Orange is the New Black: Season 4
Created by Jenji Kohan
I have fully embraced the power of Netflix at this point. While I have not watched every original series they have released, I love the ones I have. When season one of Orange is the New Black came out I wasn’t very keyed up about it. The selling point at the time was “from the creator of Weeds” a series I didn’t find that interesting. I had watched the first two seasons of Weeds and it didn’t compel me to keep going. And I didn’t find Orange too intriguing in the first and second seasons mostly due to one character: Piper Chapman.
Piper Chapman. I get it. She’s meant to be an audience surrogate, the fish out of water through whom we will learn the ins and outs of Litchfield Prison. And this is no slight to actress Taylor Schilling, the character is grating. Even more grating than just Chapman is her relationship with Vause (Laura Prepon). I have never bought the thing these two have and the directions their plots have gone don’t help either. Is it bad that I have started the last two seasons hoping Chapman would get shivved at some point and then the series could just go on without her? She became more interesting separate from Vause and getting caught up in her panty-smuggling ring in Season 3. In Season 4 she continued to be interesting by having to deal with her inflated ego and the fallout of that attitude. But when the season concluded with she and Vause getting back together I had sigh annoyedly.
When Season 3 rolled around, something about the show just completely hooked me and reeled me in. I think the de-emphasis on Chapman’s character and the spreading out of storylines to the characters in the prison who are actually interesting. There’s no way I could say a single character stands out as my favorite because I am so happy when so many of them pop up on screen and we explore their lives. I love the friendships between characters: Taystee and Suzanne, Flaca and Ramos, Red and Nichols, Pennsatucky and Boo. In many ways, the reason I love Orange is because I love Lost. The moments when Lost really clicked for me was when it explored pairings of characters and how they played off each other and then, over time how those relationships evolved. Funny enough my least favorite character in Lost would probably be Jack for the same reasons I dislike Piper, main characters seem to start out as such bland ciphers.
Season 4 is probably my favorite run of Orange to date. I am excited to see where these characters go next and the season asked some very tough questions but didn’t feel the need to answer them. I love when a television show brings up complicated topics, creates difficult situations where there is no clear villain, and then lets the audience live in that space. Breaking Bad and Mad Men did this often and it is what made me love them, especially the latter. In real life there aren’t clear lines that define hero and villain, it’s more complicated. The conflict between Pennsatucky, Boo, and Donuts is a perfect example.
I genuinely believe that Donuts didn’t have bad intentions when he began his sexual encounters with Pennsatucky in Season 3, and I believe that at the start she was into him. But things became very complicated and messed up quickly. Donuts has a duty as a prison guard so their relationship should never have even gone to that place. In many ways, this relationship was offered as a counterpoint to Daya and Bennett, which I felt was a very dangerous portrayal. When one person has clear, direct authority over another there are clear lines that should not be crossed. So, on the one hand, I felt bad for Donuts, but I also totally sympathized with Boo’s stance on what had happened to her friend and knew she was right. It’s that sort of complicated writing that makes me love this show. It’s not going to answer the moral quandary, it’s going to pose the question.
Another thing Orange does so well is to rotate the spotlight on its cast, and it has an even larger and growing cast than Lost could have imagined. Season 4’s spotlight on Ruiz was very interesting and her evolution into a leader has me interested to see the fallout between her and Mendoza, the acting “mother” of the Latina group. The release of Diaz was one of those moments I hope we see more of in the next few seasons. A show set in a prison allows lots of flexibility from a casting perspective, prisoners can be released and new prisoners can be incarcerated. I do hope the show refrains from showing too much of life after prison on the outside. Keeping the focus on life on the inside is more important. Having moments where someone leaves and both the audience and characters know they will likely never see them again helps convey what these relationships are truly like. Prisoners bond with each other out of survival and need for companionship, but the system they are living in can pull these bonds apart at any moment.
I find Caputo is one of the most infuriatingly fascinating characters in the series. I can never exactly pin him down and that is what makes him so interesting. I believe he genuinely wants to do good, he has pure intentions, but he is so easily undone by crises. It reminds a lot of seeing upper-level leadership in teaching who deep down truly care about the students but get so tangled up in the absurdity of administrative policy and thinking they instead make destructive choices.
In that same vein is Healy, one of the most tragic figures in the series, and that is saying a lot. Here is another instance of Jenji Kohan and writing staff refusing to make someone an easy villain. Healy is both a victim of life and an abuser of his position of authority. He is what I wish Ben Linus had been able to be developed into on Lost. Someone who comes across as the obvious bad guy but as we peel back the layers becomes more and more broken and sad. Healy’s relationship with Lolly and it’s heartbreaking conclusion was one of those pinnacle moments in a season with so many great plots. My hope from a narrative and character point of view is that we just never see Healy again, maybe a short cameo in the final season by someone who gets released. The moment where he checks himself into the mental health facility is a perfect period on his story. He’s going to hopefully get the help he needs, but the audience, just like the inmates, will never know exactly where he vanished to.
The moment everyone is going to remember of course will be the sudden death of Poussey. This was a very delicate moment and I think it was done in the right way. My only complaint was that a tragic ending for the character felt very telegraphed from about mid-season onwards. I suspected something would happen, I just didn’t know it would be so horrible. I’ve read a lot of criticism online about how the show dealt with Bayley, specifically that they made him too sympathetic. Much like I said earlier on how the show likes to raise difficult questions and present challenging situations, I believe that’s what this episode was about.
So often police brutality and murder is not the result of a malicious spirit but a frightened and improperly trained mindset. Bayley’s murder of Poussey was a result of leadership in the prison failing. Caputo kept leaving and not realizing things got worse when he did on top of Piscatella instituting a very cold, dispassionate policy of control in the prison. Add to that Suzanne’s trauma from being made to fight her ex by Humphreys and you had a confluence of people that could only end badly. If Bayley were a real person then I would expect he’d get charged with manslaughter, but he never wanted to kill Poussey. It’s a condemnation not of an individual but of corporations like MCC who cut corners on training and as a result, withdraw a sense of humanity from prisons. I think everyone’s grief and pain were touched on wonderfully and we saw the full spectrum of perspectives. What Bayley did was something we are all capable of, in a moment of extreme crisis if you can’t handle the pressure you can end up doing horrible things to another human being. You should be simultaneously held accountable to the full extent of the law but also shown compassion and love. Like a lot of the prisoners in Litchfield, Bayley had the worst day of his life and he’ll now pay for it. We could see that in the scene where he’s driven home by one of the army veteran guards and he looks genuinely broken when the man says he and Bayley are the same.
As a writer, it would have been extremely easy to make sadistic guard Humphreys the murderer. But that would not have had the emotional impact on the narrative that choosing Bayley did. Humphreys is easy to hate and he doesn’t challenge us. Including him as the focus of the final scene was a smart move. The dynamics in place bring up a lot of emotion. The audience truly hates Humphreys but does he deserve to die? Maybe you think he does. But Daya holding the gun not only gets her an extended sentence if she were to kill him she would also go to max and get life. She’ll never see her child on the outside if she does this. In the same way, Pennsatucky finds it in herself to forgive Donuts because *she* needs to do that, the audience has to find a way to let its hate go. Revenge killing a guard, even Humphreys, may satisfy a momentary emotional need for revenge but its long terms effects will be the destruction of Daya’s soul and her life. As in life, we don’t get to get back at those who have wronged us. Many times we don’t get proper justice is supposedly promised to us. What people have to do is find a way to forgive so that they can move on, so that they don’t have to live in that pain and hate for the rest of their lives.
I am very excited to see where Orange goes in its 5th season. I’d love for the opening to have let some time pass, to not show Daya or Humphreys right away. Slowly unfold those details, show the grieving process for Poussey continuing. Show Caputo facing the blame for what he is ultimately responsible for. Continue to tell these wonderful stories about these dynamic characters. And especially, I hope it continues to challenge the audience to think beyond black and white spectrums of morality, and be forced to face the fragile nuance of human existence.