How ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Found God

The third season of the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black is all about faith—how the ‘lie’ of organized religion lets us down, and it’s better to have faith in the small things.

Powerlessness has been a central theme of Orange Is the New Black since the beginning, as is appropriate for a prison show. Unlike its companion Netflix hit House of Cards or other “prestige” TV dramas like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, it’s the opposite of a power fantasy; it’s a story about what happens when power is stripped away.

And thus Season 3 zeroes in on a theme that goes hand-in-hand with powerlessness: faith. The season finale shows each of the major characters’ childhood encounters with religion and with God—positive, negative, or just bizarre.

Religion matters in prison. After all, it’s a place filled with people who, stripped of any agency in their own lives, have no options left but to pray.

Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black addressed this theme in a weak way, with the then-cartoonishly evil fundamentalist Christian character of Pennsatucky, who gave what I thought was one of the more jarringly on-the-nose monologues of the show to our educated white female protagonist Piper in defense of her faith: “You believe in Hussein Obama? Electric cars, and Shakespeare books, and do you go out to eat at restaurants? I don’t have any of that, okay: All I have is Him.”

It was the writers of the show trying to be empathetic, but ultimately ringing as false as “Hussein Obama’s” speech about “clinging to guns and religion,” using empathy as a backhanded insult—putting the defense of faith as a refuge for the powerless in the snaggletoothed mouth of the deranged, violent meth head who was at that point the closest thing the show had to a villain.

But the reason I can’t stop watching Orange Is the New Black is that they’re really, really good at subverting expectations and complicating tired tropes.

Pennsatucky goes from Piper’s villain, to Piper’s victim, to finding an ambiguous redemption. Sister Ingalls, the annoyingly angelic token “good” religious character who served as a foil to Pennsatucky in Season 1, is revealed in Season 2 to have been as hypocritical and self-serving with her upscale, respectable liberal political activism as Pennsatucky is with her right-wing donation-grubbing.

Season 2 doesn’t mock faith so much as mourn it. Piper’s faith in the rule of law, in the justice system, in the compassion of the American people—all of those get broken down as she realizes the world doesn’t care what’s happening to inmates in prison. Indeed, one of the major themes of Season 2 was stated by Richard Gallagher’s character, the crusading journalist Andrew Nance: “Do I lie awake fantasizing about personally taking down the greatest stain on America’s collective conscience since slavery? Sure…But in the daytime, I accept that’s not going to happen.” The biggest injustice in the show is the bedrock foundation of the show’s setting, and short of turning into science fiction and portraying a massive revolution in the American justice system, the show can’t ever portray that being fixed.

And so Season 3 is a litany of characters’ faith failing them in the face of the reality of the system. They’re not necessarily religious faiths, the kind with official names. There’s Bennett’s faith in the fantasy we call Love Conquers All—his belief that he can, by the strength of his love for Dayanara and their unborn child, overcome the circumstances his baby will be born in. He comes face-to-face with those circumstances when he sees the squalor, chaos, and violence Dayanara’s siblings live in, realizes that love won’t change a damn thing about the grim physical reality of poverty, and rather than accepting that, he flees.

Same with Caputo’s faith in the myth of the Suffering Servant, his reflexive urge to be the good guy and give up something he cares about for the good of others, in the hope that someday he’ll get his reward in the form of a “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” moment; a Mr. Holland’s Opus moment.

And, well, that doesn’t happen. As all too many of my idealistic friends who work at nonprofits have learned, in real life people who work really hard without the expectation of reward get exploited by people who are all too happy to get hard work for free.

Caputo’s earnestness as a prison administrator compared to the unapologetic self-interest of his predecessor Figueroa didn’t make the prison a better place, it made it a juicy target for exploitation by a soulless corporation far more efficient at being evil than Figueroa ever was. And, much like Bennett, when Caputo learns that working without the expectation of reward really does get you no reward, his faith falters and he finally stops doing it, selling out his values to go corporate.

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Same with Red’s faith in the narrative of the Redemptive Parent, the belief that Nikki’s self-destruction and addiction issues are because her mom never loved her, and that by being the mother she never had, Red can save her—only for it to be revealed in a flashback that, as Nikki’s mom puts it, “I was never the enemy.” Nikki’s self-destruction stems from a deeper place than the simple explanation of Mommy Issues, and the hard truth is that self-destructive personality disorders are rarely if ever truly permanently “cured,” as loved ones of people with personality disorders have learned all too often. Nikki’s been clean all this time because the object of her addiction has been forcibly kept away from her. Put her back in the presence of heroin, and she inevitably relapses, and goes down to maximum security for it, and doesn’t return.

And most damningly of all, Norma’s arc is a story about losing faith in, well, faith itself. In a gag seemingly inspired by Being There and similar stories, the mute inmate Norma’s ability to silently look into people’s eyes and let them project their own thoughts onto her makes her a source of spiritual wisdom. She becomes a messianic figure, a silent prophet, the object of worship in a religion without a creed—and the educated hipster inmate Soso comes closest to articulating why cults like this form: “It’s the armor you put on every day, the armor that it takes to get through every day…When you look at Norma, you can take that armor off. Because it’s safe.”

Ironically, it’s immediately after this that she becomes unsafe, thrown out from the group by Norma’s acolyte Leanne, who can re-create the feeling of safety she got from her own childhood faith—the Amish—only by re-creating its strict lifestyle rules and exclusivity. The Church of Norma goes through the same evolution as all organized religion—schism, heresy, ossifying into an oppressive authority that leads to the heretic Soso attempting suicide—and the very trait that drew people to Norma, her silence, makes it impossible for her to stop it (shades of Monty Python’s Life of Brian).

As with the cult we learn Norma herself was recruited into in her old life, the hard truth is that simple, unadorned, genuine spirituality in the real world doesn’t stay that way very long; any new religion that tries to escape the flaws of old religions will see them played out again because they’re not really flaws in religion but in the people who hold them.

All of this makes Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black sound like the most oppressively dark season of TV ever—a message that you can’t in fact ever take off the armor of cynicism and hardnosed pragmatism, that idols turn out to have feet of clay.

And yet it’s not. Orange Is the New Black is merciless about dismantling simplistic notions of faith, of ultimate and final redemption, of an apocalyptic judgment where Good wins and Evil loses. None of those concepts exist in the show’s universe.

But faith doesn’t require those things to exist. The ultimate example of confounded faith in the series last season was Lorna Morello hopelessly waiting for her savior, her fiancé Christopher, to come back like Jesus to take her away from prison into a new life—only for him, like the Great Pumpkin, to never arrive, and only for it to be revealed that her engagement to Christopher was a straight-up delusional fantasy and the real Christopher was a man she was stalking who wanted nothing to do with her.

This season Morello, having given up on her white knight fantasy, begins the cynical task of corresponding with random creepy men with a female-inmate fetish to bilk them for commissary money.

But then a miracle—a small, ambiguous, fleeting Orange Is the New Black-style miracle—occurs. She meets a guy, Vince, whom she makes a real connection with despite her situation. They really care about each other, and he’s willing to get married to her even though she has years to go on her sentence.

Vince isn’t the movie-star-handsome wealthy white knight fantasy Christopher was. He can’t fix Lorna’s biggest problem, being in prison—they have to have their “wedding night” against a vending machine in the visitation room while supervised by a guard. And it doesn’t really redeem Lorna or make her a good person. After all, Vince’s gesture of love to her is to beat the crap out of Christopher, who’s done nothing wrong.

But it’s a moment of grace—a moment where Morello really gets the thing she always wanted, never thought she could have, and knew she didn’t really deserve.

That’s the vision of faith the show provides—the random uncaring universe can provide good things as well as bad, and that we can take off our cynical armor and choose to believe that we had a part in letting those good things happen due to our virtue—as a conscious counter to the voices, internal and external, constantly telling us that the bad things that happen to us are due to our sin.

The person who best expresses this is Gloria Mendoza, the prison’s resident santería practitioner, who is as hardnosed a pragmatist as any other inmate, the polar opposite of the delusional faith healer Pennsatucky was in Season One. As she patiently explains to a customer in a flashback, the copy of your job application that you burn to offer it to the orishas is less important than the one you mail to your prospective employer, but sometimes when you’ve done all you can do by mundane means “you need a little extra,” some ritual act of hope, a way to make space for the unexpected moment of grace to happen—whether that be the grisly death of Mendoza’s abusive husband or the “miracle” Norma shows to her followers in the Season 3 finale, when the fence comes down and the shore of the lake is revealed beyond.

The inmates haven’t actually been freed. They won’t be allowed to splash in the lake forever—they may well be punished en masse once they’re caught, and even if they aren’t, all signs in the season finale point to life in the prison getting much worse in the near future, as the prison’s capacity is doubled.

But the beauty of the miracle—a moment of respite, of joy, of pure fun as the women dive into the cool water to escape the summer heat—is no less real for any of these hard facts. The love between Red and Nikki and between Bennett and Daya was real, while it lasted, even if it couldn’t change the world. Norma’s kindness, and Caputo’s, were real, while it lasted, even if they can’t overcome the corruption of the institutions they’re embedded in.

And the capstone moment of redemption in Orange Is the New Black Season 3 is when Cindy is able to use the lake as her mikvah, to formally convert to Judaism—after a long, edgy running gag about Cindy callously using a false conversion to Judaism to get better food in the chow line by requesting kosher meals, we’ve learned that somehow along the way what was false has become true, and she really wants to be Jewish.

Cindy tells us that she was raised in a fire-and-brimstone version of evangelical Christianity, where faith was packaged as mindless submission to authority, where virtue was automatically rewarded with Heaven and sin automatically punished with Hell. Rejecting that worldview turned her into a nihilistic conspiracy theorist with a knee-jerk resentment toward all rules and all authority.

But Judaism, as she sees it, is different. It’s a faith about constantly questioning, never being sure, not looking forward to any assurance of the afterlife but just doing good in the here-and-now for the sake that, here and now, things might just get a little bit better.

Orange Is the New Black is a show about how Big Faith, what Soso calls “capital-R Religion,” is a trap—the kind of faith that believes in ultimate justice and in final answers, the kind that says you can be confident in how the story ends. It’s the kind of faith that’s brittle, fragile, that sets you up for a brutal fall. Orange Is the New Black is a show that, as its fans can attest, takes great pleasure in keeping you from knowing how anyone’s story will end. It’s a show that’s deeply skeptical that everything happens for a reason and everything works out in the end—as anyone who’s spent any time studying the real-life prison system would be.

But the other kind of faith? Little Faith? Faith as tiny as a mustard seed? The kind that won’t throw away the armor of cynicism but will take it off long enough for a swim, that says that there’s no clear path by which everyday kindness and love will fix this broken world and bring a happy ending to our story? That’s the kind of faith that, by not asking for too much, isn’t too easily broken. It’s the kind that can survive betrayal, suffering, hypocrisy—even prison.

It’s the kind that, behind bars or outside, you can’t live without.