A funny thing happens in the third season of Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black: from one episode to the next, the show’s feminine perspective comes to share more and more shelf space with the viewpoints of bumbling men. Dudes have always been a core part of Orange Is the New Black’s slammer yarn, of course. The series’ first two seasons make a lot of hay out of how Larry Bloom deals, or doesn’t, with Piper Chapman’s conviction and the fallout of her incarceration. (Short answer: He handles it pretty poorly.) Just a notch down on the totem pole from Larry, there’s John Bennett, a man who struggles with his job as a C.O. and his infatuation with inmate Daya. It’s a free-for-all of sorts after that; Piper’s brother, Cal, shows up on occasion to offer the earthy, loveably goofy charm only Michael Chernus is capable of providing, while Sam Healy actively cherrypicks the moments in which he does his job.
The list goes on slightly longer than that, but you get the idea: Orange Is the New Black’s male characters have an established history of unreliability. The overarching themes of the past two seasons ultimately swallow up those far quieter elements of fickleness and instability. They have served more as functions of plot than as points of study. In Season Three, they comprise an entire thesis of their own. Kohan introduces the concept of the unreliable male as early as the first episode in the show’s latest outing. Red drags the truth about her restaurant out of her cowering husband and their sons; in one particularly agonizing moment, Yadriel denies Maria future visitation with their baby. By the time episode thirteen rolls credits, you get the sense that Kohan’s rolled a snowball into an avalanche.
Examples of the inconstant male crop up at a rapid clip after “Mother’s Day,” some more tragic than others. Maybe we should expect prison guards, from Luschek to Donaldson and, most of all, to “Gerber” to behave unreliably. For them, unreliability is almost a survival instinct, whether it’s Luschek ratting out Nicky in “Empathy Is a Boner Killer,” or Gerber flip-flopping on his deal with Chapman and Vause over their panty-smuggling operation. But to see John Bennett back out on his budding family is to see the greatest failure of masculinity that Orange Is the New Black has portrayed to date. In the narrative’s pantheon of jail-bound moms, Daya is pretty much the only one with a partner she can lean on. Gloria has to parent her son from behind bars, while Ruiz suffers the cruelest stroke of fate when Yadriel gets big ideas about what her relationship with their daughter means for them as a family. Daya, meanwhile, has to deal with the complications of her status as a prisoner and Bennett’s as a C.O., but at least she could count on him to be there for the kid after giving birth.
Then Bennett drops the crib gifted to him by Cesar on the side of the road, and the game changes. We knew Red would eventually find out about her business’ breakdown; we might not have guessed Yadriel, who has looked like a good man for as long as he’s been a recurring character, would go pro ice on Ruiz. But if his decision feels like a low blow, he’s not necessarily in the wrong, either. Kohan doesn’t treat him like Snidely Whiplash. We “get” Yadriel. In fairness, we “get” why Bennett tucks tail, too, but previously he’s been so committed to fatherhood that his exit reads as cowardice. Even Mother Theresa would find him contemptible. God help him should he ever return, unless he’s pulled a Tony Goldwyn and built Daya a rustic mansion in Vermont.
Bennett’s dereliction of male responsibility makes an interesting contrast to the arcs of both Healy and poor Joe Caputo, a man doomed by his meager selflessness. Healy desperately wants to be of service to Litchfield’s multitudes. He wants a hat tip for starting Safe Place, and for counseling women he sees as “troubled.” The problem, as Birdie and Brook make clear, is that he can’t—not because he lacks the will, but because he has no idea what he’s doing. He’s a dog chasing a car, except that, upon catching it, he’s found that he doesn’t know what to do with it. Out of all the men who appear in Orange Is the New Black, Healy has more influence than anyone—more ability to do good deeds (outside of Caputo), but time and again he stumbles on his ignorance and his pettiness. Rather than benefit from Birdie’s expertise, he devises a way to get her out his hair. Rather than listen to Brook’s problems, he brushes her off and unwittingly assists her down the path toward self-harm. (On the “good news” front, he does manage to get Red back into the kitchen.)
Healy has always had issues with women, from latent to blatant. In Orange Is the New Black’s most recent venture, those issues are so erumpent that all Birdie can do in the end is throw them right in his dumbfounded face. Caputo, at least, knows how to wield his power, but he’s constantly kneecapped by The System itself. If you thought corporate takeovers were bad for consumers, they’re worse for inmates. Caputo spends parts of the season playing ball with his bosses, and others plotting behind their backs. He’s a rebel hero. Should you require a moment of fist-pumping manliness, simply queue up to “Fear, and Other Smells” and listen to him rant to a beat about Danny Pearson. They’re spiritual siblings, in a way, men with agency who aren’t allowed to do anything with that agency, but Danny feels like part of the problem, rather than a victim of bureaucracy. (To his credit, Danny takes an appreciable stand. Caputo just fills his loyal staff’s heads with dreams of unionization before leaving them in the lurch.)
Caputo, Healy, and Bennett are Orange Is the New Black’s most noteworthy coterie of capricious dudes, but their speciousness reflects everywhere in Season Three; you’ll see it in the weak men peppering Chang’s flashbacks, in the ill-fated Fahri, who all but signs his own death warrant, in the selfish, tyrannical free love of Norma’s polygamist beau, in the punk attitudes of Sophia’s and Gloria’s boys, and even in the fence contractors trying to repair the tear in Litchfield’s enclosures at the end of “Trust No Bitch.” (You’ll see it in Coates, too, but to call him “unreliable” would be grossly negligent. He screws with Doggett’s feelings for sure, but make no mistake: He’s a rapist, not a schmuck or a schlemiel.) Most of these characters, mercifully, aren’t in charge at Litchfield, but their foibles and all around uselessness buttress the shortcomings of the show’s central male figures. (It’s a bad sign that Cal and John Magaro’s (Vince Muccio) walking stereotypes are the most forthright men Orange Is the New Black has on tap.)
Is Kohan taking a swipe at manhood, then? Is she setting the boys up as her antagonists? Far from it. Orange Is the New Black never loses sight of these characters’ humanity, even in their worst moments. Coates, as well as Kubra, make up the most purely despicable characters of the season, and even they’re treated with a blunt, deadpan empathy that can only be qualified as “disapproving.” Oh, they’re horrible, alright, but they’re also people, which is exactly the point. Men like Coates and Kubra aren’t fictional villains. They exist in the real world, not just on television. In the case of Orange Is the New Black, they’re also outliers, exceptions rather than the rule. Male weakness is the prevailing big bad of the season, a recurring motif that reinforces the disempowerment of the show’s women. (Coates and Kubra perform the exact same function, of course, but in far more direct and extreme ways.)
Caputo jumps through hoops to affect change, but comes up with bupkis. Healy can’t reconcile his insecurities in his relationship with the opposite gender, and so he fumbles in his duties. Bennett sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but turns heel and heads off in reverse. Their various missteps invite extra sympathy for the female cast; prison woes become compounded by the absence of steady support systems and effective leadership. But Kohan invites our sympathies for the guys, too. They’re trapped on the other side of the line in the same penal institution as the women. It goes without saying that the men are better off by comparison, and Kohan makes no statement to the contrary throughout the season. But remarkably, Orange Is the New Black depicts them as institutional casualties, from pathetic to pitiable, as well.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% Vermont craft brews.