Sexuality and Spirituality in Orange Is The New Black

The third season of Orange is the New Black is really good.  It took Rachael and me a month to get around to watching it because we’ve had other things lined up on our to-watch list (for example, if you haven’t seen Call The Midwife, you should, because it is amazing but you won’t realize that until you sit down and just start watching), but once we started, we zoomed through the whole season in about four days.

Orange‘s third season is notable mostly because it’s the first season in the series that really feels like it’s built around an ensemble cast.  The creators mentioned when Season Two launched last year that they had intended all along to do an ensemble show, but the first season had to focus heavily on Piper as the protagonist in order to sell the concept; once the show amassed a fanbase, they felt more confident in the second season to de-emphasize Piper’s story in favor of focusing on many of the other inmates, though it still felt like Piper was the star of the show for much of the second season.  In Season Three, it’s very clear that she’s on even footing with the rest of the inmates narratively speaking.

The biggest way this is evidenced is the way Piper only has a significant part in one of the seasons’s several ongoing plotlines; she decides to begin a business selling used inmate panties, and in the process grows more and more ruthless while dealing with the realities of managing an illegal business from inside prison (the plotline has overtones of Breaking Bad, but in a comical way that doesn’t really diminish either series through comparison).  There’s also some relationship drama between Piper and Alex, who has found herself back in Litchfield after Piper snitched on her at the end of the second season and is now suffering from anxiety and mild paranoia at being trapped in a place where her old employer Kubra could find her.

And that’s it for Piper’s involvement in the season.

Orange Is the New Black (2013) Poster

Faith is a major motif of the third season, and it’s obvious that this was totally intentional. (Image credit: IMDb)

In a lot of ways Piper’s plotline feels pretty heavily divorced from the other threads that are going on in this season, but that seems mostly to stem from a difference in thematic purpose.  Piper’s plot is about her continuing descent into her identity as a hardened criminal, while everyone else is searching for a means of connecting with someone or something.  The two most common types of connection that pop up in this season are related to romance and expressions of faith as ways of coping with loneliness and isolation.

You see a lot of this underlying motif in things like the promotional card for the season, which depicts several of the main characters posing on prayer candles like saints, and the arcs for previously minor characters like Norma and Cindy (Norma inadvertently starts her own cult, and Cindy starts a scam to get kosher meals that leads her to decide to sincerely convert to Judaism when she gets caught).  It all culminates with the season finale which explores the history of various characters’ defining spiritual moments (Healy’s flashback, like everything else about him, is the worst) and various epiphanies that they have in the present.

At the same time that faith is an overt motif in the season, you also have a lot of interplay with the sexuality of the characters, as this season explores Poussey’s feelings of isolation over being the only lesbian in her prison family, which leads her to get involved with Norma’s cult (which, coincidentally, grows out of Norma’s appropriation of Gloria’s Santeria practice), Boo’s misadventures trying to scam a stand-in for the Westboro Baptist Church by pretending to be a converted ex-lesbian, and Doggett’s gradual departure from the fundamentalist rhetoric that made her such an effective villain in the first season as she develops her friendship with Boo and comes to terms with her rape at the hands of a prison guard.  All of these characters are looking for ways of connecting with others while trapped in an extreme situation, and I think it’s really interesting how this desire for connection gets expressed communally (almost all of the overt expressions of faith that we see are done with other people; the point’s especially sharp in the finale when Cindy gathers the Jews she knows to convene a beit din to confirm her as a Jew and she emphasizes that she needs to have acknowledgement from three people for her conversion to be legitimate) in response to interpersonal frustrations.  There are certainly stories that center around the successful growth of an interpersonal relationship, but the overwhelming response to instances of romantic rejection or frustration is to seek shelter in a faith community (and in Doggett’s case, where her faith community has explicitly failed her, the pattern’s reversed so she seeks solace from her friendship with Boo).

I don’t really know if there’s any larger intent behind the pattern of communal faith versus interpersonal relationships, but it was pretty interesting to note.  I think this new season of Orange is the New Black is the strongest one yet though, so definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

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