it exposed her as being – by quite some distance – one of the least relatable of characters on offer. If anyone was sat on the fence about Piper heading into season three they’re unlikely to still be by the season’s end.
Piper’s turn to darker territories is a slow burn. She may proclaim to be “quite gangster”, but as her brother points out she’s “Walter White-ing”, as opposed to fully Breaking Bad initially. We pick up with Piper’s reunion with her on again off again girlfriend Vause (Laura Prepon), who Piper (Taylor Schilling) has indirectly landed back in jail. When a new work position opens making “high end” lingerie for the company that now owns and runs the prison, Piper soon realises that excess material is going to waste and begins making additional pairs of women’s underwear to be worn by her fellow inmates, snuck out of the prison by doddering new guard (Alan Aisenberg) and passed onto Piper’s brother (Michael Chernus) to be sold online to people who are apparently into that sort of thing.
Vause, however, is not the partner in crime that Piper expects, and so leaves her to her own personal struggles with paranoia to link up with the instantly likeable new inmate Stella (Ruby Rose), who she ultimately cheats on Vause with. If cheating and generally being a terrible human being wasn’t enough, Piper’s sensational betrayal of Stella at the season’s climax is a gut-wrenching moment of power play and the moment that she completes her 180 and becomes the show’s coldest inmate.
Much more so this season than in the first two the status quo was threatened more by external forces (the ominous possibility of the prison being closed) rather than internal forces (such as Pennsatucky in season one, or Vee in season two), with any internal struggles being on a more personal level, like Dayanara’s (Dascha Polanco) battle over whether to keep the child she about to give birth to, or to send it off to a better life. This undoubtedly helped to keep things fresh and meant the avoidance of repeated storylines. For a series based in such an enclosed setting, the showrunners have done an excellent job of keeping the stories fresh, whilst avoiding prison drama stereotypes and cliches.
The show’s ability to subvert from what we’ve come to expect from the characters and the stories that they weave continues to be a strong point. Vause finds herself stalked by a new inmate she’s convinced is out to get her, with the show pulling a double bait and switch on the audience. Meanwhile, the hard-headed Red (Kate Mulgrew) shows her softer side to the person you’d least expect her to, the supposed good egg Bennett (Matt McGorry) heartbreakingly abandons his unborn child and the voice of the people Caputo (Nick Sandow) betrays his morals due to an entitled sense that he deserves more.
It’s to Orange is the New Black’s credit that even in their darkest moments, the vast majority of the cast of characters remain incredibly likeable. It’s well fleshed out and consistently relatable array of inmates should be the envy of most every other current TV show. This season more than ever the message that these ladies all have goodness in them despite their flaws was driven home. There’s no greater example of this than Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) who began life on the show as season one’s meth-addled ‘big bad’ and now finds herself as possibly its most sympathetic character and as close to a lead as any of the other ladies. Piper may be front and centre on the show’s marketing but there’s no longer one true lead, but instead an ensemble of excellent characters excellently performed.
For a season featuring heavy themes such as gender (and transgender) equality, sexual violence, faith and depression it’s remarkable just how uplifting Orange is the New Black is, and no more so is this the case than in the pitch-perfect season finale. It highlights one of the show’s other, less heavy, yet still important themes – the bonds of friendship – to the backdrop of a horde of new inmates arriving at Litchfield. Something tells me those bonds are going to be tested with the new inmates in town and Piper ruling the roost.
Moving, often hilarious and impeccably performed, Orange is the New Black season three proved to be another hugely successful trip to Litchfield Penitentiary. Praise be to Norma!
Rating (out of 5):