Review: 'Orange Is the New Black' Season 3, 'Fear and Other Smells'

OITNB
Piper leads a proletariat uprising involving soiled ladies' undergarments in Season 3 of 'Orange Is the New Black.' Netflix

Since the advent of DVR sent appointment viewing the way of the pager and eight-track player, the mole-people critiquing TV have been scrambling to find a new model for reviews. Netflix’s strategy of dumping entire seasons of original programming onto the Net all at once has only complicated matters further. Do we try to pump out as many reviews as quickly as possible once a show’s online, or ignore the change in the breeze and continue to mosey along at the once-a-week pace? What of spoilers, the pop-cultural scourge? What use does episodic criticism have when the viewer (or, for that matter, the writer) already knows what’s going to happen?

Newsweek’s reviews of Orange Is the New Black’s third season will run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the next month. More importantly, each piece will include a Word on the Street section after the review, specifically working through various spoilers as they circulate and how they affect our reading of the show. There are two sorts of people left in the world, and our coverage will cater to both of them. The binge-watchers get the bird’s-eye view they want, and those viewers attempting to savor the season can take it at their own pace. Power to the people.

Episode Eight: “Fear, and Other Smells”

Orange Is the New Black has been a lot of things over its preceding two seasons—modern-day Shakespearean history play, collection of empathetic character sketches, careful roll call of the myriad social ills in contemporary America—but going full-out corporate satire still feels like a decisive, bold step. Even as showrunner Jenji Kohan and her writing staff continue to explore other backstories and spin subplots to keep fan-favorite supporting characters busy, the prevailing thematic concern this season is the threat that corporatization poses to the basic functionality of institutions. When men in suits (and the meeting is predominantly white men, save for the poor bastard who makes the clever yet poorly timed remark about the Jews and is promptly dismissed) come in and act like they know how to run a prison, mistakes are made. At first, the statements Kohan was trying to make were well-executed, though not especially fresh. Corporate executives strip the humanity and decency from organizations until all that’s left is a profit center, and then they employ doughy middlemen to obfuscate attempts to effect change by the men on the ground. They’re the enemies of creativity, of productivity, and of meaning. Corporations, as fate would have it, are not people.

Heretofore, Mike Birbiglia’s Danny has been the season’s chief villain. Kohan expands her lens even further in “Fear, and Other Smells” to reveal that Danny has no more agency in this rigid hierarchy than Caputo. The audience had always fairly assumed that when the infuriatingly copacetic (take a shot every time Danny refers to Caputo as some form of “bro” in an attempt to defuse the tension, if only so that you’re too drunk to watch the magnificently awkward spectacle of Mike Birbiglia trying to play it cool) Danny claimed to run Caputo’s requests up the ladder, he kept them in his pocket. Kohan reveals that even when he does try to float vital ideas to maintain the basic upkeep of Litchfield, they’re quickly snuffed out. Litchfield’s a prison, and Starbucks brews coffee, and Harvard molds young minds, but Kohan makes the time-honored argument that every corporation serves but a single purpose: to generate capital to keep itself alive.

For all its corporate critiques, Orange Is the New Black isn’t some Marxist call-to-action urging the proletariat to throw off their shackles. The most surprising notion that “Fear, And Other Smells” posits is that of responsible capitalism, a humane and workable alternative to the unbudging idiocy of MCC. Indeed, the speech that Piper delivers to her fellow inmates, imploring them to provide her with sweated-upon underwear, sounds like something out of an old-school industrial propaganda film. She appeals to their sense of purpose, instilling in them the idea that what they’ll do has meaning and will directly benefit them. (As Gina confesses, she was on board the second Piper offered her a packet of ramen flavoring.) Piper’s a ruthlessly strategic capitalist, investing in “flavor futures” in order to put her fellow inmates in a gustatory stranglehold. But it’s vital to note that her ultimate goal harms or exploits no one, and trickles down to benefit all involved. Ideally, this is how the American market of commerce should work. As long as the person in charge isn’t a soulless, money-horny executive, the system can work. Here, Orange Is the New Black does something that remarkably few other shows deigning to denounce capitalistic structures have done: It suggests a livable substitute.

It’s strong commentary, though it comes with the negative side effect of rendering the episode’s other plotlines rather inconsequential. Worse still, Kohan shifts focus to Alex Vause this episode, a character that has long since outlived her usefulness on the program. Laura Prepon’s still great for a one-liner and God knows that Alex Vause .gifs rack up the precious Tumblr reblogs for which TV producers hunger so desperately, but Alex no longer occupies an essential space in the world of Litchfield. Fortunately, it seems that Kohan’s framing up a quick disposal for Alex at the hands of terse, creepy inmate Lolly. Her days are numbered, it seems, and that could provide Prepon with a graceful exit as well as amplifying the drama for inmates deeper in the plot.

Twice as fortunately, Kohan has the presence of mind to play it relatively light with Vause’s flashbacks, giving time to the remainder of plotlines scattered across this season. Some of them don’t amount to much—Daya’s finally come clean to Pornstache’s mother, which hopefully won’t spell the end of Mary Steenburgen’s welcome presence on the show, and Sophia (Laverne Cox) realizes that her son may not be the angel she imagined he is. Suzanne’s reinvention as erotica author supreme doesn’t carry a ton of weight in the grander scheme of the program, but it provides Kohan with a brilliant opportunity for metatextual ribbing about the unreasonable demands that popular fiction writers like herself face. Stranger still and half as relevant, Pennsatucky’s successfully convinced the new guard to get them both donuts. They even go to feed the ducks! It’s an unexpectedly sweet and serene scene, which Orange Is the New Black viewers know can only mean one thing: Disaster looms.

Word on the Street

I had long since caught wind that a sexual assault will mar the face of this season’s tenth episode, but the specific circumstances surrounding that rape were only clarified recently. I’m aware now that Pennsatucky’s the victim, and that her overseer, Officer Coates, is the perpetrator. While I’m sure that the scene may not carry the shocking dramatic heft it would have had I gone into it cold, the suspended sense of terror that colors the duck-feeding scene may be even worse. The promise of future trauma hangs over Pennsatucky’s every scene like a repulsive sword of Damocles, and the anticipation proves no less excruciating.