Orange Is the New Black’s third season opens on the eve of Mother’s Day. Motherhood and what it means has weighed heavily on the inmates of Litchfield over the past two seasons, and now it’s used both to reintroduce the characters we’ve come to love and remind us of the inherent tragedy in their incarceration. Dayanara (Dascha Polanco) is struggling with the crushing reality of having a baby with a prison guard. Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) hates children, unable to deal with the fact that she herself is a mother.
But it takes 11 minutes for us to finally make our way to Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), still the show’s top-billed character, and as she talks with a guard about her future, she seems cut off from problems plaguing prisoners we’ve been conditioned to care more about. It’s clearer than ever that Piper, the overeducated Connecticut WASP who started as our lens into this world, is fading into the background. Showrunner Jenji Kohan is as deft as ever at balancing the stories of her sprawling cast of female prisoners with a hilariously offbeat but nevertheless biting indictment of the prison industrial complex. But for two years, Piper’s story has been the least interesting arc of the series. Whether intentionally or incidentally, the show just isn’t about her anymore.
Piper’s continued presence makes sense because her story is an intrinsic fact of the narrative. (Her character is a fictionalized version of Piper Kerman, whose memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year In a Women’s Prison, the show moves further away from with each season.) In the first two seasons, we saw prison life through her terrified eyes and watched as her relationship with her lump of a fiancé Larry Bloom (Jason Biggs), slowly crumbled. Now, she maintains a destructive relationship with her ex, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), in a solid B-level plot that also, conveniently, keeps her in jail.
The other prisoners in Piper’s life have since stolen the show. A lot of that development happened in season two, as Orange took more time to examine the other characters and their relationships, and give some insight into how they became criminals. That growth isn’t slowing down at all this season. Uzo Aduba’s emotionally disturbed Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren, for instance, has gone from Piper’s unwanted love interest to a singular character of her own, coping with the loss of a mother figure and now trying to tamp down her crazy as part of the Black inmate clique. Meanwhile, Kate Mulgrew’s Red is still making power plays, but after losing her kitchen empire in season one, she finally makes her way back to her throne this season.
Kohan deserves all the credit in the world for writing such varied, tragicomic characters, and for keeping them dynamic even as she elevates her critique of the American prison system in season three. This season brings with it bed bugs, book burnings, and a badly underfunded Litchfield on the brink of being closed. To save the facility, the prison administrators have to turn to an outside contracting company to save people’s jobs, but the deal is more complicated and exploitative than anyone ever expected. As a consequence of the new regime, we’re introduced to even more characters and even more back stories, more threads vying for our investment. Somehow. Even when I felt like I shouldn’t be so interested in the plight of the militantly butch Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) or Chang’s (Lori Tan Chinn) gangland past, I was pulled right in.
But with all these new developments, we still somehow have time for Piper — fueled mostly by Alex’s return to prison. Alex testified against her former drug lord employer last season, and she’s now paranoid an assassin will take her out. It’s a valid fear, and it injects her scenes with Piper with a sense of dread. Still, their reunion feels like just another story in the grander Litchfield saga, making their hookup sessions R-rated commercial breaks distracting from the real action happening in the prison. Piper and Alex’s arc stands alone now, and though there’s nothing wrong with that — it’s just not as compelling as everyone else’s.
IF I HAD MY DRUTHERS, I'D HAVE PIPER WRITTEN OUT ALTOGETHER
If I had my druthers, I’d have Piper written out altogether. The show left her behind years ago in favor of more interesting prisoners with stories that feel more vital. Even if she still has a long sentence ahead of her, there isn’t much stopping the writers from wrapping up her story by shunting her off to another facility or having her escape and going on the lam with Alex. Jenji Kohan is already known for pulling off crazy ideas. Unfortunately, we’re stuck with her for now. Which is a shame. Orange Is the New Black would be just fine without her.
Orange Is the New Black's third season premieres on June 12th.