[This is a review of the Orange is the New Black season three premiere. There may be SPOILERS.]
It’s that time of year again, when Netflix does the squat ‘n’ cough and Orange is the New Black fans peer closely to see if the service has smuggled in another great season of Jenji Kohan’s prison drama. The inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary are also celebrating a special occasion in this premiere, as Mother’s Day under the gentle touch of Joe Caputo turns the yard into a low-rate fairground, complete with a poorly-constructed mini golf course, Cinco de Mayo decorations and a candy-free piñata.
Since everyone in Litchfield either is a mother or had a mother, the flashbacks in this episode are little vignettes jumping around from one character to the next, rather than offering a secondary story arc focusing on just one person. The result is a premiere that is considerably more scattered than the previous two, in which the focus was on Piper. Whereas the season two premiere shook the show back to life by throwing Piper (and the audience) into an unfamiliar environment, this episode feels more like pulling on an old, familiar coat.
One inmate who has far too much motherhood to deal with is Daya, who is facing the prospect of becoming a mother herself, caught between her biological mother (Aleida) and a mother figure (Gloria), playing mother to her younger siblings and dealing with new interest from Pornstache’s mother, who thinks she’s the baby’s grandmother. The whole thing would make a superb safe sex PSA.
Another interesting angle on Mother’s Day comes from Pennsatucky, who could have been a mother six times over were it not for her abortions and miscarriage. When holding a memorial for her B-named babies, Pennsatucky gets a speech from Big Boo that (like a few moments in this season) skirts the line between characterization and the writers using a character as a mouthpiece, but at least it succeeds in cheering Pennsatucky up.
Motherhood is definitely an interesting theme, and while ‘Mother’s Day’ feels more like a mid-season episode than a premiere, it does offer a kaleidoscopic view of all the different kind of mothers there are: good mothers, bad mothers, mothers that used to be fathers, stand-in mothers, mothers-to-be. Then there’s Healy’s mother, shown in a brief flashback that indicates Healy’s childhood was some kind of Roald Dahl nightmare. It certainly explains a lot.
Johan has described Piper as her “Trojan Horse” for the series – the nice, young, blonde, white lady who was an effective way of pitching a premise to networks that would otherwise have been wary of a show about black and Hispanic criminals of all shapes, sizes and ages. As the show enters its third season, however, Piper really needs to work harder to compete with all the other character arcs taking place.
With that in mind, reintroducing Alex to Litchfield and throwing the two lovers back into their on-again, off-again relationship drama feels like a weak move. Admittedly Piper evening the score and landing Alex in prison by ratting her out adds a new dynamic to their relationship that could be interesting, but at this point we’ve already seen far too many variations on the two of them falling out and making up.
One thing that Caputo says in this episode does ring true: bringing in the families of all the inmates highlights the nature of the microcosm that they live in. After last season’s fierce struggles for the top spot on Litchfield’s food chain, offering a window into the outside world is a sobering reminder of the fact that once these characters leave they will be stuck on the bottom rung of society with few prospects.
Case in point, former queen bee Red re-enters the general population and resolves to give up her old contraband-dealing ways, instead focusing on her future outside the prison. Sadly for Red, that future will involve returning to find her old business closed down and her husband penniless. Similarly, Gloria might have the top dog job in the kitchen but she doesn’t have the power to keep her eldest son from getting suspended, or even to see him on Mother’s Day.
The key ingredient that’s really missing from this premiere is conflict. Litchfield might be a nice place as far as prisons go, but everyone getting along so well makes the narrative feel slightly loose and bland. A little vacation time is nice, but if this season wants to top the previous two then the ladies need to get back to work.
Orange is the New Black season three is available now on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.