Welcome back to Litchfield, OITNB fans. Sometimes waiting for season three has felt slightly like a prison sentence (obviously only for those viewers who have never actually been to prison). But it’s been worth the agony. Watching the first episode of the series three feels lovely and familiar, like visiting old friends who you desperately want to catch up with.
The big news is that Alex (Laura Prepon) is back. After series two, there was some speculation as to whether she would be, but she was too important a character to let go. When we last saw her she’d been released from prison, but in her terror of being found by the drugs gang she’d dobbed in, she ended up back in the slammer after being found with an illegal gun.
Alex is horrified at having given up her chance of freedom, but it also feels right that she and Piper (Taylor Schilling) are back together, with their turbulent, messy relationship. Piper’s ex-fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) is nowhere to be seen, and he won’t be back. He represents the ordinary outside world, which Piper has nothing to do with anymore, while Alex is completely intertwined with Piper’s crazy new life.
It’s Mother’s Day at the prison, which makes for some very funny scenes. The grounds are swarming with children who have come to visit, and you almost forget it’s a prison rather than a nursery. Almost. That is, until the entirely humourless correctional officer Wanda (Catherine Curtin) gets so frustrated with the kids failing to smash the pinata, she uses her baton to break it instead. There aren’t actually any sweets inside. “Oh my God, this is such a metaphor for their lives,” says the hilariously earnest Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), gazing at the disappointed children in wonder. Another inmate takes cocaine out of her baby’s nappy, where her partner has clearly stashed it as a little mother’s day gift.
Everyone’s favourite inmates Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) are on top form, spouting laugh-out-loud lines including a particularly good Harry Potter reference. Sophia (Laverne Cox) is allowing only mothers into her salon, as they all want to look their best for their families. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) is full of theories as wacky as ever, but she seems calmer after her very violent second series. There’s a lightness to Litchfield, and everything seems as ok as a prison can be. It’s the moments of warmth and community that make you almost think their existence doesn’t look too awful after all.
But then the episode does what the show always pulls off so brilliantly — it reminds you that for all the moments of laughter, these women are under lock and key, with terribly difficult lives, and that they’ve lost everything they hold dear. A pregnant Dayanara (Dascha Polanco) is struggling to come to terms with the idea of having a baby in prison, and Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) sons lie to her about her market still being open just to keep her hope alive.
There’s a truly heart-wrenching moment when one inmate’s partner says he won’t be bringing their child to see her anymore. He doesn’t want the increasingly aware child to spend any time in a place “like that”. Her screams of grief are a reminder that OITNB isn’t just a show; it’s based on real women who are suffering the same fate as Piper, Red, Morello and Crazy Eyes – and is all the more powerful for it.
Yet even with these moments of tragedy, the series has a lighter feel than series two, which was full of feuds, violence and fear. It was still addictive, gripping drama, but it sometimes lost its warmth and sense of humour. This first episode sets the new tone beautifully, easing us back into Litchfield life in all its complexity.
As usual, Netflix will be releasing the series in its entirety on 12th June. You’d better start thinking up some good excuses for why it’s very, very important that you work from home that day…