In this installment of Killer Serials, Tony Jones and I look back over season 3 of Orange is the New Black and discuss a few lingering and overarching themes.
TJ: Of course, being set in a prison, OITNB deals with the issue of liberty, of freedom. But I want us to consider a related theme that I think the show is dealing with, and that is personal agency. At first blush, you’d assume that the inmates have little agency, and the COs and visitors who come and go from the prison have all the agency in the world.
But here in season three, we see how untrue that is. Danny is powerful, but also chained to his father. Caputo lives in his own prison of expectations and disappointments personally, and constant fear of his bosses professionally. The guards work at the whim of a corporation, their hours and benefits cut as a cost-saving maneuver; and their attempts at unionizing —regaining some agency — flounder.
Meanwhile, inside the prison walls, personal agency flourishes. Chang has an entire private life that includes cooking her own food and watching Chinese shows on a mobile device. Piper starts a lucrative business. Suzanne becomes a novelist. Red cooks gourmet meals. Poussey brews hooch. Lorna courts suitors.
Post-Marxist philosophers have long argued that each of us lives in a prison of structures and super-structures that confine our movements, both physically and intellectually. They say that freedom and agency are just illusions — that we get just enough agency to think we’re in control, but really we’re not. How do you see these themes playing out?
JRP: Certainly in the ways that you’ve already articulated. But those themes are also at the heart of the inmates’ pre-incarceration lives. To a woman, they all found themselves trapped in “structures and super-structures” that set parameters on opportunities, expectations, liberty, and the future. Most of them end up in prison through choices they made, but most of them saw those choices as the only and limited options at their disposal.
We could go even deeper and talk about the agency of consciousness, the thought process, and decision making. I have a friend who researches these themes from a philosophical perspective. He was raised in a conservative religious setting, but has since moved on from that because, I would imagine in no small part, of the implications of his research, some of which suggests that we might not be fully responsible for the choices we make because of the biological and experiential (so to speak) structures and super-structures to which we are bound. You can see the ways in which this could do away with the chief currency of many religions…guilt.
I appreciate this analysis of inmate agency, but wonder if it is more of a fantasy than anything. Of course, I know it’s “just a TV show,” but it seems to be part of the reason why so many people push back against Orange is the New Black. It is exploiting the oppressive experiences of so many people and making light of the fact that we (the United States) have the highest rate of incarceration (by far) in the world. Which leads us to that final image from Episode 13. Thoughts on where next season is going with increased occupancy?
TJ: Some have criticized OITNB because the women in the prison seem to have too much freedom — chance meetings in stairwells, fights in the greenhouse, sex in the chapel. These seem unbelievable to those of us who haven’t been in prison. But just remember the prisoners who escaped from a prison in New York last month; it turned out they’d been cooking meals in their cells with contraband ground beef and jerry-rigged stoves. And they were in a maximum-security men’s prison.
I think the point is that, no matter our circumstances, human beings will find ways to exert our agency, even amidst our confinements.
And the show really is dealing with the larger societal issues that you note, both the near-hopelessness of many women-of-color and the massive populations in our prisons. In fact, with the percent of Americans who are in prison, it’s surprising that a show hasn’t been set within one until now.
Regarding the new prisoners, I had a visceral reaction. The lake scene was so cathartic and beautiful, and really long — probably the longest scene in the history of the show. I was crying through most of it. Then, just as the credits are about to roll, we see the buses unloading a bunch of new prisoners and new bunks being installed. My emotional response was, Why are you messing with the community of women I love?
JRP: That’s a great reaction. I felt something similar, but I was also scanning the new faces to see if I could recognize any of the actors. Of course, when the first season aired, I didn’t know any of these women and now, as you and I have discussed, many of them are doing some of the best work on television. Of course, “Martha Stewart’s” arrival will spice things up.
All in all, this was a strong series, that felt closer to the first than the second. I’m thankful for the attention the writers have given to the smaller (and better) characters and am continually amazed at the rich environment of television that can inspire lengthy conversations like this.
We’re back later this week with another Killer Serials installment as we delve into the hit summer series, Mr. Robot.