You’re done binge-watching Orange is the New Black Season Three, right? Right.
In addition to its overarching themes of body ownership, religion, and motherhood, this very excellent season—the best so far, really—again stood out during its flashback segments, in which the show teased out and deepened the histories of the characters, the area where OITNB’s phenomenal ensemble cast really shines. Here are the most compelling, important parts from each episode, about each character. Copious spoilers, obviously, so don’t keep reading if you haven’t watched the entire season.
Focusing on Mother’s Day, each flashback cast some crucial foreshadowing for what would unfold this season. Poussey’s attentive, kind mother set in motion her loneliness and search for real love, through the numbing effects of alcohol and then through the companionship of a kind of religion. Nicky’s materialistic, stereotypically absentee rich mother leaves her to be loved solely by a protective nanny, eventually leading her to a young adulthood defined by heroin addiction and grand theft. Sophia’s flashback, a sweet and loving scene with then-pregnant wife Crystal, foretold more complicated times in which her adolescent son—the confused kid who turned her in—begins disrespecting her and acting out. And, perhaps most tragically, the mother of Tiffany/Pennsatucky force-feeds her Mountain Dew in order to get her hyper for their Social Security Meeting (for more sympathy?), setting off a lifelong Pavlovian Dew response that leads to a total devaluation of self. Tiffany had the shittiest mom!
Were you surprised by John Bennett’s trajectory? I totally was! Not necessarily his past, though—here he is stationed in Afghanistan, ready to fight but so bored with inactivity that his division passes the time by filming viral videos to Gwen Stefani songs. (Is it a clause in Matt McGorry’s contracts that he must film a babely choreographed dance scene in every show? IS HE THE NEW CHANNING TATUM? Not mad!)
Do we think his abandonment of Daya was PTSD-invoked, after seeing Cesar pull the gun on his kid who didn’t want to eat his french fries? Was Daya’s crib a metaphor for that grenade that changed his life? Either way, dumping her childhood resting place on the side of the road like so much trash was cold. And you know he’s gonna come back begging next season, now that she popped the kid—at least I hope so, before baby girl gets caught up in the system.
Heroin addiction inspires people to do some pretty idiotic things: Nicky’s foray into crime began with an attempt to steal a taxi cab to cop dope, without remembering that—whoops!—she doesn’t know how to drive. The fear and pain on her face, though, goes beyond her addiction; the season painted her as a kind of counterpart to Poussey, both of them attempting to mask their neediness in substances that amplify their tough exteriors. Nicky’s in a much deeper rut than Poussey, though, and her enduring thirst for the drug lands her in Max. What a sad trajectory.
This season Big Boo was more fully developed than in previous ones, and the way her storyline dealt with her identity and refusal to compromise herself—even for her vaguely bigoted mother, on her deathbed. Establishing Boo’s strength within herself this early on in the season was a crucial move, as it acted as a cornerstone for the storyline/burgeoning best-friendship between her and Pennsatucky who, as we saw later, was so ground down to a nub of herself by life that it took someone as solid and unwavering as Boo to lift her up.
It was a little jarring to fully comprehend how young Flaca is—judging from her backstory, she must have landed in prison at the age of 18, mostly for the crime of being the perfect angsty teenager. (The make-up, purple streak, and Depeche Mode poster are all on point.) The entrepreneurial nature that got her locked up—selling fake acid to her high school peers, which gave a suicidal teen the perfect excuse to project himself off the school rooftop—foreshadowed her attempted takeover of Piper’s panty-sniffing business. And the storyline with her mother, a garment worker who is diagnosed with cancer around the same time Flaca is dispatched to prison labor in a panty-sewing factory (the “sweatshop” she was initially trying to avoid), furthered the season’s focus on the women behind these characters.
Don’t ever make fun of anyone’s appearance, no matter how meek-seeming she may be, if only because she may get you got. Chang’s story was tragic from an early age; clearly smart, but constantly rejected for her looks, she got her illicit Chinese product-smuggling crush to murk out the would-be husband who insulted her in front of her family, in one of the most badass scenes of the series. We don’t know exactly how she made it to the pokey, but all of this explains her amazing no-bullshit nature, particularly in improv class: “It’s a dick!”
There have been grumblings that Norma was in for murder, a possibility that seemed incomprehensible. After seeing her tale, in which a shy, stutter-encumbered teen Norma finds solace in an early ‘70s “vibes” cult and marries its charismatic, Father Yod-like leader (along with a bevy of other women), it makes so much sense. Everybody was disillusioned by the ‘80s, weren’t they? When Father Yod turns verbally abusive, Norma hilariously retaliates by pushing him off a cliff so that he may die in nature, as it should be.
In an alternate universe, this could have been Don Draper.
Jenji Kohan surely knows how obnoxious Piper and Alex are, right? But you gotta propel the storyline, I suppose, so this is the scene where Alex, clammy-looking after a night of ecstasy and cocaine, freaks out whinily about her predicament with her drug-dealing partner: too turnt at the club, they neglected to pick up their friend at the airport, and she got arrested. Hey, it’s happened to all of us, right? I question the amount of screen time this storyline has received, but hopefully it was just a means to an end, by which I mean Alex’s. Hopefully. God.
Welp, this explains Leanne’s ability to speak German to Poussey out in the yard: she’s Pennsylvania Dutch Amish, attempting to go back to her family after a particularly meth-y Rumspringa, but is foiled by idiocy and leaving a backpack full of drugs and an ID on the edge of a cornfield, after which she’s forced to turn FBI informant. Amish snitches get stitches too, apparently! She spends the rest of the season attempting to regain the semblance of faith and unity she lost when she abandoned her community for the final time, which results in some very annoying platitudes and a transformation into the David Miscavige of Litchfield Prison (Norma is L. Ron Hubbard.)
Tiffany “Pennsatucky”’s story was, by far, the most difficult to watch. Her mother tells her at age 11, newly menstruating, to just let men do whatever they want to her because they’re gonna do it anyway, which leads to a life of teen prostitution for six-packs of Mountain Dew. (HEARTBREAKING). The soft-eyed boy with an alcoholic father shows her what love is, but as soon as he leaves she’s raped by one of her former “tricks”—and then again by a seemingly friendly new CO.
I struggled a lot with these scenes—particularly the way it ended, close-up on Taryn Manning’s devastated face—and wondered if they needed to be depicted at all. But the friendship between ‘Tucky and Big Boo has been very explicitly informational beyond their abortion conversation, and the writers turned this into an opportunity to fully articulate what rape is, and depict the anguish, denial, fear and self-blame some women feel after they’ve been raped. In parts, Boo’s monologues felt a little on-the-nose, but surely they needed to be, to reach the writers’ intended audience of people who need to hear this kind of thing. Is this an exception to peoples’ disdain for depictions of rape on television, since it was used as a teachable moment, of sorts? I’m sure we’ll hear a lot on the topic in the coming days.
Caputo is an asshole because he tried to be a good man and quit his band and take care of his (not really his) baby, only to be rewarded by his girlfriend leaving him for the now-uber-successful bandmate father. Life sucks and Caputo looks bananas in that moustache; I still only have a tiny bit of sympathy for him, but this explains why he turns into The Man by the final episode. He’s tired of doing things for other people, goddammit. (Barf.)
Of all the mother-daughter relationships on the show this season, the one between Aleida and Daya is the most complicated. It’s easy to demonize Aleida after she goes behind Daya’s back and tries to basically sell Daya’s baby to Pornstache’s mom in exchange for a personal stipend (oh, and one for Daya, too). But underlying her abusive, demonically selfish streak is both confusion about how to be a good mother, and overwhelming love to the point of neediness for her children.
That was plainly illustrated in Episode Twelve, which depicted a young Aleida, deciding to send school-age Daya to a city-sponsored summer camp after Daya picks up a used condom in gravel and shows it to her, gleefully. Time and again, Aleida uses abuse as her defense mechanism, so when Daya is initially terrified to leave her mother, Aleida tells her she made plans to go out and this is her summer of freedom so Daya better suck it up. But when Daya comes home, happy and nurtured, Aleida—afraid she’d exposed her to too much of a better life—cruelly punches in the face of a sweet papier-mache head Daya made in art class and throws her creation in the garbage. Heartbreakingly, Daya understands what this means; at such a young age, she must provide emotional support for her mother and help imbue her with self-worth. It’s deeply unfair, and shows that emotional vampirism starts early, especially if it’s your mother sucking the life out of you.
Cindy’s foray into Judaism is funny, and seems purely motivated by the desire to receive non-disgusting, non-pureed kosher meals. But by the final episode, we see she is dead serious, having renamed herself Tova and studied the Torah and teachings of Judaism, a long way from watching Woody Allen movies and dropping an “Oy vey” here and there.
She weeps when asking the rabbi to let her become Jewish, remembering a time when, as a small child, her staunchly Christian father essentially told her she is going to hell for eating a tiny bit of rice before he finished saying grace. Incidentally, that is precisely why my tía became an atheist at a young age: “They were telling me I was going to hell, but I was just a little kid. How did that make sense!” My tía is still an atheist, but shout out Tova aka Tov, T to the O-V. Come on, you know they’ll make Jay-Z/Hova jokes next season, right?
(Also part of the season’s religious subthemes: a flashback scene where Jenae’s father, devoutly Muslim with the Nation of Islam, rejects her and her mother’s request that she run track as a path to college, calling the shorts and tank tops she’s have to wear vulgar.)
After all that harrowing plot—Sophia in SHU, good god—the lake scene is not only Tova’s true initiation to Judaism, but like a cleansing, or a baptism, or a birth, the metaphorical endgame of this season’s theme. Most sweetly, Poussey and Soso, and Suzanne and her poetic admirer, unite lakeside in a few precious moments that seem to say for now, everything’s gonna be all right.
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Images via Netflix/screengrab