Danielle Brooks and Uzo Aduba in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”
It strikes us a somewhat odd choice, to make motherhood one of the major themes of this season, mainly because so much of the previous two seasons have centered around the concept. It’s been a theme bound up in the DNA of the show since the very beginning, but with this season there seems to be a concerted effort to make the series largely about motherhood. In other words, it feels like motherhood went from being a theme to being the theme of the show. Season one dealt with a lot of Piper’s issues with her own mother and season 2 was practically awash with mother issues as Vee exerted control over her girl gang like some twisted distaff Fagin while Red tried to regain control of her “family” after they lost faith in her. And of course, there’s been the ongoing drama of Aleida, Daya and the ticking time bomb of the latter’s baby since the very beginning. But in season 3, it seems like the majority of characters who got storylines this year had to deal either with their own failings as mothers or with the ways they failed their own mothers or their mothers failed them. On the one hand, it makes a certain amount of sense, with such a female-centered set of storylines and a majority female cast, to return to this theme with some frequency, but we’d swear there are times this season when the show seems to be trying to make some sort of point connecting bad choices and criminality with bad mothering. We don’t know… It’s an unformed observation, but it might be nice if some of these ladies had daddy issues in their pasts, just to break the mold of everyone either having a bad mother or being one.
In “Finger in the Dyke,” Boo comes face-to-face (literally) with the mutually disappointing relationship she had with her own mother and the weight of carrying that anger and disappointment around all these years. She and Pennsatucky have been developing a fun and believable (despite their vast differences) friendship and like almost all relationships in the Litch, it leads to a scheme. In this case, Boo wants to start scamming money out of the fundamentalist Christians who are sending money Pennsatucky’s way. The scam is dropped almost as soon as it gets underway, but that’s because it’s really just a device to drive Boo’s flashback, in which she defiantly says “There ain’t no origin story here.” She’s both right and wrong on that one. She’s right in the sense that Boo – Carrie – has no real “beginning” because she always was as she is now: angry, confrontational, rough and butch. But she’s also wrong because, like all good origin stories, this one allows us a deeper understanding of who Carrie is and what battles she fought and scars she bears. “I refuse to be invisible” is a rallying cry, manifesto, and origin story all in one sentence. And we have to give a shoutout to Lea DeLaria, who really nailed the poignancy of the moment when she saw herself all made up like a middle-aged straight woman and said, “I look like my mother,” with a sense of awe, sadness and all the other feelings that bubble to surface when you’re faced with the Life Not Lived.
Meanwhile, Suzanne is breaking down more and more the longer she goes without processing Vee’s death. When she winds up wandering the halls in a mop wig and muttering to herself, it falls to Taystee to force her into accepting her pseudo-mother’s death, which in turn prompts Taystee herself to finally grieve the way a daughter would. It’s a lovely and beautifully rendered connection played to perfection by both actresses. Taystee has become the de facto leader of her group with Vee gone and it says everything about her that she’s trying to fill that Vee-sized hole in their lives with love and peace-making and acceptance. She knows that Poussey is still hurt and angry with Suzanne for beating her and she knows that Suzanne is one bad moment away from being sent away to psych, from which she would never be expected to return or recover. She is, in fact, mothering her family, smoothing over differences, and trying to keep them all together.
In other mothering news, Gloria is utterly failing at her role, as she’s forced to watch her son turn into a little asshole while she can’t do anything about it. Similarly, Daya’s stuck having to face the fact that Bennett’s not coming back and her control over her baby’s fate is more or less slipping through her fingers. Even the visiting team from Management & Correction Corporation find the concept or motherhood troubling, since it threatens their bottom line. “The great thing about men – they don’t have uteruses.”
In other simmering-in-the-background news, Everyone Hates Soso for some reason and we fear the poor girl is heading into a serious depression. Tying into the idea of the importance of family in prison, she’s someone who belongs to no tribe and the lack of connections in her life is causing her to drift out to sea. Also, MCC decides to take over the Litch, which we all knew was going to happen, but which also doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a story reason, since the place is such a disaster. Still, this is likely to be the story that drives the rest of the season and we’re interested in how the inevitable changes are going to play out.
Oh, and it’s Piper’s birthday and she and Alex are now officially girlfriends and we can’t possibly yawn hard enough.
In “Fake it Till You Make it Some More,” there’s a new, mysterious job detail under the new regime that pays a dollar an hour and everyone wants in. Rumors circulate that the job entails fitting nuclear warheads, doing call center work, and fighting fires. As this show has demonstrated time and again, change, in a prison setting, often leads to rumors, scheming, backbiting and outright violence. There’s so little stimulation for the inmates that they can be at each other’s throats, fighting over something new, even if they have no idea what it is they’re fighting for.
Flaca finds herself fighting with the other Latina girls in the kitchen because she’s keen on applying for the new job. In typically airheaded and self-absorbed Flaca style, she winds up alienating her friends by talking about her grand ambitions and how she’s ready for more than peeling potatoes and scrubbing pots. Ruiz, still angry and hurt because she can no longer be a mother to her baby, goes after her and a fed up Gloria, who can no longer effectively mother her increasingly bad-behaviored son, is forced to break them up. This in turn leads to her flashback, in which we find out she was pretty much always this way. She scoffs at her mother’s job as a seamstress and declares herself better than such a fate, but she winds up taking her mother’s advice regarding fake designer labels – “People believe what you tell them,” which is actually not very good advice at all – and starts selling fake designer blotter acid to her schoolmates, which lands her in jail after one of them kills himself.
Meanwhile, Pornstache’s mother meets with Daya, who, because she’s dealing with a total loss of agency and control over her own motherhood like so many of the characters this season, agrees to hand her baby over to her for raising. To Delia’s credit, she recognizes that Daya is depressed and has no one to talk to, and tells her she’s going to keep coming back to her, if only to listen. Yet another mother trying to mother some other mother’s child, since Daya and Aleida are on the outs at the moment.
And after all the rumors and fighting and testing and tension, the mundane reality is that MCC randomly picked people to work making cheap panties for a catalogue lingerie company called (appropriately enough, given all the rumors swirling beforehand) Whispers. In the end, after all those attempts to become something more than what her circumstances (and her mother) had planned for her, Flaca is going to sit down in front of a sewing machine, just like her mother taught her to do.
See what we mean about the mother thing? There’s such a thing as perhaps taking a theme too far. Daya, Ruiz, Aleida and Gloria are all dealing with the same loss of control over their children. It’s a point being hammered just a bit too hard this season.
In other news, Alex is paranoid that Kubra is sending someone to kill her and Piper is being kind of a bitch about it, openly teasing her and making fun of her when it’s actually a very real possibility. Also, Poussey’s apparently got a drinking problem and Taystee fucked with her hooch stash and let her believe a squirrel did it, which… we don’t even know what to say about that one. We get that Taystee is the new mother figure in her family, but it’s such an odd and unnecessary way of illuminating that. Way too “wacky hi-jinks in prison.” Theres a definite sense throughout the season that certain storylines are put in motion just to give certain characters something to do, which is not something we ever detected in the writing before now.
There’s more going on, of course, from the takeover of the prison by the smarmy Danny Pearson, to the surprise reveal that Leanne speaks German, to Soso’s increasing depression and Norma’s increasingly odd need to form her own cult, to Red’s failed romance with Healy, who reveals he was at Woodstock and doesn’t even know it. There are a ton of narrative plates spinning at the moment and some of them feel just a bit perfunctory right now. It’s great that they want to give every character a voice and a story, but we fear the season has become overloaded already and we’re not even halfway through it.
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Rosamund Pike in Erdem at “Gone Girl” Shanghai Press Conference