Following a hiatus that seemed to drag on forever, Orange Is the New Black returned this weekend with the highly anticipated Season 3. The binge-inducing series set the tone for the entire season with the premiere episode, “Mother’s Day.”
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t had a chance to hit play on your Netflix queue yet, be forewarned — this article contains details pertinent to major plot points in Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black.
Also, in full disclosure, the first episode will rip your guts out (you know, figuratively).
This is fitting since the rest of Season 3 follows suit, albeit building slowly to its crescendo. Perhaps that’s because Jenji Kohan figured we may need a metaphorical minute to catch our breath after the first episode left us with so many feels.
In the very first scene, we see that Pennsatucky has now been awarded the coveted position of van driver — a task that belonged to Morello before she let Rosa use it as a getaway vehicle.
But, as the title hints, this episode is about something far more universal than the roles prisoners play when they are incarcerated. It is about one very specific role endemic to women and how that role affects them pre- and post-Litchfield.
Our first flashback comes by way of none other than our new van driver, Pennsatucky. In it, we see a young Pennsatucky standing in front of a social security administration office, where her mama forces her to chug a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew.
Moments later, the big picture emerges. “You can see for yourself she ain’t right in the head,” her mama tells the social security administrator. “Never had all what belongs to her, poor thing. But we take what the Lord gives us.”
She has exploited the system — and, more depressingly, her own daughter — for $314 per month.
Later, Pennsatucky uses Popsicle sticks as makeshift grave markers for her six aborted babies, apologizing for getting them “sucked out” instead of being their mother.
Starting here, in these first few moments with Pennsatucky, we’re introduced to the central thesis for much of the season: It takes all kinds to make a world. And, in the prison world, this is especially true when it comes to the roles we play.
In Pennsatucky, we see a woman who seemingly aborted her opportunity to become a mother. But she was once a mother, however briefly, was she not? We also see her mother, a woman who went against every selfless principle we’ve come to expect mothers to embody.
What makes a mother?
Take Sophia. As she does Morello’s hair and Morello (naively) asks how Mother’s Day works “with you being a lady-man and all,” Sophia explains she and her ex-wife are splitting the day. Their son will be spending Father’s Day with her ex’s boyfriend.
Admittedly, Sophia is in a gray area when it comes to her son. She is no longer certain she is his father, but she doesn’t yet quite feel like another mother.
Then there’s Aleida, the reticent mother. In a flashback, we see that she was filled with love and hope the day Daya was born. But somewhere along the way, those virtues have been dulled. In time, she began choosing to serve her needs before her children’s. You get the impression she feels that motherhood robbed her of the life she thought she would have.
“It’s not all bad,” Aleida tells a very pregnant Daya after rattling on about the pitfalls of parenthood. “You end up with a baby. It just ruins your life is all.”
Then, of course, there’s Daya. With Aleida as the only example of motherhood she has known, is it really any wonder she has reservations about her ability to mother? Then again, isn’t she already essentially a mother to her siblings?
There’s Alex, who struggles to escape the pressure to make her mom proud — even though her mother died years before her incarceration. The thought of her mother looking down on her in jail nearly consumes Alex the first few days back at Litchfield.
We watch many women who are unable to mother their own children or have no children of their own act as mothers to others: Red to Nicky, Gloria to Daya, Sister Jane to Sophia, Norma to Leanne, Big Boo to Pennsatucky.
There are the “good mothers,” who want nothing more than to be there for their children. Maria refuses to get any haircut other than a trim in the hope that it might give her baby some sense of “object permanence.”
At the end of the episode, when Maria’s boyfriend tells her he won’t be bringing the baby back anymore, it obliterates her. “I don’t want her to see her mom in prison and think this is normal,” he says to her.
But, again, what is normal? In a processional of flashbacks, we see both extremes.
We see Nicky’s mom, whose idea of a happy mother meant trading a day with her daughter for a day at some spa in the Berkshires.
We see Healy’s unhinged mom scribbling on the bedroom walls and inviting her son to dance around on the mattress.
We flash back to young Poussey caught in a tender moment reading Calvin and Hobbes with her mom, whom we subsequently learn has long since passed away.
Ultimately, we are faced with the stark reality that the future for so many children of imprisoned mothers will include flashbacks that involve Mother’s Day celebrations spent punching piñatas while wearing makeshift blindfolds made out of maxi pads.
This exploration of what it means to mother is important because it begins in the premiere and permeates the entire season. Daya’s pregnancy is a microcosm for the very question.
The takeaway here? That “mother” is not a static term. It is a state of mind. And while it’s up for debate as to whether the mothers of these women informed the human beings they became for better or worse, they now have an opportunity to redefine what life looks like.
After all, it’s no coincidence the season ends with the birth of Daya’s baby and a baptism — a rebirth — for the ladies of Litchfield.