Season three of Orange Is The New Black feels more depressing by design, primarily because no one gets to leave.
That's the (rather archaic) point of prison, of course—that you're stuck in a box and forced to think about your actions while the world passes you by—but OITNB has relieved that tension in the past by offering furloughs, transfers, and other mild forms of escape. This season, all of the action takes place at Litchfield. People are transferred in, but no one gets out.
With nowhere to go and no one to blame things on, Piper is able to fully give in to what can only be described as her extreme assholishness. It's not necessarily about recognizing her dark side; Piper is all ego this season, and there's a palpable relief when she gives over to it completely. She has no dark side—only a stubborn sense of righteousness that usually allows her to wallow in her status as a victim. Piper has shed the weight of victimhood and jumped into her new life as a master manipulator, head first.
Without spoiling too much, the tension of being stuck structures a lot of what happens both in and to Litchfield this season. From the first episode to the last, Litchfield itself feels oppressively unstable. Caputo is doing his best to deal with major, constant changes in light of new management that eradicates the small amount of power he was able to grab last season. As a boss, he's pretty impotent, but the bolstered sense of confinement messes with his overall dynamic in a way that makes him fairly useless, too.
One possibly unintended side effect is that it's impossible to watch this season and ignore prison reform issues. You can't help but be acutely aware of how people are mistreated and lack the emotional access to forgiveness in a system that's supposed to be doing just that, even in a fictional, dramatic show. The most compelling story along this line of thinking belongs to Poussey. Her alcoholism has been addressed, but this season we finally learn that the root of her problems is loneliness. Her pervasive loneliness can't be solved at Litchfield; what she wants more than anything is a girlfriend, to build a life with someone. Actress Samira Wiley conveys Poussey's pain so specifically that it's hard to get through one of her pivotal scenes, unless you're better at watching TV through a sheet of tears than I am.
The dynamic isn't entirely hopeless, even if it is confined. Some of the inmates use that confinement to leap into positions of power, and others slip gently into its undertow. Staying in Litchfield this season somehow expanded the emotional capacity of the show.
Danielle Henderson is a lapsed academic, heavy metal karaoke machine, and culture editor at Fusion. She enjoys thinking about how race, gender, and sexuality shape our cultural narratives, but not in a boring way.