Review: 'Orange Is the New Black' Season 3, 'We Can Be Heroes'

OITNB
Despite her great intentions, C.O. Berdie Rogers feels the wrath of the corporate prison system. 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 Eleven: "We Can Be Heroes"

There’s plenty to cover in Orange Is the New Black’s third-to-final episode (pen-penultimate?), but the hour’s most novel move is the trial of Joe Caputo. Showrunner Jenji Kohan shifts focus to the crusty-but-benign assistant warden in the latest character-centric episode, and something feels different about this collection of recollections. As Caputo recalls a youth as a would-be rock star and the willing abandonment of his dreams, Kohan affects a far more judgmental tone than is customary for the program. Generally, Kohan’s interested in shedding light on the characters around which an episode’s flashbacks revolve, exposing the complications of a life of crime. Heretofore, Caputo’s been a mostly harmless presence at Litchfield. He’s grumpy, but the guy runs a prison. Eminently understandable. There’s no rationalizing his pervier tendencies—let none of us forget his impromptu office jerk-sesh in season one after registering Piper—but as we’ve seen in this season, he’s a guy trying to do his best with the sinking ship he’s boarded.

There may be a rich diversity of color at Litchfield, but everyone’s truly working in shades of gray, and Caputo’s no different. Kohan sets out to locate the contradictory, self-sabotaging aspects of Caputo’s well-intentioned nature during the flashbacks. Instead of locating goodness in the depths of criminal behavior, Kohan goes searching for defects of character in a man with a fetish for helping others. The entire sad story ultimately boils down to a few lines screeched at Caputo by the woman who leaves him for his far more successful bandmate. She berates him for being nice for recognition’s sake, “holding the door open” and expecting a parade. They’re not entirely inaccurate words; it’s true that Caputo has a deep-seated need to be needed. (Observe how he leaps into action following a few halfhearted refusals when retrieving the mistakenly released Angie from the bus station bench.) The brutality of his ex's accusation, however, seems unwarranted, as does Kohan’s tacit condemnation of his behavior by using Caputo’s lover as a mouthpiece. “It’s not right to expect anything in return for kindness” is a rather cockeyed moral for the show to promote, especially in a world so defined by its big-hearted generosity towards the characters that populate it. Perhaps Caputo’s choice to join the cause of the unionizing guards and subsequent reward in the form of a rousing Les Miserables sing-along acts as Kohan’s suggestion that the world’s not a random, amoral slaughterhouse after all. Either way, Kohan’s guilty verdict on Caputo for charges of emotional neediness rings false. Call it apologia, but this appears to be the first time a flashback sequence has set out to criticize rather than humanize its subject.

Caputo falling in with the rebel poor provides that segment with a more optimistic aftertaste than its parallel, the mounting unionization in Piper’s underwear operation. Flaca catches wind that the guards want to collectively negotiate, and she rightfully realizes that she and Piper’s other sweat-factories deserve more than flavor dust. Even as capitalist tensions mount—seriously, this season could probably be taught in an economics class on a sub day—the real motion of the story takes place within Piper, as the seductive lure of power begins to corrupt her. Alex is off in Alex Land doing Alex Things, but her straight-talk to Piper, that she’s allowing the authority as the overseer of an increasingly organized and straightforwardly criminal operation go to her head, is much-needed. The subtle hints of Walter White in last episode have increased to a potent reek.

After the explosive events of “A Tittin’ and a Hairin’”, several plot lines gear up for a second re-climax as the season nears its end. Daya’s belly grows ever-rounder, and the simmering conflict between Sophia and Gloria has spread to the rest of the prison population in addition to taking on an ugly, transphobic hue. The show triggers flashes of The Wire as the understanding, progressive Berdie is dismissed on account of Suzanne’s erotica; anti-meritocratic resolution was practically David Simon’s trademark. The institution never fails to stamp out reform and good intentions, not when they challenge the status quo. The most affecting moment comes between Boo and Pennsatucky. Watching a former meth-addled homophobe befriend a woman who’s more of a lesbian than most straight people are straight has been a rich, satisfying experience over the course of this season. Boo specifically plays on the dynamic they’ve cultivated when pushing her new friend to accept that what’s happened to her is in no way her fault, normal, or remotely acceptable. Boo understands that men have taken advantage of Pennsatucky all her life, and so she turns up the heat until the discomfort becomes too much. Boo challenges ‘Tucky to admit that she needs, in essence, basic personhood. In accepting that, and finally exonerating herself of the guilt for her terrible rape, she makes a more promising step towards reformation than any prison program could possibly provide her. Boo and ‘Tucky begin to work through deep-seated problems in this episode; the most that MCC can do is farm out the problem to part-timers. That’s the frustrating thing about capitalism, though. The good stuff, the really good stuff—comfort, safety, stability, happiness—can’t be factored in as line items on a budget.

Word on the Street

With only two episodes left on the clock, the spoilers have dwindled. Which, in the grand scheme of things, is the conclusive evidence that I was searching for when I first proposed the idea of this subsection. Even as Orange Is the New Black diehards blow through the season, a viewer—and a viewer who compulsively checks a Twitter feed that includes posts from a number of TV critics at that—can go into the season finale completely untainted. Staggering my viewings of these episodes has been more than an exercise in self-restraint; it’s been a consoling reassurance that even as content undergoes a massive shift in favor of online streaming platforms, the terrain will not become completely alien. Even in a world where everything’s right there, right now, whenever a user so pleases, families with the inclination can still get together for the cozy ritual of weekly viewing. Families, coming together to share in one another’s company and watch prison inmates lob gleefully off-color one-liners at each other—isn’t that what Norman Rockwell dreamed about?