By Jeff Jensen
Updated June 11, 2015 at 06:31 PM EDT
Credit: Jojo Whilden/Netflix

Mother’s Day is a riot for the locked-up ladies of Litchfield penitentiary. It’s celebrated with a carnival for the prisoners and their families, with games for the children and a tumult of emotions for all. This extraordinary passage in the season 3 premiere of Orange Is the New Black tracks the reactions of its vast, diverse world of characters, creating a tapestry of vignettes, each a gritty, nutty gem. For religious Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Mother’s Day means grieving past choices. For transgender Sophia (Laverne Cox) and her adolescent son, Mother’s Day is complicated. A piñata bash for the kids turns ugly when there’s nothing inside. Cries supersincere Soso (Kimiko Glenn): “Oh my God, this is such a metaphor for their lives!”

It’s also a metaphor for a season in which so many characters are forced to confront hard truths about their busted, hollow selves and flawed strategies for fulfillment. For Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), that comes in the form of karmic comeuppance for years of using and abusing people. For Poussey (Samira Wiley), it’s recognizing a dependence on alcohol, a revelation that comes via a story involving prison hooch. And a squirrel. It takes a pileup of poignant turns and quirky beats for this theme—and many others—to assert themselves. There’s no big bad to embody big ideas, no intensifying turf-war conflict telegraphing the season’s endgame—at least not until episode 4, when mounting intrigue over budget cuts leads to a game changer for Litchfield and supercharges the narrative.

As always, I’m awestruck and delighted by the imagination Jenji Kohan and her writers have for their enterprise. The flashbacks. The complex social vision. The inspired, ribald language. The surprising ways the characters reveal themselves in response to triggering events like a plague of bedbugs or an aptitude test. Not everything works as well as you’d like. Sometimes those surprising ways feel too arch or arbitrary—a rant by Carrie (Lea DeLaria) about Roe v. Wade’s impact on crime rates, for example. And the season’s most anticipated story line, Piper’s (Taylor Schilling) reunion with femme-fatale lover Alex (Laura Prepon), is a mixed bag. It allows Orange to let rip with Piper’s chaotic embrace of lesbian identity, but their chemistry—initially expressed through hate sex—and the resolution of key issues between them is contrived. Their relationship, and Piper in general, show signs of becoming more interesting in episode 6, when a new job brings her into contact with an alluring new inmate, played by Ruby Rose. Still, for every bit that clunks, a dozen others sing. Season 3 of Orange might be a slow peel with some sour bites, but its overwhelming richness reaffirms its standing as one of television’s ripest, zestiest shows. A–

Episode Recaps

Orange Is the New Black

Jenji Kohan’s absorbing ensemble dramedy, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, takes viewers inside the walls of Litchfield, a minimum security women’s prison where nothing’s as simple as it seems—especially the inmates.

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  • 6
  • TV-MA
  • Netflix