Let’s Talk About “Orange is the New Black,” Season 4

Posted on July 05, 2016

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First slight tangent:

We dove headfirst into this season of “Orange is the New Black,” even though we found parts of season 3 to be disappointing. We love the characters too much to not be excited at the prospect of spending 13 more hours with them. We knew we weren’t going to be doing episodic reviews, because frankly, that approach has NEVER worked with us and streaming shows. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to run a fabulous web site such as this one AND knock out an 800-word review every 24 hours for two weeks straight in a vain attempt to keep up with the binge-watching audience. “We’ll do two or three reviews for the season,” we reasoned, as the next episode loaded. “Okay, maybe two.” That rather quickly turned into “We’re just gonna do a major wrapup of the season as a whole. That seems to make the most sense.”

Then we got to the end of the season and the rather devastating turn the story took, leaving us somewhat paralyzed and unable to form thoughts:

 

 

End first tangent.

Second slight tangent:

We were talking to friends a week ago and this show came up. They were watching the season but had only gotten through a couple of episodes so far. “It’s … okay…” they offered, “But we haven’t really gotten into it yet.” Fresh from the rawness of the season ending, we blurted out “Stick with it. We’re not going to spoil it for you, but by the end, we figured it was just about the best season the show’s ever done.”

“Does something happen at the end?”

“Yes. Something … big.”

“Oh, I can’t wait!” they responded excitedly. “Why are you looking at each other like that?”

End second tangent.

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So let’s talk about season 4 of Orange is the New Black.

There’s certainly much to discuss, from Nicky’s unexpected return (and Natasha Lyonne’s Emmy worthy, eyeball-vibrating performance as a junkie sliding off the wagon), to Lolly’s sad descent into mental illness – or rather, her inability to prevent it from rearing its head in a situation that almost seems designed to test the sanity of anyone involved in it, to Judy King, gaming that system and benefitting from it to an unprecedented degree, even as she plays people and sets them against each other in order to protect herself, to Sophia’s sadly accurate sidelining from the story because the system she’s stuck in has no tools (or reason) to recognize her as a person and a woman, to Ruiz breaking bad after deciding (or realizing) there was no reason or incentive for her to play by the rules, to Taystee, playing by those rules and progressing nicely as an inmate on her way to becoming rehabilitated (she’s the only one to have pursued and nurtured real-life, job-getting skills while in Litchfield), only to find out it was likely all for nothing because the system can’t even bother to learn the names of the people it sets out to destroy.

Oh, and Alex and Piper started bumping each other again. Yay. Just what we all wanted. The middle class, pretty white girls finding love again as things get progressively uglier and more dangerous around them. Thank goodness for that.

We’re not Piper haters like so many of the shows fans seem to be, but her storyline this season was erratic and had little to no payoff to it. While it was horrifying to see her branded by Ruiz and her gang, it was equally as horrifying watching her reticence regarding the white supremacists who looked to her briefly as their leader. “Briefly” being the operative word. Like her panty business, her flirtation with starting a Neo-Nazi gang kind of fizzled out without a payoff. When she and Alex got back together, we shrugged. We’re not against the idea, since each character really only makes any sense when she’s playing off the other one. But it did kind of annoy us that when the big showdown came, the show had to make a point of Piper being the hero who got up on the table first, showing solidarity with Blanca, one of the people who helped put that brand on her arm. It was, quite frankly, an unearned and unnecessary moment for the character.

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But even as Piper’s heroism annoyed us, we had to admit that it was perfectly of a piece with the show’s “shades of gray” approach to characters and situations; an approach that always defined the series. Throughout the show’s run, the “bad” guys were sympathetic occasionally (Caputo, Healy) and the “good” guys were capable of terrible things (Bennett, Piper, Mendoza’s war with Sophia). But in season 4 that approach fairly exploded, as events and situations got more and more complicated and intense, leading to the show’s most devastating moment.

So let’s talk about that moment and how the show handled it. Poussey Washington is dead and “Orange is the New Black” worked very hard to make you understand the reasons why, which were numerous, varied, and contradictory.

Poussey Washington died because an inmate protest at Litchfield got out of hand.

Poussey Washington died because an untrained corrections officer made a fatal mistake.

Poussey Washington died because she was trying to calm down a friend having a breakdown.

Poussey Washington died because of a judicial system that treats drug use and possession as more punishable crimes than rape and spousal abuse.

Poussey Washington died because of a for-profit prison system that dehumanizes its charges in every possible way.

Poussey Washington died of neglect.

Poussey Washington died because of an act of violence perpetrated on her.

Poussey Washington died because she was a drug dealer.

Poussey Washington died because she was black.

Poussey Washington’s death was an accident.

Poussey Washington was murdered.

All of these things are true.

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No one person or event is responsible for Poussey’s death, which reveals the maddening brilliance of the writing this season. While it would be tempting to claim the entire storyline was about the Black Lives Matter movement and the events and tragedies that spurred on its creation, it goes much deeper than that, offering a rumination and examination of all the ways in which systemic abuse and institutionalized racism converge on one moment, resulting in one death. Granted, many people would prefer that the show not be so namby-pamby in its approach; not be so focused on the angst of the white men who are in charge of this system. Many people would prefer that the show simply point its finger at one or two things and render judgment on them for Poussey’s death. It was frustrating and at times infuriating to spend time with Caputo and his career anxieties, Healy and his issues with women and mental health, and most frustrating of all, Baxter Bayley and his rather dimwitted but charmed life. It was irritating to consider that the show launched a storyline off of BLM by having a white guard murdered by inmates, thereby providing a “reason,” (if not an excuse) for why the guards became so confrontational and paranoid.

But isn’t that, in a way, more correct? Black Lives Matter is a social movement that morphed into a political one, and its proponents and leaders would likely argue that such a shift was absolutely necessary in order for it to become a viable movement. But when complicated events spur on political movements, the edges of those events tend to get sanded off in order to tell as uncomplicated a story as possible. Politics is the art of taking very complicated things and rendering them in the most simplistic way, after all. Art and expression are the tools by which complicated matters are explored in depth. For the show to be true to itself and true to its art, it was as necessary for it to complicate these matters as it was for BLM to keep them as simple as possible.

So Poussey didn’t die because a bunch of racist guards decided to kill her. She died because she made choices in a culture that didn’t think a person like her should be able to, and she wound up stuck in a system that had no interest in her whatsoever and didn’t even consider her fully human. That doesn’t mean her race had no part to play, of course. Baxter didn’t deliberately kill Poussey, he just neglected her to death. But try as we might, we simply cannot picture the scene playing out exactly the same way if, say, Piper was the one who tried to calm Suzanne down. No one pulled a gun on Poussey or wrapped their hands around her neck. No one beat her to death. But the whole point to that scene is that it could only have played out the way it did. Baxter would have more than likely been much less aggressive with someone like Piper and much less likely to ignore her while he dug his knee into her back. Regardless of whether it was a deliberate act – and the show goes to great lengths to argue that it wasn’t – it was still very much a racist one.

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This need to paint things in shades of gray has always benefitted the show and it was particularly well rendered this season, but we have to take a second and acknowledge the one area of the story in which it didn’t work at all: Doggett and her forgiveness of Coates for raping her. Granted, Tiffany is a mess of a person and given her background and situation, she’d be likely to let rapegones be rapegones, but the show went to great lengths to explore this issue and given how it rendered Coates as completely appalled and apologetic and Big Boo as being somewhat unreasonably mad at him, it felt like the show’s need to be ambiguous got so tangled up in itself that it wound up coming down hard on one side: the side that says you can forgive your rapist if he apologizes and rekindle a romance with them. If we’d gotten any sort of indication that the show considered Doggett’s choice a bad one, we’d have been okay with it, but that’s not how it came across.

Orange is the New Black has always been a show about power on some level, and it’s a theme that exploded this season, from the power struggles among the various inmate factions to the power struggles between Caputo, his corporate overlords, and his increasingly dangerous guards. But it’s also a show about the banality of evil and the results of dehumanization. It would be very easy to call Piscatelli or Humphrey (the guard who made Mauritza eat a mouse in one of the show’s most disturbing scenes ever) the true villains of the season, but we reject that idea and we think the show does too. Don’t get us wrong, they’re both revolting and horrible. The only reason we don’t want to see Dayanara put a bullet in the latter’s head is because it would destroy her life. No, the guards aren’t the villains here, even though there’s no questioning the evil of their actions. Caputo and Healy aren’t the villains either. As the show has demonstrated time and again, they’re both rather weak men loaded up with anxious masculinity issues that oftentimes result in devastation for the inmates, but they’re not evil. The true villain of this season? The one the show wanted you to understand as a representation of the banality of true evil? Linda from Purchasing, Caputo’s self-absorbed girlfriend. White, privileged and determined to never examine the system she works in and benefits from, even as she makes decisions that affect the people in that system. She is determined to be as ignorant as possible because it clearly makes her life better to be that way. If that’s not a stand-in for white privilege and institutionalized racism, then we don’t know what is. She’s not the cause of everything that went down. She’s not even the cause of most of it. But she stands for everything that’s wrong with it.

But let that not be the last word on this season. If anybody deserved the last word, it was Poussey herself, who got a tear-jerking but beautiful sendoff as we watched her live the best night of her life. But even that’s not good enough. Let the last word be not a word at all, but Taystee’s utterly devastating wail as she curled up on the floor next to her sister’s dead body. A primal scream of rage and sadness over the loss of a human being in a system that couldn’t even bother to say her name.

 

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