My first thought when I think about shows that predominantly tell stories about women is that they generally fall pretty close together. They’re shows about friends living close together and experiencing the joys of life together. They’re mostly frothy and fun. Shows like Sex and the City, Girls, Gilmore Girls, The Golden Girls (a lot of titles with the world “girls” in them!). It’s not that they can’t showcase heartache and rage and fear, but there’s an element of privilege, of security to them.
Orange is the New Black, on the other hand, is different. It is still a show mostly about women, but it’s much deeper than just gal pals drinking wine together. The diverse array of women and stories that it’s telling – black women, white women, latina women, gay women, straight women, poor women, well educated women, young women, trans women, violent women, women who made mistakes, women who were careless, women who hurt others, women who hurt themselves, women with something to prove, women who don’t know who they are, women who fucked up, and women who never had a chance – are incredibly rich and real.
The season premiere of Season Three, “Mother’s Day,” sees the inmates of Litchfield putting together a Mother’s Day festival in which all of their kids are able to visit and celebrate the day. The episode isn’t exactly heavy on plot. A few things are set up or questions raised: what happened to Vee, Boo and Nicky planning to smuggle the drugs out of the laundry, Red closing up the tunnel, Alex returning to prison and reuniting with Piper. But these moments are few and far between, and act as simple jumping off points for the rest of the season as opposed to the episode itself. Instead, we’re treated more to a series of vignettes and character studies as each of the inmates are forced to confront their own individual conflicts and demons surrounding Mother’s Day.
Tasty (and to a lesser extent Black Cindy and Janae) celebrate their parentless-ness after rebelling and getting out from under surrogate-mother Vee’s control, all while Poussey (who was never taken in by Vee) stands beside them, mourning the death of her actual mother in silence.
Maria learns that her baby daddy plans for this to be the last time her child visits her now that she’s growing up. He doesn’t want her thinking having a mother in prison is normal.
Red, whose children are all grown up, come to visit but are keeping secrets about the state of the family deli.
Sophia struggles to be the parent her son Michael needs when he claims not to want another mother, but admits to not connecting with his biological mother’s new boyfriend.
Aleida tells pregnant daughter Daya that she ruined her life by being born and that Daya’s own child is going to ruin hers, even if maybe she didn’t think that on the day Daya was born. Daya, meanwhile, continues to worry about the impending birth of her child and who’s going to raise it while she spends another 36 months in prison and father CO Bennett can’t really claim the baby as his without losing his job and possibly going to prison himself.
All of these stories were sad and touching and beautiful and raw and uncomfortable and real. But the one that hit me the hardest was Pennsatucky.
Look, Pennsatucky is far from someone I have a ton of respect for. She’s a racist, homophobic, violent, meth-addicted little beast, but in those moments of her weeping over her makeshift, popsicle stick graveyard, begging God to allow the souls of her six aborted children into Heaven, my heart just went out to her.
Pennsatucky has gone through a big transformation in her life. She went from a young woman who used abortion as an easy form of birth control to being indoctrinated into becoming a Born-Again Funamentalist Christian complete with their often antiquated anti-women, premarital sex, birth control, and abortion views. Now, I don’t want to say her faith isn’t real, but it was certainly pushed on her by a group of people who wanted to prop her up as an idol for shooting up an abortion clinic rather than anyone truly interested the girl’s mortal well-being or the state of soul. She has been used and manipulated by them, and now she is forced to make peace with the person she was before and the values those people have instilled in her. Not an easy thing to do when the choices she’s made before are so completely opposed to the values she now holds. Pennsatucky knows she’s going to Hell, she claims, but maybe she can still save the souls of her children.
Out of all the different relationships on this show, the odd couple friendship blossoming between Pennsatucky and Big Boo is one of my favorites. Big Boo can see Pennsatucky for who she is – an uneducated, poor, young woman who has been used, abused, and manipulated by just about everyone in her life – and instead of writing her off like everyone else, she offers her a hand. Her words might have been a little crass, but the intent and the empathy was good. What did Pennsatucky have to offer these children but a life of poverty and pain and drugs and prison? Maybe she was being a good mother by sparing them that.
I don’t know that Pennsatucky agrees with Boo, but her words still offered her a little comfort. I hope their friendship continues to grow.
In the end, when Aleida’s neglect allowed one of her young children to go missing, Litchfield’s Mother’s Day celebration came to an abrupt end. The prison went into lockdown as the alarms blared and the inmates were forced to drop to the ground in front of their children. The illusion that everything was fine, that these mothers and children were spending a normal day together, was shattered. Kids were rounded up, handed off to their respective fathers and guardians, and the party was over. Life goes on outside the walls of Litchfield, with or without these women, and all they can do it hold on.