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Orange Is the New Black Quietly Reinvents Itself by Losing the Villain Narrative

No villains to see here. Photo: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

Spoilers ahead for season three of Orange Is the New Black.

Season three of Orange Is the New Black seems in most ways to be more of the same: a chapter-by-chapter set of flashbacks woven together with elements of both sitcom banter and tense workplace-drama machinations. Pop-culture references abound. Lesbian love, or at least lesbian sex, flourishes. But there’s also a major shift in the show’s structure, and it affects the balance of the entire season (and perhaps the show going forward): Season three doesn’t have a villain.

In some ways, this makes the show seem lighter, particularly in the first half of the season. But in the second half of the season, there’s still plenty of violence — rape, assault, murder, abandonment. It’s that the threat has become diffuse, the density of menace has lessened. Like Piper, we as the audience have kind of gotten the hang of things, and the need to be on high alert has quieted. The circumstances themselves, though, haven’t really changed. It’s not actually super peaceful, and there are plenty of people who are still dangerous; conditions are still dehumanizing. We’re just used to it.

In season one, prison itself was the villain, and plenty of people contributed to the overwhelming sense of danger, particularly as we saw things through Piper’s eyes. Red was terrifying, and Pennsatucky was a frighteningly unhinged source of violence. Mr. Healy’s capriciousness could be breathtakingly cruel. Pornstache was vicious and inconsistent. Season two focused all of its threats on Vee, making her almost too villainous, given how much empathy the show engenders for all its other characters.

Season three, though, does not have a central danger — well, not for Piper, it doesn’t. Daya’s mom Aleida is pretty dangerous from where Sophia’s sitting. The beef between Sophia and Gloria is dangerous to the two of them. Alex spends the whole season seeming paranoid, until it turns out someone really is after her. The new guard “Donuts” is dangerous for Pensatucky. Hell, Nicky got sent to max! Chang has a deeply violent history. Sweet, mute Norma murdered her hippie-cult husband. New inmate Lolly is comfortable hanging onto giant glass shards. There are bedbugs and pube metropolises, and that new private company seems okay but of course is just as vile and degrading as every other prison administration. Soso tries to kill herself. Poussey numbs herself to the world. Bennet abandons Daya and his unborn child. Daya considers placing her child with Pornstache’s mother, which almost seems like a better option given how things end up. There is plenty of darkness still lurking in and around Litchfield.

At the end of last season, nothing permanent had happened, and depending on how things go with Alex and the guy sent to kill her, one wonders if anything permanent happened this season, either. Last year that frustrated me, but this year it felt more fitting: Prison is constant spiritual chaos on a micro level, but rigid stasis on a macro one. OITNB pulled off an impressive trick this season by changing so much about the show structurally (by decentralizing peril) while keeping so much of how it works emotionally. Things don’t get worse or better — or lighter or darker. They stay the same, and as the theme song suggests, standing still is hard.

OITNB Season 3 Has No Villain