Rest in Peace, Orange is the New Black
Warning: I’m going full-tilt spoilers on this one. Proceed at your own risk.
I started writing this review when I was only a couple episodes into season 4 of Orange is the New Black. The finale was spoiled for me, but even just a few episodes in, I had already been feeling like the season was going to a weird, dark place. I was actually so mad about it all that I felt compelled to start writing as soon as possible. Now that I’ve finished the season, I’m cracking my knuckles and ready to dive into what feels to me like the death knell of one of my favorite shows.
When Netflix first released their original series Orange is the New Black created by Weeds’ showrunner Jenji Kohan three years ago, I was immediately obsessed. In a sea of shows and movies about straight white men, OITNB seemed to get that people like me might be looking for something different, and provided it in the form of mindful, compassionate portrayals of women from all walks of life. In the beginning, OITNB developed its characters lovingly and told their stories with dignity and respect. But it’s clear now that the writers’ room has run out of juice when it comes to finding that perfect balance of entertaining dramedy and poignant social commentary. What was once a thoughtful drama about a diverse group of women struggling to maintain their humanity in a place that treats people like animals, now feels more like an “edgy” sitcom that happens to be set in a prison, where violent, racist antics are played for laughs and the importance of “symbolism” takes precedence over doing right by the characters that made this show into the phenomenon it is.
So in the interest of simplicity, I’d like to just get into it. The major spoiler, the intersection of all the horrible exploitative issues OITNB had in season four: The Death of Poussey Washington.
Yep. We’re going there right off the bat. I was actually glad that this was spoiled for me early on in the season, because I would have been doubly crushed to be surprised by it after spending the entire season watching Poussey and Brooke fall in love. The two become closer than ever; they fight, make up, make plans for their future, and grow together, only to have their love brutally snuffed out for virtually no reason. Perhaps the intentional build-up before the fall is what bothers me the most about Poussey’s death. Her character was killed off because she would make the best martyr, the best plot device to move the story of Litchfield where it needed to go. A sweet and loving Black lesbian finally feeling a sense of comfort and community in a place designed for neither, killed by a guard in a graphic and drawn-out scene to show just how bad the situation has gotten in a prison where things are always bad. Obviously it could not have been predicted by the OITNB writers, but to have such a narrative play out in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting in Orlando was especially gut-wrenching. The LGBT community already has so little positive representation in media, especially when it comes to people of color, that it is a slap in the face to rip a gift like Poussey out of our hands. The scene was also clearly reminiscent of the real life death of Eric Garner, who was killed as a result of an NYPD officer putting him into an illegal chokehold and holding him down on the ground despite his repeated cries that he could not breathe. It is in questionable taste, to say the least, to force the Black and LGBT communities to relive such horrible moments for the sake of exposing their ugliness to those viewers who are lucky enough to not know how they feel.
In case you’re not sold on who these messages were for, episode 13 makes it clear by selectively choosing who to focus on in the aftermath of Poussey’s death. We start with a short flashback, and then straight to the guards. The first “present” scene of the episode opens with Piscatella and Caputo, the guards, MCC, and their painfully slow process of coming up with “the story” they’re going to tell the police and the press while Poussey’s body remains on the floor in the middle of the cafeteria. We are treated to several lengthy scenes depicting CO Bayley’s remorse and depression (coming hot on the heels of his backstory episode wherein we find out he was a shitty local teenager who got away with a lot of dumb stunts before working for the prison, but he felt bad about it so don’t worry he’s still a good guy) we even see the response from the group of literal Nazis, yet moments where Taystee, Janae, Cindy, and Suzanne are dealing with the loss of their friend feel like quick glimpses by comparison. Poussey’s death was used for the highest drama, she was sacrificed because she represented the most vulnerable, and then the only reactions the show seems to care about is those of the perpetrators and the privileged.
And speaking of the literal Nazis, I could not believe how much screen time was given to these characters, and how much effort was put into humanizing them. This season alone probably had more racial slurs in the mix than the entire series put together (from a writers room that is nearly all-white), and yet we’re supposed to be amused by little jokes like the name “Skinhead Helen” and the fact that Brandy says she would help Hitler rather than kill him when everyone is discussing time travel. We are meant to sympathize with Piper for getting “caught up with the wrong crowd” instead of rightfully challenging her for being so focused on one-upping Maria that she not-so-reluctantly accepts the support of neo-Nazis. We are fed hints that Sankey is not as violently racist as the rest of the White Power group and expected to root for her to break free of them, even though in any given scene she never goes further than expressing one sympathetic thought for the Black or Latinx women. The more middle-of-the-road racist white women Leanne and Angie also are the ones who are given the opportunity to tackle internalized racism and colorism within the Black/Latinx communities when they discuss anti-blackness among Dominicans. It appears that throughout the season, nearly all the social commentary happens for the benefit of white people, and at the expense of the characters of color. The minority groups on the show have become merely examples, demonstrations so that people like Piper can “get” them (see also the gross simplification of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict into a petty fight between Muslim and Jewish bunkmates who also happen to be two Black women. Yikes.)
All of this brings me to the conclusion that Orange is the New Black has simply lost its magic. Where seasons 1 and 2 spent considerable amounts of time telling the stories of these women from their own perspectives, with ample context and a healthy dose of exasperation with Piper and her privileged obliviousness, season 4 was merely an exercise in putting vulnerable characters through as much pain as possible to emphasize the seriousness of the show’s subject matter. Besides even the issue with Poussey’s death, in this season we are also subjected to Crystal Burset getting the run-around while Sophia slips into depression and self-harm in solitary confinement, and every kind of inhumane, psychological torment by the guards going totally unchecked because the new captain of the guard literally doesn’t see the inmates as deserving of basic human rights. Running out of options to go deeper with their existing characters, OITNB has opted instead to fire wildly at big, explosive targets and hope the emotion attached to those issues will be enough to propel the story along. The show still has its brief moments of greatness, of course, but if this is how the narrative is going to continue to unfold, I’m afraid it’s time for me to get off the ride.