An enviable feat for any television show is overcoming the second season slump. It’s easy to make 13 episodes of a new series when no one knows how it will be received, but the follow-up season often falters in its efforts to establish the focus, continue the arcs of characters, and sustain the overall tone of the show. The challenge for the showrunners is how to deliver on what the fans love about the show while also setting it up for the long-term. (Great case study on what not to do: The Newsroom.) Fortunately for us, Orange is the New Black soared over the slump and presented us with an even better second season than the first.
With the (five hours early!) release of season three, it seems as though OITNB has hit its stride. Delivering a quality second season is hard enough, but this show has accomplished something that very little (if any) television show has ever done by creating upwards of twenty characters that all have extraordinarily distinct personalities. It’s not up to a handful of lead characters to carry the show, but each of them individually carry a small piece together. It’s like how people can lay on a bed of nails without being impaled; one nail will go right through your back, while several dozen can equally distribute your weight. This is how OINTB has struck its balance. In episode one, “Mother’s Day,” we’re reintroduced to each and every one of our favorite inmates, and they all have an equal share of the time.
This episode provided a small amount of plot development from last season: Morello’s psyche is still fragile after she loses her van job; Alex is back because Piper ratted on her for breaking parole; Red’s mostly healed and turning over a new leaf by cementing up the manhole in the greenhouse; Nicky and Boo discuss how to get rid of the heroin hidden in the laundry room; Daya’s baby daddy troubles continue. One of the most promising plots so far is with Crazy Eyes and how she’ll cope with the loss of Vee, one of the only people in her life that seemed to actually understand her (even if Vee was using her the whole time.) Poussey’s plot seems to involve her interest in Gloria’s dark arts, but for exactly what purpose it’s too soon to say.
These developments are necessary, and are what one expects most in the first episode of a new season, but “Mother’s Day” didn’t dwell too long or hard on any of them. Rather, it dove right into a deep societal issue at the root of most (all) people’s problems: how they were treated by their mothers.
Instead of flashbacks that involved just one inmate, we were treated to several inmates’ backstories, and they were all about their childhoods. Some were pleasant, like Poussey’s comic reading with her late mother, and Aleida’s, in which she was surprisingly tender and loving toward a newborn Daya. There was also Sophia’s old persona, Marcus, sweetly rubbing the feet of his pregnant wife while she’s pregnant with their son, Michael. (Shoutout to Laverne’s brother, M. Lamar, for channeling Laverne’s Sophia into Marcus. It was the exact same character, just with a lot more facial hair.) Nicky’s flashback was absolutely heartbreaking. (“She didn’t read my card.” LOST IT.) The real treat was a flashback for Healey, even if it involved his obviously psychotic mother drawing on the walls with lipstick and throwing an ashtray at his head.
Pennsatucky’s flashback was almost hilarious, if not for the waterboarding-your-kid-with-Mountain-Dew-to-get-government-assistance part. The highlight of this whole episode involves Pennsatucky and her six little crosses, for all six of her unborn children. As pours a capful of Mountain Dew out for each of them, she laments to Boo about how she’s going to hell. A very scary looking Boo then pontificates about the drop in crime in the 1990s, likely due to the passing of Roe v. Wade. She explains that these children, “if their mothers were forced to have them, would have grown up poor and neglected and abused, the three most important ingredients when one is making a felon.” Through all of its episodes’ flashbacks, OITNB has uncovered the acts that landed these ladies in prison, but in this scene the show exposes the root of it all.
It takes real balls to launch a new season with such a heavy subject, and “Mother’s Day” proves that this show has never been a soap opera about woman prisoners. It insists on addressing the implications of crime and all of the ripples it causes. To really drive the point home, the inmates are forced to lay on the ground during a lockdown, while their children remain standing and confused, imploring their mothers to get up. Later, as Maria hands her baby to her boyfriend, he tells her he will not be bringing their daughter to Litchfield anymore. “I don’t want her to see her mother in prison and think this is normal.” And you can’t blame him. OITNB punches you in the face with logic, and then forces you to deal with the pain.