The season opens with a Mother’s Day celebration, in which a kid blindfolded with a sanitary pad punches a piñata because no sticks (i.e., possible weapons) are allowed. Instead of the usual flashbacks to a single character’s past, the camera drifts back to multiple inmates’ memories, reminding us that the show is and always has been about all the convicts and how they individually and idiosyncratically react to the prison ecosystem.
Though far from a complete list, here are ten characters to watch this season.
10. Suzanne/“Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba)
It was both sickening and gratifying when ailing bank robber Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) crushed bad mama Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) with her runaway truck in the final scene of Season 2. Rosa is admiringly eulogized for her “balls” in the season premiere, but Vee’s legacy proves stickier. While most of the wannabe drug queen’s former associates are eager to forget she ever existed, Suzanne remains convinced that Vee will return for her — and, heartbreakingly, blames herself every day that her prison mom doesn’t appear. But Vee has undoubtedly had at least one positive effect on Suzanne, who is now mostly accepted by the older woman’s erstwhile crew of Taystee, Poussey, Janae, and Black Cindy.
9. Taystee and Poussey (Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley)
OITNB’s best friendship is strained once again as Poussey slowly spins out of control. One of Litchfield’s most reasonable and cosmopolitan residents, Poussey becomes one of several inmates who become obsessed with Gloria’s (Selenis Leyva) Santería spells, even wearing a necklace made out of garlic cloves to help bend the universe to her will. But Poussey’s got bigger problems than the possible inefficacy of her magic vegetable jewelry: Her “it’s always five o’clock in prison” philosophy toward her hooch leads Taystee to deal with her BFF’s burgeoning drinking problem in less than ideal ways.
8. Big Boo (Lea DeLaria)
Fan fave Big Boo finally gets her own flashbacks in this season’s fourth episode. The butch lesbian has let her menace show from time to time, as when she flirts with jeopardizing her girlfriend’s discharge out of jealousy back in Season 1. And we learn a bit more about the source of Big Boo’s anger in Season 3. But she's ultimately an amiable creature, and so we also get some wonderfully warm moments between the proud lesbian and the Christian fundamentalist Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), as when the larger woman comforts the anti-abortion activist in the season premiere about the fetuses the latter terminated.
7. Flaca (Jackie Cruz)
The tall half of the ditzy duo of Flaca and Maritza (Diane Guerrero), the emo Smiths fan gets to be something more than just comic relief in the fifth episode, which explores how upsettingly arbitrary and punitive the criminal justice system can be. Many socially disadvantaged women end up in Litchfield when their ambitions betray them, and the wide gulf between Flaca’s minor misdeeds and her harsh fate proves outrageously unfair. When Flaca attempts to get another job assignment after being ordered around by kitchen head Gloria one too many times, we also see how rebelling against the prison’s tribal system can be met with swift blowback.
6. Daya and Bennett (Dascha Polanco and Matt McGorry)
Cast changes are inevitable with a sprawling show like this one. Matt McGorry’s recent hiring as a series regular on ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder means that the actor’s screen time as Bennett has been cut short. At least his character gets to be the first correctional officer to get flashbacks — in the veteran’s case, to his time as “Captain America” in Afghanistan. But more compelling is the way that the romance between Daya and Bennett — once the rare pocket of sweetness at Litchfield — curdles into something bitter as Daya’s fraudulent naming of Pornstache as her baby’s father becomes much more complicated than anyone had anticipated.
5. Pornstache’s mom (Mary Steenburgen)
A product of true but fading love, Daya’s unborn child now poses a huge problem for everyone involved. Along comes a totally wrong solution that still might be the best one available: to let Pornstache’s mother, who believes that her rapist son is the father of Daya and Bennett’s child, adopt the baby. Daya’s ruthlessly practical mother Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is on board with the plan — as long as there’s a payout for her, too. True to the show’s emotional realism, even this soap-operatic plotline remains poignant, as Daya makes one bad choice after another as a result of her severely limited options and increasing desperation.
4. Red (Kate Mulgrew)
Red was always too good for her husband, and she knows it. After discovering that the Russian deli she went to prison trying to improve has gone out of business (despite Piper’s lie to Red last season that it’s become a gourmet destination), the exiled cook decides she’s finally going to start over — right here and now. Her first step is to land herself a new man better than the one she’s already got. But looking for love in Litchfield didn’t work out so well for Daya, and Red doesn’t enjoy much better luck.
3. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne)
While Red’s distracted, her prison daughter flies off the rails fast. Nicky notices that the prison population is dwindling — newly promoted Assistant Warden Caputo is releasing a lot of the drug offenders early — which gives her hope that she might be freed soon too. But the recovering addict can’t stop being her own worst enemy — not that there’s any way her new partnership with guard and prison electrician Luschek (Matt Peters) to score and sell heroin together could go anywhere but tits-up.
2. Piper and Alex (Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon)
Piper was always going to regret snitching on Alex, which she accomplished last season by having Polly (Maria Dizzia) inform the police of the former drug trafficker’s plans to skip town and thus violate her parole. (Alex was just trying to hide from her vengeful ex-employer Kubra, the drug lord she testified against.) Now that Larry and Polly have run off together (and Jason Biggs is off the show), Piper is free to commit to Alex without reservations — not that being engaged to someone else ever stopped Litchfield’s most entitled inmate from pursuing whatever or whomever she wanted. The couple’s hot hate-sex suggests Alex might eventually forgive her ex for landing her back in prison — but only if the former dealer can escape whatever fate Kubra has in store for her next.
1. Caputo (Nick Sandow)
The many conflicts and complications in the prison are threatened with mootness when the state government, now run by former assistant warden Natalie Figueroa’s (Alysia Reiner) closeted politician husband, decides to close Litchfield. Desperate to keep the penitentiary running, Caputo initiates a deal with the devil — to get a privatized-prison corporation, represented by a disinterested and bleakly bottom-line-only Mike Birbiglia, to take over Litchfield. Prison is terrible, but it can always get worse, especially when there’s money to be made. All these women are survivors, but how much more should they be forced to endure?
Inkoo Kang is the TV critic for the Village Voice. She publishes widely on film and television and tweets at @thinkovision.