Season premiere review: 'Orange Is the New Black' - 'Mother's Day/Bed Bugs and Beyond'
"Orange Is the New Black" has returned for a third season. I offered some overall thoughts on the early episodes in yesterday's review, and now I'm going to be taking a specific look at the season's first two installments, coming up just as soon as my hypothetical suicide has a budget...
"Delusion can be comforting." -Alex
Life at Litchfield is never summer camp (even when there are impromptu sleepovers in the cafeteria), but things got particularly dark last season as Vee rose to prominence and Fig's corruption grew particularly bald. Season 3 opens with the promise of a new day. Vee is dead. Caputo has somehow survived allowing two escapes on his first day in Fig's job, and continues trying to implement a more benevolent rule, including staging an elaborate Mother's Day celebration for the inmates with kids. And Red, still carrying the emotional scars of her beating, not to mention the physical ones, decides she would rather seal up the tunnel than risk having her sentence extended with only two years to go.
But it's all built on a rotten foundation, of course. The Mother's Day event goes awry when Daya's sister goes missing and the visiting kids are traumatized to see their moms prone on the floor. (My heart shrank three sizes when I saw that one little girl assume she had to lie down, too.) Bed bugs spread throughout the complex, costing everyone their uniforms, their mattresses, and every book in Taystee and Poussey's beloved library. Worse, there seems no point in trying to fix any of it, because Caputo gets word that Litchfield is on the verge of being closed.
It's a strong one-two punch to start the year, first with "Mother's Day" giving us glimpses into the backgrounds of so many different prisoners (it's the structural opposite of last season's Piper-only premiere), while "Bed Bugs and Beyond" sets up one of the season's primary conflicts. Among the best things season 2 did was to focus more on the staff and how the prison functions on an administrative level; even though I don't imagine Litchfield will actually close (what with Netflix having ordered another season already), there are already big stakes here. A year ago, Vee tried to split up the family emotionally; now, these women may all be split up physically.
Devoting so much time to the ensemble in "Mother's Day" is also smart because it's a way to reassure us that this won't simply be turning back into The Piper and Alex Show. They're having hate sex again by the end of episode 2, but the creative team doesn't shove everyone out of the way to make that happen. Theirs is just one story among many, and among the more messed-up, given the number of times each of them has betrayed the other. (For the full rundown, check the gallery embedded below.) In an ordinary relationship, what Piper did to Alex in getting her parole violated would be unforgivable, but given all the sins on both sides of the ledger here? All just part of their toxic game.
"Bed Bugs and Beyond" offers us a flashback to Bennett's time in the military, where he turns out to not be quite the hero he wanted himself to be (though his "Hollaback Girl" lip dub dance was memorable), jumping away from the explosive while another soldier dives on it. It's a good parallel to his present-day scenes, where he very much wants to do the right thing by Daya and the baby, but ultimately gets too scared off by the glimpse of her world outside of Litchfield. Matt McGorry is now a regular on "How to Get Away with Murder," which meant "Orange" would have to write him out sooner or later; this appears to be the way, though I wouldn't be surprised to see him return down the road (and, per the note at the end of this review, no spoilers in the comments if that's the case).
"Bed Bugs and Beyond" feels like the more important episode, in terms of all the stories it's setting up for the rest of the season. But "Mother's Day" was the more emotionally affecting one, between the lockdown when Daya's sister vanishes, Boo helping Pennsatucky make peace with her many abortions (even if that scene was written a bit more didactically than this show is at its best, it was still touching), Ruiz's baby daddy announcing he won't bring their daughter around again (here, Ruiz's encouragement that he become a more active father comes back to bite her, even though his point's not unreasonable), and Poussey finding the bit of newsprint featuring the same Calvin and Hobbes comic she once read with her own beloved mom.
The world inside Litchfield is very different from the one these women were born into. But every now and then, it offers a glimpse into the lives they knew. Sometimes, that can be painful, and sometimes, it can be comforting. A lot like "Orange Is the New Black" as a whole, in fact.
Some other thoughts:
* We all knew that Rosa wasn't long for the world, but she chose a particularly dramatic death with the opportunity Morello gave her: crashing the stolen transport van into a quarry.
* The ubiquitous and wonderful Mary Steenburgen turns up as Pornstache's mother, who believes Daya's baby to be her future grandchild, and may be able to offer the kid a much better life than either of the biological parents can. Looking forward to more of her.
* Healy gets a rival counselor in new Litchfield staffer Berdie Rogers (played by Marsha Stephanie Blake), and in his brief but sad "Mother's Day" flashback, we get new insight into where all his issues with women began.
* How lucky it is for the show that Laverne Cox has a twin brother who can appear in any pre-transition flashback scenes. I suppose they could have found another actor who looks a bit like her, and Cox says they actually tried briefly to make her up as a man, but this works out much better than either of those options.
* The burning of the library books is sad on a lot of levels, but hopefully it won't rob the show of one of its most reliable sources of humor: Taystee dropping various bits of literary knowledge into the middle of other discussions, like the way she brings Cedric Diggory into the group's conversation about Norma and Gloria's magic.
* Unsurprisingly, Suzanne isn't in great shape with Vee gone, and is refusing to accept both her death and the fact that Vee tried to make her take the fall for Red's beating. That she isn't allowed to be around the kids on Mother's Day is a reminder of how unintentionally dangerous and upsetting she can be, but the show continues to find a sweet spot where they can generate humor — say, Suzanne annoucing, "I will potato her at a future time" — from her without undermining the abundant pathos that comes from her mental illness.
* Nice little callback to the season 2 premiere, as Piper now fancies herself a cockroach expert due to her brief time in the Chicago jail.
* Soso remains a fine go-to character for commentary on the awful state of things in the prison, like when she realizes the pinata is empty and moans, "This is such a metaphor for their lives!"
Because Netflix released the new season six hours earlier than scheduled, odds are many of you are now waaaaay ahead of these two episodes, and that some of you have already finished. As a reminder, we are only talking about events up through the episodes that have been reviewed. There will be a review of episodes 3 & 4 next Friday, 5 & 6 the Friday after, etc., and we can talk about what happens in those when we get to them. I recognize this isn't an ideal solution, but it's the best one I have if we want to discuss the individual episodes at all. And if people can't do that, then at some point I'll just stop trying this particular experiment and wait until I've finished the whole season to write anything else. Thanks.
With that in mind, what did everybody else think of how the season started?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org