The closing sequence of “Trust No Bitch” is one of the finest moments Orange Is The New Black has, and ever will, produce.

It speaks to the heart of the series, and the idea that these women—at the end of the day—are looking for a glimpse of freedom. When the opportunity to journey out into the lake just beyond the fence arrives, almost everyone hesitates: is this a trick? But they each eventually realize that regardless of what has created this opportunity, it offers them a taste of what it’s like to be “free.” None of them see this as an opportunity for real freedom—there’s nowhere to run, barring an exhausting swim across the lake. Instead, it is a chance to feel lighter, and for a brief moment trick yourself into believing that this is your life.

It is in this euphoric state that various storylines dotted throughout the season reach their apex. Suzanne’s tentative connection with Maureen, one of the Time Hump Chronicles fans, becomes at least a genuine friendship over a game of fetch the turtle.

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Poussey and Soso—recovering from her Benadryl overdose—form a bond in the water, and the latter is welcomed into the black community when she has nowhere else to go.

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Red and Norma, separated by the cult swarming around the latter, share a sweet moment on the dock as two old friends coming to terms without saying anything at all.

Supporting characters without much of a storyline, like Sister Ingalls and Yoga Jones, join in on the fun and let loose in a way the prison system just does not allow. And, in the defining moment of the scene, the lake offers Black Cindy the unexpected opportunity to have her mikvah, and complete her conversion to the Jewish faith.

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It’s a scene that reaffirms this as a season invested in the notion of belief, with the episode’s flashbacks foregrounding the complex role of faith in inmates’ lives combining with the idea of the lake access as a divine—or at least spiritual—intervention. For Norma and her religion, struggling with purpose and rallying around a piece of toast with her face on it, the fence is a sign that the collapsing of her religious order does not preclude miracles like this from unfolding. I don’t know if anyone is necessarily praising Norma for this particular event, but it suggests that the hope her “meditation club” was intended to give the other inmates has not entirely disappeared as their following has dwindled.

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For Black Cindy, meanwhile, there’s something much more profound here. What started as a case of claiming Judaism for the purpose of getting better meals has, at least on the surface, become something much deeper. It was unclear to me if we could truly take Black Cindy at her word when she began her meeting with the Corporate Inquiry Rabbi—he is won over by her impassioned speech about what being Jewish means to her, and the ways in which Christianity and the notion of hell has shaped her understanding of the mistakes she has made. The episode never brings up her daughter specifically, despite the season’s parallel interest in motherhood, but we can read it into the way Judaism offers an easier way to be at peace with how her choices in life will be judged. At the same time, though, when it becomes clear that she won’t truly be converted until she has her mikvah, it left the door open for her to back out. She has shown herself to be a woman without much of a moral compass, and so this added barrier made me think for a moment that she was going to balk at this added step.

But then we see the flashback that gives us context for why she feels this way, and then the lake appears, and she seizes the opportunity; she subsequently experiences a mikvah that is played straight, and genuine, and honest. It’s a powerful moment, and part of a powerful sequence that works to transcend the show’s reality. When you’re watching it, and it moves back and forth from character to character, and you take in all of these small moments, you’re reminded just how much this prison ecosystem has embraced its humanity. It is uplifting, powerful, and beautifully captured by director Phil Abraham, and it makes you think that everything is going to be alright right up until the point it ends.

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And then you realize it’s all a mirage.

“Trust No Bitch” is telling the truth in its title, as I can’t fully trust the emotions I felt during that final sequence. Pennsatucky may be enjoying a brief moment of fun with people who protect her, but we can’t forget that Maritza is now on van duty with Coates after Pennsatucky faked a seizure to get away from him. Leanne and Soso might be finding peace in their respective groups as they spend time in the lake, but they’re still locked in a conflict that will likely carry on, perhaps with Norma’s nascent religion mixed up between them. And they are all enjoying their time without being able to see what’s happening elsewhere: Aleida and Daya share a peaceful moment without knowing Cesar is being arrested, no one seems aware that Alex has been left in the tool shed with the “toothpick guard” sent by Kubra, and no one has any idea that the new beds being installed are being welded onto the old ones to maximize the use of space and throw the prison balance off with scores of new inmates. And they have no idea that Caputo has thrown his hat in with his corporate overlords, prioritizing the prison’s profit-driven future ahead of his guards and Sophia, who remains in solitary while the other inmates enjoy time in Freedom Lake.

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To be fair, “Trust No Bitch” gives us every piece of information we need to figure this out. Leanne’s rumor about “new beds” is taken as replacement but is more likely to mean addition; Red notes that their order of slop has doubled unexpectedly; Pearson’s father talks about the increased profit potential for the prison moving forward; the guards, while walking out on Caputo, talk about how important this day is. The clues are all there, and even when the episode offers some red herrings—Judy King’s arrival is also a big deal, and the (cheaply sourced, and it showed) fence repair could be the day’s big event—there’s always plenty of evidence to suggest that MCC is about to make their big move. Whatever Litchfield was when the women broke free and spend part of their afternoon in Freedom Lake, it will be something different when they return—Poussey, trying to convince Taystee to let them enjoy the day, says “let’s be free for a second. This is going to be the last time in a long time.” And while this is true of any inmate in any prison, it becomes particularly true in the context of the expansion of the prison’s population.

Whereas the second season made a very clean break with its main seasonal arc, as Rosa ran over Vee on the side of the road, there is no way to make a clean break here. This was but a prologue to MCC’s larger impact on Litchfield, as it had to be—once they took over, this was no longer a seasonal arc. The government wasn’t going to step back in and repurchase the prison; there wasn’t going to be a different set of corporate overlords who would represent salvation. There is no freedom from the MCC arc, the only change being that it is now Caputo and not Pearson who is in charge. In his own mind, this is progress—he has convinced himself this is the “Year of Caputo,” and since now he is in control, things are going to be different. It’s a delusion, and the guards call him on doing exactly as he told them MCC would do.

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It’s a flip-flop of the highest order, and it’s easy to resent Caputo for listening to Fig and embracing his new position within the system—the guards sang Les Mis for him, for pete’s sake! And yet at the end of the day, Caputo realized that he could have his cake and eat it too, taking the promotion and the higher pay while simultaneously convincing himself that the best thing he could do is not get fired and have someone who doesn’t give a shit about any of these people take over. And the worst thing is that he’s right, but it doesn’t make it any less discomforting.

“Trust No Bitch” is discomforting more broadly, uninterested in protecting us from the ups and downs of following the life of prisoners in a federal facility. After holding Piper to the flames for “Walter White-ing” and setting her up for a quick fall as she allows Flaca back into the fold and then falls victim to Stella’s panic over being released, it seems like this could be a one-off seasonal story. But then Piper embraces everything that watching fictional criminals taught her, and sets up Stella using Chekhov’s Candy Shiv and a variety of other contraband (foreshadowed again in this episode by Poussey’s discovery of cigarettes in the bathroom drain, in case you didn’t remember the montage). There’s part of you that’s proud of Piper for standing up for herself, and I will admit that giving herself a prison tattoo is a badass moment, but we’re nonetheless reminded that she is empowering herself on the backs of those around her. The season may have gone without an explicit villain figure, but this at least raises the potential it was the origin story for one, whilst simultaneously putting a clock on her release—do we have 6-12 months of Piper left, or is she going to be a force to reckon with in Litchfield to infinity and beyond as her—“not cliché”—tattoo suggests?

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The episode makes Piper’s storyline work because it doesn’t rest its emotional weight there. Notably, Piper is not among the inmates taking advantage of the Freedom Lake. Her solitude in the chapel giving herself the tattoo is the last image we see of Piper, and that’s purposeful. Whereas the show lets Black Cindy’s mikvah and Suzanne’s moment with Maureen exists more or less without cynicism, it embraces ambiguity with other storylines (or, in one case, should have embraced it a bit more).

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Morello’s shotgun wedding to Vince is a complicated monster in this episode. On the one hand, it’s played romantically, and the use of Foreigner over the final moments of the season certainly places its interest in romantic love front and center. But it’s interesting to read Morello’s proposal in the context of both her previous wedding planning with Christopher, along with the flashback here, where faith is reduced to a pretty dress. Can we say the same for love? The season’s two anchoring themes of motherhood and faith, represented in the flashback themes of the premiere and the finale, are undoubtedly connected to love. They’re also connected to pain, of course, and the way those ideas intersect is crucial to the reading of Janae’s relationship with her Muslim father, or the way Boo’s sense of self-acceptance came in part through a near-death experience where she became an atheist and decided no higher power stood in judgment of her. But Morello’s flashback is just a little girl who thanks Jesus for her dress, reducing religion to the pretty clothes she got to wear.

Do we think Morello is doing the same thing here? She proposes to Vince rashly and as a defense mechanism against him choosing to end the “relationship.” We know their relationship is built on lies that go beyond her writing with other people, and we know that she can lie on her feet. Is she treating love as something she can fake to keep from being lonely? Is she secretly misconstruing how the law works regarding spousal privilege in the hopes of him being unable to testify against her should Christopher’s beat down come back to her (or if she has Vince do other errands for her on the outside)? Or is she being honest in her love, feeling a connection that is consummated against the vending machine in the visitors’ area as Bell drowns out their sex noises with her headphones?

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It’s difficult to read because Orange Is The New Black has a romantic streak. It was a problem with Daya and Bennett—who Aleida is trying to strike from her granddaughter’s record, although whether that lasts with Cesar’s arrest remains an open question—and it’s a significant issue with Red and Healy this season. “Trust No Bitch” makes the strongest case yet for their connection, as Red plainly tells Healy that they have a special bond because they’re contemporaries and he’s neither a woman nor a crazy prison woman. But there’s no doubt he has helped her, well before he delivered her corn, but the idea that this has to be understood romantically is frustrating. It strands Red in a star-crossed lovers storyline with the same guy who thinks he’s helping Soso, and who brings her into his office solely to try to control the story she tells the administration about Berdie. It wants us to look past all of this with a screwed up childhood—the episode’s weakest flashback—and the fact his wife unfairly views herself in a prison, which is not exclusively his fault but which is not helped by his “you could smile more” bullshit.

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It’s important to Orange Is The Black that its characters are ambiguous. Similarly, the season’s themes of motherhood and religion were never reduced to cases of good and bad mothers, or good and bad religions. Instead, the show is invested in the idea of how individuals—to use Black Cindy’s point—“do” these parts of their life. One’s relationship with parents or one’s relationship with religion are variables, which often creates struggle amidst familities, or communities, or even within the prison itself. And so the show resists making final judgment on someone like Leanne, who clearly loses herself in developing Norma’s religion in order to fill a hole left by her exit from her Amish community—we can judge the decisions she makes, and agree with Norma kicking her out of her cubicle, but the show does not want us to write off anyone. The problem becomes what happens when someone like Healy reaches the point where it’s possible viewers have written them off, or when you have a character like Alex who feels disconnected from these themes and ends up floating outside of them. At what point do you cut your losses and embrace characters whose ambiguity is more productive to the show in the long term?

Alex’s fate is used as a cliffhanger here, and the back half of the season did a nice job of bringing the character back into focus. However, she still ends the season missing from a scene where she had no role to play—who would she be hanging out with if she had been in Freedom Lake? There are other characters missing—I presume Lolly and Chang are off talking Monsanto and Rumsfeld somewhere—and it’s possible those missing characters will have a role to play in Alex’s fate (as I wouldn’t be shocked to see Lolly double back after noticing “Toothpick guard”). But while a lot of the season’s episodic flashbacks ended up expanding on either the theme of motherhood or the theme of religion, Alex’s stands out as a flashback that ended up saying not much of anything, despite her being a central character. What place does she have in the show if she does survive whatever Kubra has planned for her?

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“Trust No Bitch” doesn’t have to answer this question. It uses its 90-minute run time to give every character room to breathe, with the only absences those that are valuable for dramatic effect (Sophia, in particular). It does not necessarily resolve the issues caused by the loose construction of long-term storytelling like Norma’s cult or Piper’s panty business, which combined with episodic storytelling created moving pieces that were never exactly in alignment—Sophia’s story ended in an interesting place, for example, but as discussed in previous reviews it didn’t always know how to get there. But what this finale does so effectively is channel that chaos, return to the season’s central themes, and offer us that glimpse of freedom to put the journey of the season into perspective while simultaneously warning us that there is much less resolution here than we might realize.

Season four will bring a new Litchfield—not just because the show was playing with us regarding Judy King, bringing Blair Brown into the cast, but because there will now theoretically be twice as many inmates. How do our existing characters fit within a shifting ecosystem operating on a larger scale? Is the show interested in expanding the ensemble subtly as it did this season, barely giving characters names but using them as foils for storytelling? Will there be new main characters who emerge to fill the voice left by someone like Nicky? Will Stella’s trip to maximum security offer a critical mass of inmates that could bring that prison into orbit?

While season two ended with a conscious promise that the status quo could be restored, season three ends with the promise of a new Litchfield, and it embodies the season’s success and struggle. On the one hand, the series embraces its seriality, and productively uses multi-season storytelling to allow the events of this season to take on greater meaning as they move forward. However, on the other hand, there is an acknowledgment that this was on some level a lengthy prologue for something bigger, a framework that becomes more dissatisfying the further we get away from a show’s first season. I have faith the themes, characters, and ideas that resonated this season will continue to do so in the future, and few television shows are as invested in ambitious ensemble storytelling, but there was the sense this year that there was a fence holding the show back from reaching its full potential.

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And whether or not it breaks free from that fence will be next season’s biggest question mark.

Stray observations

  • Always appreciate when we get dropped right back into things as we were here, as Boo and Pennsatucky discuss not wanting to be rapists themselves and Poussey runs in looking for help—there is something comforting about knowing that we didn’t miss too much of No Reservations between episodes, and likely worked particularly well if you binge-watched the final two episodes.
  • Speaking of Boo and Pennsatucky, I feel pretty comfortable identifying them as the season’s best character pairing by some margin, although we’ll see where Evil Lincoln’s final tally comes in in the comments. And in terms of storyline, I think the Time Hump Chronicles wins out simply because it never got dragged into the plot foreground, and was allowed to be a comic diversion that nonetheless resonated for Suzanne and provided a nuanced arc for the character.
  • Meanwhile, my favorite thing I noticed about the season but never got to really write about was the P.A. announcements, which offered some nice glimpses of MCC’s efforts. I’ve been told that they’re a mix of scripted and additions in post-production, so I’d love to see a supercut of every announcement, Netflix.
  • So the finale leaves Alex, Stella, and Nicky in limbo in terms of returning cast members—I’m hoping Stella is gone, and I think the show will help solve some of its balance issues if Alex exits, but I sure would like to see Nicky back at some point. I wasn’t shocked to see she didn’t return (in part because someone spoiled it, but also because it fit with the show’s understanding of what happens when people are sent to max), but the door remains open depending on how the show moves forward.
  • Loved the way the fear of Soso being sent to psych is what initially motivates the women to help her, using Suzanne’s experience as an anchor point—the show hasn’t gone back in since Pennsatucky ended up there, but it remains a real threat, which is crucial as MCC loses sight of what their priorities are.
  • “Your skin doesn’t have to be black as long as your heart is black”—did Rachel Dolezal quote this in her Today Show interview? Had she had time to binge-watch the entire season by then?
  • As though the show knew we had a big argument over my ambiguous reading of Flaca’s facial expressions, her face after her interaction with Piper in the library walks that perfect line between “genuine” and “she clearly stole the money” once we learn the money is gone. By comparison, there’s obviously a real concern for her mother here, which is weird to have been revealed off-screen, but gives her some nice moments with Gloria (who gets to do some surrogate mothering).
  • “This looks like heroin Romper Room”—So do we think Child Services reaches out to the father of Daya’s baby—Pornstache, according to the system, correct?—in order to find a home for it? I don’t know if actually knowing how Child Services works would help given the dramatic license they could take, but we’ve had some great “Expert Witness” moments in the comments this season, so I thought I’d throw it out to y’all.
  • Also, I liked how the arrival of the DEA agent echoes Bennett’s arrival at the apartment. And the Pooh’s Grand Adventure: The Search For Christopher Robin VHS on the floor in the screencap above, which I definitely pre-ordered at the Disney Store for the lithographs as a kid.
  • So I feel like the Judy King bait-and-switch is one of the most toothless bits of narrative trickery you could imagine, given that you don’t cast Blair Brown and do a recurring Martha Stewart hype cycle bit—pulled from the book, commenters suggest—without her showing up. I hope, if nothing else, that this pulls Red away from Healy and gives her a proper partner and/or enemy.
  • I have to presume the old guards will stick around in some capacity, because if I’m denied Bell and O’Neill and Maxwell’s incredulous reactions to Bell and O’Neill, I don’t know what I’ll do.
  • I liked the contrast between Sister Ingalls and Gloria’s conclusion that the prison system is “wrong” for the way it pits them against each other, and then Donaldson’s refrain of “it’s not right” to Healy—no one thinks this season works, even if they’re coming at it from two different perspectives.
  • I think it’s mainly my defense mechanism for dealing with sex scenes, but some definite butt double work given the way the Caputo and Vince rear nudity scenes were shot—note how Vince is quite illogically facing away from the camera the entire time as he consummates his marriage.
  • Speaking of Vince—wouldn’t he have Googled Morello by now? Would her criminal record be public enough that he could figure out she was lying? Or learn the details of her conflict with Christopher? Or is he just in the love bubble?
  • “Nancy Grace Ears Catnip Funeral”—Pennsatucky gives good word salad.
  • So Angie eats cat poop when she’s screwed up on cocaine and everclear, but she eats Toast Norma while cold stone sober, so I think she’s just very invested in what consuming things will do to her spirit.
  • “There’s never any dignity at the end”—speaking of Toast Norma, I appreciated the burn work to make that look like a convincing “face in object” situation. Well done, Props department.
  • “You are so going to Max, inmate!”—Bayley’s outright enthusiasm while finding Stella’s contraband was an embarrassment and I kind of loved it.
  • “Nope”—I love how there actually was an experienced guard who was witness to the Freedom Lake situation and it was Luschek. Still waiting for Ford’s knowledge of the heroin money to come to light.
  • “Knowing what to do does not make me the bottom bitch of the vomitorium”—Taystee mainly has to step away from playing too active a role so that Poussey can feel more personally invested, but she still makes a good point here.
  • Netflix’s press site has an image of three of the new guards trying to get the inmates under control on the beach at Freedom Lake, but obviously we never see that play out in the episode proper—wondering if they had a hard 90-minute cutoff for the finale, or if they simply felt it worked better if the “freedom” felt as real as possible before cutting back to Litchfield.
  • Finally, as we come to a close, thanks to everyone for reading—the daily reviewing structure is an interesting beast, and I’m hopeful that the ongoing dialogue and commentary was a useful counterpart to your own viewing experience even if you had to drop into the comments to vehemently disagree with me on occasion, and even if you’re reading these reviews after the initial conversations have taken place. More than anything else, daily reviews pushed me to commit to my reactions as the season progressed, and so I’ll be interested to revisit some of these episodes down the road and see how they look now that they’ve had more time to settle. Either way, though, it’s been a ride, so thanks for coming along.

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