Review: 'Orange Is the New Black' Season 3, 'Ching Chong Chang'

Orange is the New Black
Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren gets a talking to from Poussey about her anger, preceded by Poussey's stern talking to from Taystee about her drinking. Lots of stern talks in "Orange Is the New Black," Season 3. Netflix

Since the advent of the 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 important, 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 6, “Ching Chong Chang”

With “Ching Chong Chang,” showrunner Jenji Kohan proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there’s no character too peripheral, too thinly sketched or too minor to be deserving of her own measure of attention from the audience. Lori Tan Chinn’s Chang has consistently been the most sitcommy character during the show’s three seasons, a one-joke premise willed into life. The facileness with which Kohan drew Chang in earlier episodes leaned on reductive point-and-laugh mockery for humor. Chang’s got a stoic face, Chang does weird stuff, Chang rarely speaks and when she does it’s either nonsense or sass, and so on and so forth.

“Ching Chong Chang”—an epithet that Pennsatucky hurls at Chang in passing, earning herself a well-deserved “Fuck you, cracker” in response—provides the audience with backstory but no insight. Nothing we learn about Chang’s origin as a wife-for-sale or ascendant organ trafficker sheds new light on her present as the inscrutable overseer of the commissary at Litchfield. And that word, inscrutable, that’s deliberate as well. One of the more troubling aspects of Kohan’s engagement and lack thereof with Chang thus far has been an unsavory reliance on clichés of Asian characters as terse, intense and mystically wise. All of this is to say that the episode provides Kohan with a much-needed chance to save face with what has heretofore been one of her and her writing staff’s weakest creations.

Chang doesn’t grow, or open up, or really reveal anything about herself in this hour. There’s a disconnect between her flashback sequences and the quiet, leisurely portrait of solitude that makes up the rest of her arc, and Kohan never attempts to bridge it. Instead, she continues to show Chang’s bizarre habits, but with the crucial added benefit of her own perspective. The things she does are weird, no arguing that—to wit: brushing her teeth with salt, cooking microwavable snack patties from mashed Doritos and peas, hiding in a maintenance shed to munch on oranges and watch Chinese soap operas on a secret cellphone—but revealing the meticulousness and silent dignity with which she does them makes a world of difference.

When seen through her own eyes, these quirks form a necessary routine to keep her brain from dissolving into gelatin from an unstimulating prison life. She goes about her daily business, keeps the shop, enjoys her pleasures and doesn’t bother anybody. We learn of her latent streak of ice-cold badassery via Kohan’s pulpy flashbacks, as well as Chang’s baldly autobiographical play (I think she’s got promise as a dramatist!), but none of that changes the Chang we’ve come to know over the past couple of seasons. Chang is as Chang does; she remains an enigma, albeit a more sympathetic and nuanced one.

Chang’s story doesn’t place huge demands on the episode’s runtime, leaving Kohan space to flesh out a running B-plot that’s slowly made this into the series’ most exciting season yet. For prisoners and administrators alike, the privatization of Litchfield has shaken the show’s status quo to its very foundations. MCC’s increasingly hostile takeover is exactly the sort of risky gambit that Kohan would usually make on Weeds, though that show’s relocation to Mexico never worked half as well as, say, this episode’s scene in which the collected officers force Caputo to admit that he loves them and will protect their jobs in the face of mandated part-time hires.

The invisible forces of privatization have opened up loads of new avenues for storytelling and provide this hour with some of its finest lines. Watching the black inmates sort Piper out after she likens their sweatshop jobs to slave labor is righteous and astute, though the discussion of body standards veers dangerously close to the didacticism that’s marred some episodes. There are other scattered highlights—Morello’s equally hilarious and depressing visits from her litany of male pen pals, the long-awaited introduction of Piper’s idealized romantic partner in Ruby Rose’s hot-’n-mean Stella, a gentle intervention from Taystee on Poussey’s boozing. But the overarching framework eviscerating the little cruelties of capitalism is what makes this third season feel like crucial television once again.

Word on the Street

In the attached “Word on the Street” section for Episode 4, I noted that I had caught wind of a spoiler indicating that Cindy converts to Judaism to enjoy the attendant privileges. As this episode clarifies, that both is and is not the case. Knowing that nobody’s allowed to make her prove it, Cindy claims to be Jewish so she may enjoy the significantly tastier kosher meals.

I had envisioned a whole fish-out-of-water subplot in which Cindy is thrust into the arcana of the Jewish faith. Maybe she learns a valuable lesson through the Torah, who knows? But the common vagaries of spoilers have a way of transforming them into red herrings, giving you a falsely certain idea that you know what happens due to ambiguous secondhand comments. It’s a game of telephone in which the plot twists get twisted and, ultimately and ironically, create even more mystery. A plot point sneaks up on you with increased stealth when spoilers have lulled you into a false sense of security.