Orange Is The New Black went through a third season that felt different from the previous two seasons. One crucial difference is how this season focuses on several themes instead of a central plot. (The first season had Piper against Pennsatucky, the second season had Red against Vee.)
This ultimately led to the third season feeling a little less focused, but a lot more significant in terms of what the show itself is trying to say. Here’s 3 themes I noticed.
The pursuit of faith
Throughout the series, we see the inmates flocking to find someone, something, that they can believe in.
Faith is a powerful motivator in the common people, much less incarcerated people, and this season show the good and bad of pursuing faith. Norma’s groupies start to worship her, and the cult becomes toxic when Leanne starts to antagonise Soso, leading to Soso attempting suicide. Poussey, acting as the designated voice of reason, chews Norma out for allowing this to happen, leaving Norma obviously agitated. However, in a role reversal from her formative years, Norma becomes the leader who must placate her follower, as Leanne breaks down and begs to continue her belief in Norma’s powers.
Meanwhile, due to the steep decline in the quality of food served, several inmates start ordering the kosher meal instead, masquerading as Jews in the process. However, by the end of the season, one inmate – Cindy – does convert to Judaism in a touching sub-plot. Cindy’s genuine desire for connection is empathetic, and her scene with the rabbi is perhaps the most touching of the season.
Nobody truly leaves prison
We’ve had Taystee return to prison soon after she was released, and this season we see many more more examples. Angie is mistakenly released, but instead of making a quick escape, she sits at the bus stop and confesses to Caputo later that she has nowhere to go.
Also, in a sprawling scene in the finale, the inmates spot an opening in the fence (left unattended by contractors) and frolic in the nearby lake. They have the chance to run, and they know they’ll be rounded up if they stay in the lake, but they don’t care. They may have technically broken out of prison, but has prison also broken them?
The destruction of change
In what is the closest thing we have to an over-arching plot this season, Linchfield is privatised by MMR, which cuts back funding, creating turmoil in the already chaotic Linchfield ecosystem. New COs are hired and not given proper training, leading to poor enforcement and a rape; the current COs unionise and then resign together when Caputo turns on them to gain a promotion; and finally, truckloads of new prisoners arrive in the final scene of the season.
Within the inmate population, we have the grim Sophia sub-plot. She falls out with Gloria, and tensions escalate until she injures Gloria by accident. This invites a backlash, focusing on her trans status, that injures her and leaves her fearing for her safety; instead of cracking down on the assailants, MMR decides to send her to solitary instead.
These two sub-plots focus on how an existing structure handles change but use different outcomes to prove the same point. In the privatisation sub-plot, the Linchfield system is overwhelmed by MMR as new COs and new prisoners arrive. Caputo, a man who means well, is powerless to stop the waves of change and eventually decides to ride out the change himself.
As for Sophia, she faces the ugly truth that her trans status makes her the “other” compared to the other inmates. The hate and physical threat that she faced was originally because she hurt Gloria, but eventually, and unfairly, the hate focused wholly on her trans status. The system had rejected a benign element – positive change, and the notion of acceptance, was beaten to the dust.