Nothing is Black and White

The women of Litchfield Penitentiary are back and as colorful as ever.

Netflix is back and firing on all cylinders in what is, without a doubt, the show’s best stretch of episodes to date. It’s easy to underestimate just what a daunting task this season had to accomplish. Juggling faces new and old, keeping relationships true, and plotlines fresh is never an easy task, but the cast and crew up the ante in every way imaginable.

The show’s strong suit was, is, and always will be, its ensemble cast. Not a single character is underutilized this season, nor are any of them stretched thin. There is a unique balance the show has struck with its character development that is truly a marvel of modern storytelling. There are constant stories connecting the women of Litchfield, with flashbacks here and there giving us insight into the characters’ minds and emotions.

I know what you’re thinking. Didn’t Lost do this over a decade ago? It’s true, Lost was known for its character-centric flashback model of storytelling. But Orange manages to avoid a major pitfall into which Lost and other shows fell—they know when enough is enough. The first two seasons gave us plenty of Piper. We get it. She’s a WASP, she’s privileged, and she’s principled. The writers recognize that we understand Piper, so they give us backstories on other characters…other characters that we may have forgotten about or written off as comic relief.  We don’t need to fear the writers will retread old ground, since there is so much left to explore. The show takes full advantage of its roster and it makes the season all the better for it.

The storylines that connect these characters are just as nuanced as the characters themselves. It’s extremely easy for shows to fall into the trap of “Oh, well she’s the mean one, and she’s the nice one, and she’s the good guy, and she’s the bad one.” Every relationship is given meaning and weight. While we may ultimately take sides with one inmate or another, there is nary a point at which we question why a character would act in a certain way. The series never picks a favorite. It’s not black and white. There are no protagonists or antagonists. There are just people.

Add on to this, the fact that no story really has a beginning or ending. Every conversation is built on a previous interaction that keeps the story moving at a realistic pace. After all, how often does life have simultaneous starting and stopping points. Orange does a fantastic job moving some arcs to the foreground and others to the back, and then seamlessly swapping their positions. It is a wonderful blend that is as natural as it is engaging.

Impressive still is the gravity inherent in every plotline. The show tackles everything from transgender and LGBTQ issues to rape to race to identity to the prison system as a whole. Orange will make you think about more issues in 13 episodes than most shows will bring up in a full series run. It’s astounding, and the writers simply cannot be given enough praise for their ingenuity, bravery, and creativity.

And creativity is important to mention because, at its core, the show is still really funny. Whether it’s the ridiculous and elaborate situations in which the characters find themselves or simply the subtleties of conversation, the show is always hilarious and spirited. It’s a show that can make you laugh, yell, and cry, all in a matter of minutes. You’ll feel dread, happiness, horror, shock, love, and an overwhelming sense of hope, all independently and all at once. It’s an amazing spectrum of human emotion.

That’s not to say there aren’t flaws. There are flaws, but they’re small and pretty unique to me. The setting of the show is nearly ten miles from where I grew up as a child, and I can say with certainty that the sun DOES NOT shine that frequently in Utica, New York. Not at all. The references to Upstate New York are sprinkled throughout, are vague, and are only somewhat accurate, but no, it is certainly never that sunny. Again, that’s only a flaw in the eyes of a true Utican.

Another flaw with the season is the favorable mention of the restaurant Olive Garden. Officer Healy, there are so many fantastic Italian restaurants in Utica, and you eat at the Olive Garden? You passed up chicken riggies, greens, and tomato pie for OLIVE GARDEN!? THAT IS NOT ITALIAN FOOD! THAT IS MASS PRODUCED, WATERED DOWN, CHURNED OUT PASTA OF LIES! YOU DESERVE TO BE LOCKED UP TOO AND THEY SHOULD THROW AWAY THE DAMN KEY! But, *sigh* I digress. Just a…pet peeve of mine.

At the end of the day, the season is a resounding success. This was an ambitious season for an already ambitious show. Packing so much complexity and depth into so many plotlines for so many characters is unbelievable hard. Throwing in social commentary on top of that is even more difficult. Keeping it watchable, let alone engrossing, is basically impossible. But somehow, the amazingly talented writers, cast, and crew, bring the show to life, and it passes with flying colors.

Or at least one color…orange.

Alex Russo likes to talk about movies. You can read more of his insane ramblings on Twitter.

Alex Russo

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