But for all that “Orange Is the New Black” tells these stories well, the third season of the show did something that’s even more unusual for television. By turning Litchfield over to a private corporation, bringing in a company that wanted to exploit the prisoners as cheap labor and upsetting the economics of the kitchen — among many, many other subplots — “Orange Is the New Black” turned in one of the best explorations of work and capitalism on television since the second season of “The Wire.”
What the decline of the docks were to HBO’s second year in Baltimore, private prison company MCC’s takeover of Litchfield is to “Orange Is the New Black.” Corporate management doesn’t change the fact that Litchfield is a prison, just as Frank Sobotka’s (Chris Bauer) reluctant participation in a smuggling operation didn’t fundamentally alter the operations of the dock. But MCC’s arrival upends the relationship that both prisoners and guards have to their work, just as the Greek’s infestation of the shipping yard changed the stevedores and their union on “The Wire.”
Under the new regime on “Orange Is the New Black,” the guards aren’t treated like professionals who have insights into the prisoners and the prison environment, but rather reduced to shift workers so they can be denied benefits. The prisoners themselves turn into potential cost and profit centers, measured in meal costs, subcontracted labor and the price of labor and delivery.
In two parallel story lines, MCC’s decisions lead to worker revolts. Facing continuing shift cuts and attacks on their benefits, the prison guards begin meeting to discuss their situation. When administrator Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) suggests that they work part-time jobs to make up for their lost wages, he’s regaled with all the woes his guards face on their other jobs. And when a newer officer accidentally releases the wrong prisoner, Caputo recognizes that cost-cutting can cause the prison substantial embarrassment and might even lead to its closure.
Even though they worry about possible retaliation for organizing and recognize that they’re unlikely to be able to affiliate with a more powerful national labor organization, the guards decide to try to unionize. In the environment of the prison, it’s an oddly hopeful gesture, almost sweet — “People died for the eight-hour workday,” Ford (Germar Terrell Gardner) tells his colleagues, insisting that they should stand up in the name of history. And for a brief moment, Caputo joins them, energized by the idea that they can stand together against the company and make Litchfield a more effective, humane place. When Caputo undermines the organizing campaign at the end of the season, he forgets that his colleagues wanted trust and authority as well as money. Frank Sobotka may have taken the wrong lifeline to try to save his docks and his union, but at least he had the opportunity to grab at it.
Lower down on the economic scale, one of the company’s innovations produces a similar result. MCC’s “director of human activity” Danny Pearson (Mike Birbiglia) floats rumors of a new job assignment and pretends that the results of a personality test he pulled from the Internet will determine who gets the new jobs — “My system is to make the ladies think there is a system,” he tells Caputo. For some of the inmates, like Taystee (Danielle Brooks), the biggest lure is the higher wages. For others, like Flaca (Jackie Cruz), who wanted to do something more exciting than work in her mother’s seamstress shop, that money indicates that “Whatever it is, it’s going to take skills and smarts.” But when the assignments are announced, it turns out that Danny’s gotten the women excited so he can subcontract their labor, at less than minimum wage rates, to Whispers, a company that sells cheap lingerie.
The rate at which the Whispers setup wastes fabric inspires Piper to set up a scam, making extra pairs of panties, having her fellow inmates wear them and then selling the used garments to fetishists on the Internet. While the other prisoners generally submit to Whispers management, they rebel against Piper once they figure out how much money she’s making. Inspired by a discarded pamphlet for the guards union, Flaca leads a revolt, declaring “We don’t work for ramen no more.” Piper finds a way to get money to the women who are helping her, but fires Flaca in retaliation. And in the end, Piper doesn’t learn the lesson that ought to have been obvious from Whispers’ whole operation: that there’s always a way to cut costs. Piper’s brother and sister-in-law find a workaround that let them pocket the inmates’ profits.
Whispers isn’t the only way the company finds to devalue the inmates’ labor and talents and to disrupt their relationships to their work. Red loses her place in the prison hierarchy when she’s expelled from the kitchen. The idea that her family would have her store waiting for her on her return sustained Red, but the Mother’s Day revelation that the business had closed in her absence floors her and sours her relationship with Piper (Taylor Schilling), who lied about checking on the store for Red. She embarks on a campaign to win the kitchen back, telling counselor Sam Healey (Michael Harney), “No matter how much reading and gardening I do, my mind drifts. I have this need. An overwhelming need. A drive. A hunger. … Give me something to be consumed with. Sure, it leaves me with blisters, and burns, and an aching back, but it’s work. Real work. I yearn for it. … I need purpose and stimulation.”
When Red does get back in the kitchen, though, she returns just as MCC institutes a new food supply chain, turning kitchen work into a matter of preparing boil-in-the-bag meals and denying Red the creativity that sustained her. Though she’s initially discouraged, Red ends up using her connections in the garden to prepare a series of locally sourced, limited-attendance dinners. MCC may have gotten per-meal costs at Litchfield down to the average the company was aiming for, but it’s sacrificed the much greater value of Red’s talents.
And Healy uses corporate standards as a weapon when he feels threatened. Healy’s always been an awkward man, his affection for the prisoners he counsels shot through with racism and paternalist contempt. As Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco) puts it, “My counselor’s an old white man who tries to relate by saying ‘Hola’ in the hallway.” But though Healy becomes closer with Red this season, he finds himself threatened by Berdie Rogers (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a young, African American counselor whom the prisoners seem to prefer. “You’re really bad at your job, Mr. Healey. Like, really bad,” Soso (Kimiko Glenn) tells Healy when he tries to treat her depression with medication rather than talk therapy. “You make me feel worse about myself every time we talk.”
Healy’s marriage is failing, too. Faced with the loss of the last remaining source of his identity and self-esteem, Healy does something destructive and cruel. When Suzanne, inspired by Berdie’s classes, writes an erotic novel that becomes immensely popular among the prisoners, Healy suggests that Berdie pushed Suzanne to write porn and violated sexual harassment guidelines and gets her fired.
And MCC’s laxness and cost-cutting may have fatal consequences. Piper’s sometime-girlfriend Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) spends much of the season convinced her old drug smuggling colleagues are going to send another prisoner to kill her. When her paranoia is confirmed, however, it’s not another inmate who poses the danger: a drug lord’s assassin has slipped through MCC’s loose hiring practices and gotten a job as a part-time guard, giving him both the means and the weapons to harm her.
Even when MCC’s not involved, work plays a part in almost every other story line in the third season of “Orange Is the New Black.”
It’s no mistake that when a group of other inmates corner Sophia, demanding to inspect her genitals, they come to see her in her salon. And it would make perfect sense that when reason and shame fail to deter them, Sophia announces that she won’t be cowed by ordering them to “Get the f– out of my house.” Of course Sophia’s place of work is her home in Litchfield: It’s an arena where she can demonstrate that she’s an expert in femininity, ratifying both her transition and the correctness of her assignment to a women’s prison. Attacking her there, rather than in the showers, in the kitchen line or in her bed amplifies the violence of the assault. Sophia isn’t just being threatened with beating and stabbing. The women assaulting her are trying to deny her the role in the prison economy and ecosystem that provides her with her living and her identity.
When Norma becomes the object of veneration among some of the more vulnerable inmates, she displaces Gloria (Selenis Leyva), who held power both in the kitchen and as Litchfield’s respected practitioner of Santeria. “This ain’t your history, this ain’t your culture,” Gloria tells Norma when she finds out Norma has been conducting healings. “It stops now.” But it doesn’t, and Norma’s rise costs Gloria the second of her two prison occupations after she quits the kitchen and cedes her official domain to Red.
And it’s Pennsatucky’s job driving the prison van, a position that initially allowed her a certain degree of freedom, that makes her vulnerable to a new officer, Charlie Coates (James McMenamin). Coates initially comes across as an indulgent figure who buys Pennsatucky donuts and encourages her to enjoy her time away from Litchfield. But his real intention is to take advantage of their lack of supervision: He rapes Pennsatucky when they’re off the prison grounds. While Pennsatucky manages to get off the job and away from Coates by faking a seizure that disqualifies her from driving in the future, she can’t eliminate the job or Coates’ role as van supervisor. The economy of prison means that Pennsatucky has to trade the small measure of autonomy allowed her for the safety from assault that should have been her right anyway.
Even the characters’ private lives and personalities become currency, sometimes in ways that align with the vision of the capitalist maw from “The Wire.” There are tragedies. Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) tries to change her relationship to heroin from buyer to dealer, only to find that there’s no safe role for her in the economy of addiction. Piper, who initially saw herself as a victim of Alex’s drug-smuggling operation, finds herself in her natural role as a predator when she starts her fetish business. The ruthlessness she shows Flaca after the strike, and the way she sets up Stella Carlin (Ruby Rose) after Stella steals her profits, suggests that Piper is a much more natural criminal than Alex ever was.
But there are victories, too — wins wrung from spiritual strikes and corrupted transactions. Cindy Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore) pursues a conversion to Judaism so she can keep receiving kosher meals. But while her intention is to trade sincerity for edible food, Cindy’s studies lead her to a faith that is more compelling than the harsh Christianity of her youth. Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) tries to broker an adoption of her daughter Daya’s baby, convincing a prospective adoptive mother to pay Daya a stipend. But ultimately she decides that the intangible value of parenting is worth more and sabotages the agreement she brokered. Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) tries to scam Pennsatucky’s religious supporters with a phony story about how she gave up lesbianism and converted to Christianity, but finds that she can’t sell out her butch identity for donations to her commissary.
It’s fitting that “Orange Is the New Black,” having spent so much time on work, ends with an extended scene of play that’s made possible by labor conflict. The guards walk off the job to protest Caputo’s betrayal, meaning that there’s no one watching the yard when maintenance workers remove a large section of the fence. Led by Norma, the inmates make a break for the lake that adjoins the prison grounds, splashing and floating in the water, building sandcastles, and in Cindy’s case, improvising a makeshift mikvah to complete her conversion.
None of the inmates try to turn their reprieves into permanent escapes; they know they’re headed back inside Litchfield’s walls. And when they do, there may be unpleasant surprises: Sophia is still in solitary; Alex is in danger; and Litchfield is about to be packed full of new inmates. But unlike the characters on “The Wire” who were crushed by the forces of capitalism personified by the Greek (Bill Raymond), the women of “Orange Is the New Black” are finding joy and moments of freedom even as MCC uses brutal economics to tighten the barbed wire that already surrounds them.