Season three of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” doesn’t designate a clear villain. Sure, every character has an adversary or two (“Orange is the New Black” is a drama series, and what’s drama without some good fights?), but character conflicts are more isolated this year, and no feuds spill from faction to faction like the ones with Pennsatucky and Vee in previous seasons. This time, “Orange is the New Black” is more interested in problematizing an abstract villain — authority figures.

“Orange is the New Black”

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Season 3
Netflix


Everyone is at the mercy of a malevolent higher-up, and Litchfield’s guards and staff are no exception. Caputo (Nick Sandow, “Boardwalk Empire”) has to contend with a patronizing new boss (Mike Birbiglia, “The Fault in Our Stars”) who claims he’s around to help Caputo and represent the inmates, but is clearly more interested in saving money and satisfying his own boss. Birbiglia is brilliantly cast — he appears at first to be humble and well-intentioned, but his sweet smile transforms into a smarmy smirk faster than you can say, “I’m not the warden.” The incumbent correctional officers who answer to Caputo see their hours reduced and pay cut, and can’t protect their rights without corporate’s cooperation. With their agency slashed to a corporate minimum, the guards are essentially as powerless as the inmates. “Orange is the New Black” hadn’t given much screentime to its more benevolent guards in past seasons, so it’s great to see them utilized so seamlessly.

The part-time guard system also exposes other cracks in the administrative system. While the experienced C.O.s were left to take on second jobs, the newbies proved themselves massively incompetent — and often dangerous. Officer Coates (James McMenamin, “Olive Kitteridge”) is introduced as a hapless guard who lets Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning, “Sons of Anarchy”) show him the ropes of his new job, but he quickly turns terrifying as he exploits their burgeoning friendship for something more sinister. Tragically, the administration wouldn’t believe Pennsatucky if she told anyone about what he did to her in the van; she wouldn’t have the “proof” that pregnant inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco, “Gimme Shelter”) did when she dealt with a similar assault. Manning plays these scenes with quiet heartbreak, and her flashback scenes in the season’s tenth episode fill in the details about this misunderstood character.

Pennsatucky’s flashbacks, like all the best ones, inform who she is in the present — someone with a warped sense of a woman’s role in sex, who has rape so ingrained into her experience of relationships that she almost normalizes it. The other flashbacks this season mostly work, especially the episodes that spotlight characters who viewers didn’t know much about before. New details about Big Boo (Lea DeLaria, “The Edge of Seventeen”), Flaca (Jackie Cruz, “The Shield”) and Chang (Lori Tan Chinn, “Glengarry Glen Ross”) pull these supporting characters from the periphery and give a heightened understanding of their place in Litchfield.

Certain other flashbacks are not as successful, because they don’t give any new information about the characters. The show has a longstanding tradition of honoring its female inmates with flashbacks, but this season, “Orange is the New Black” dedicates flashbacks to three of the male prison employees. I’m all for expanding the scope of flashbacks and exploring the nuance of other Litchfielders, but there’s no point wasting time searching for new information when we can glean everything from how these men interact with the prisoners. When a character’s actions in flashbacks and the rest of the episode are so similar, like Bennett’s (Matt McGorry, “How to Get Away with Murder”) moral uncertainties during his time in the military and fatherhood with Daya, the flashbacks lose their poignancy. I thank the “Orange is the New Black” writer-gods for the opportunity to see Matt McGorry dance shirtless to “Hollaback Girl,” but otherwise, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to get out of that episode.

“Orange is the New Black” has been criticized for its heavy-handed introduction of Piper (Taylor Schilling, “The Lucky One”) into the Litchfield action and for highlighting her instead of more diverse (and more interesting) characters, but this season integrates her much more smoothly. Piper has always had a streak to her personality that enjoys organizing danger, and becoming the Vito Corleone of the prison panty business is the perfect way to employ the aspect of Piper that’s most compelling. Now, Piper functions as a character in the ensemble rather than the star of the show — and frankly, “Orange is the New Black” is much better off letting her take a smaller but more streamlined role.

But the season’s most successful risk was dismantling some of the barriers of race and gender that were holding up the walls of Litchfield. Sophia (Laverne Cox, “The Mindy Project”) has rarely had her gender identity questioned by the other inmates, but when she blames Gloria’s (Selenis Leyva, “St. Vincent”) son for her own child’s sudden bad behavior, the fight turns personal. Gloria attacks Sophia with trans slurs, beats her and threatens her life. Sophia battles back with the resolve of a woman who has probably dealt with this shit too many times before, and Cox delivers a stunning performance that Emmy voters will certainly reward come September. Soso (Kimiko Glenn, “Hairbrained”) is depressed because she can’t make friends with the other inmates, but also because she doesn’t conform to any of the racial cliques at Litchfield. Like Sophia, her otherness is used as an excuse for abusive and cruel treatment by the inmates, and the administration’s interventions do more harm than good. Past seasons have explored the construction of Litchfield’s racial cliques, but “Orange is the New Black” tells a powerful story by highlighting the difficulties for people who don’t fit neatly into those socially constructed boxes.

Season three marks “Orange is the New Black” ’s riskiest venture yet, but also the one with the most payoff. By taking a break from the clear-cut villain characters, the show exposes the darkness of authority, power and the convoluted systems that imprison these women.

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