Last week, I finally had a bit of time to binge-watch Orange is the New Black season 4. When I was all done, I tweeted: “I just finished watching OITNB season 4, and my chest feels tight.” I actually felt like someone gave me bad news, and the food I was about to eat got cold because I lost my appetite.
I’ve loved NetFlix’s Orange is the New Black since it started, for telling the story of the justice system that thrives on the prison industrial complex. And those who suffer for it the most, are those who are Black and brown. Piper Chapman as the main character was apparently a trojan horse, because as the show creator Jenji Kohan said “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”
From the beginning of the show, Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) was the least fascinating of all the characters on the show, when you have folks like Poussey (Samira Wiley), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Red (Kate Mulgrew), Sophia (Laverne Cox), Suzanne aka “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba). The more we learned about the ones on the periphery, the better the show got. OITNB excelled at making Litchfield Correctional Facility a fully-fleshed out world, where even in the most harrowing places, people manage to form bonds and create family. At the core of the show was heart, because even murderers, thieves and drug dealers were people before they became known as numbers in matching jumpsuits.
I fell in love with the women of OITNB, and I appreciated the show for telling real stories thoughtfully, mixing comedy with tragedy, but not too much of one over the other. Just enough. However, in season 4, the formula failed, and they had a bit too much of both. I walked away from it feeling heavy, like someone had just placed an anvil on my shoulders and didn’t tell me how to get it off. Add a dash of feeling offended and a scoop of downtroddeness and you have some of my feels afterwards.
They went wrong. OITNB took a season-long wrong turn and I am hella disappointed about it.
If you haven’t seen season 4, this is where you should stop reading. RIGHT HERE. STOP. GO NO FURTHER. SPOILERS GALORE.
Ok. Ready? Cool.
There’s been a bunch of pieces written across these interwebs about how season 4 of OITNB is problematic, including the one about how the show has become trauma porn for white people. I do not disagree. Read that piece, by the way.
I’ll talk about the specific things I had a problem with.
The two-dimensional race war
This season of OITNB especially focused on the role that race plays in Litchfield, especially in creating segments for people to exist in for family, survival and community. Well, it seemed to mostly be about the tension that race brings and how these parcels hated each other’s guts. In the past, the women of Litchfield have had conflict across color lines but this season turned them into caricatures of ethnocentrism, creating an overly simplistic motive for them to become mortal enemies, just because they sit at different lunch tables and are at different dorms. The one time they almost united for a greater good, it was quickly disbanded because they just could not cross those racial lines to form a coalition to protest the abhorrent conditions in the prison.
The white girls formed an actual hate group, chanting “White Lives Matter” at one point. The Dominican girls became the majority group and their squad ran the kitchen and the yard. The Black girls were there too, trying to stay out the fray but being pulled in by the skinheads. Oh and the Latina girls, led by Maria, branded Piper with a Swastika.
And throughout the 13 episodes, the use of slurs (mostly directed towards the Black folks) killed me softly. It was like the writers went and found a racist dictionary and saw how many derogatory ways they could say “Black.” I kinda only remembers “crackers” used for white folks but I heard all types of coon, ape, jiggaboo, darkies. To the point where I started to get angry and wanted to jump through the screen. I don’t flinch at the idea of using slurs if that reflects what happens but the sheer amount felt gross and unnecessary, in my opinion.
It’s like the Quentin Tarantino syndrome, where you see enough of his white characters say “nigger” that you start to wonder if the case isn’t just that Quentin loves to write the word and hear it spoken. It was unsettling for me and I felt like it was overkill.
And I know, you’re probably saying, well real life racists say this stuff all the time. Sure thing. However, this show’s other crimes in this season make this one a bit more glaring and a bit more unpalatable.
The death of Poussey
In the most heartbreaking turn of the season, episode 12 brought us the accidental murder of Poussey. She had found love with the annoying Soso. She had even gotten Judy King (the mix between Paula Deen and Martha Stewart) to promise her a job when she got out. She was happy. Well, as happy as you can be when you are a prisoner. We also find out how she ended up in prison: for selling a tiny amount of weed, 2 weeks before she was to move to Amsterdam to start a new life.
So as the inmates protested their deplorable conditions peacefully by standing on the cafeteria tables, guards pulled them down. Baxter Bayley, a newbie and young’un pulls Suzanne, who freaks out and lunges at him. Poussey goes to calm her friend down and Bayley grabs her and puts his knee on her back. Suzanne is yanking at him and in paying attention to her, the knee to Poussey’s back constricts her breathing until she suffocates.
It is more than painful to watch and I was stunned as I watched it.
Poussey’s body was left on the cafeteria floor as the correctional facility’s management came up with a clean enough story to give police about who or what to blame for her death. It was a combination of the deaths and tragedies of Eric Garner (“I Can’t Breathe”) and Michael Brown Jr. People say they did it to raise awareness about the “Black Lives Matter” movement, but I beg to differ. The writers of OITNB do not get a cookie because what they did to humanize Poussey’s killer was the counter comment to what was necessary.
Bayley being a young, rambunctious kid who happened to end up as a corrections officer who still has good in him was par for the course. I get it. They wanted to show two genuinely good people got caught in the crossfires of the evil system, but what they did too much of was show how good the killer was over the victim. And that is a story that is told far too often. The good side of the white boy who was careless with a Black life is something they didn’t need to emphasize. What we need less of is the story of the good cop who made a mistake or the good cop who was just defending himself as he takes an unarmed Black life. But OITNB was sure to throw another one into the mix, which is beyond disappointing since I thought they were more counter culture than that.
Maybe they intended on saying BLACK LIVES MATTER but what they really said was Blue Lives Matter, as we were basically meant to empathize with the one whose aggression cost the life of someone else. And even in that, they still get told they did nothing wrong. They still get defended, as Caputo did, as a parents gets a call that their child is no longer of this world.
OITNB considers itself progressive, but this was dizzy as fuck of them. I hated it so much and I don’t think the pay off they intended landed. Yes, we’re all heartbroken that our favorite character is dead. But it’s the kind that makes me throw up my hands and wonder what the point of this show is.
Jenji Kohan is a television BAWSE and she can write about privileged white women who don’t suffer for their bullshit (see her old show: Weeds). And her brother, David Kohan, co-created the ground-breaking Will & Grace. And OITNB’s commitment to telling us about the lives of non-white men is clear. There are good intentions here, but you know the road to hell is paved with those.
It just makes absolutely no sense and I can think of no excuse good enough that the Orange writers’ room is mostly white. How are you knee deep in a world about prison, which mostly houses Black and brown people when none of the folks crafting the stories are melanin-rich?
How does that compute? It’s a complete fail that adds a layer of “Oh I know why this shit makes me real uncomfortable” now. Because these scripts, these words, these slurs, these ugly words that made me wince throughout didn’t come from folks who have felt the sting. The pain of watching someone who looks like you have their life snuffed out to pass on some lesson wasn’t as real when that writers team was conjuring the scene. And maybe part of the laziness in the writing and in the handling of race was in the fact that the folks creating the world are completely removed from it.
Basically, it read like some white people shit. Some liberal guilt shit. Some lack of perspective shit. GET SOME COLOR IN YOUR WRITING ROOM, OITNB!
I CANNOT STAND PIPER NOW
I haven’t liked Piper since season 1, but now, I wanna dropkick her in the face every time I see her on screen. We get it. She’s a privileged white woman who nothing can ever touch. What else? Fuck Piper. Piper literally created a neighborhood watch and siced the guards on the Latina women because they were encroaching her illegal panty selling business.
The women were subjected to humiliating stops and frisks, with guards who sexually assaulted them in the process. Then she started the hate group for the white inmates to reclaim their power. Then as everyone else in the prison riots for Poussey, her and Vause are burning paper with the name of the guard Vause killed but Lolly took the fall for. They are completely oblivious and uncaring to what is going on around them.
Piper is the most selfish, self-absorbed goat and I want her to go away.
It’s ALL bad.
Seriously. Everything about this season was a blackhole of bad shit. Lolly getting dragged to the psych hall, after confessing to killing the guy. When truly, it was Vause who finished him off. Healy almost walking into the lake to kill himself from being so depressed and no one giving a fuck about him. Litchfield being a for-profit prison now so everything sucks DOUBLY since it is ALLLLLLL about bottom line and not at all about the humans in it.
Even the last scene, where the women of Litchfield rebel because enough is enough, and Daya grabs the gun that Humphries smuggled in, it falls flat. This was supposed to be that “YES” moment they have at the end of each season but it felt like it is only going to lead to more tragedy.
This season was nothing but heartbreak with no hope, from Lolly’s story to Poussey’s death to the complete hopelessness of these inmates who keep losing even the most basic decencies. After you tell the story, what comes? Because instead of letting me know what’s real, this show does that AND tells me that there is nothing to do about it. Even Caputo, who seems to be getting a heart, all of a sudden flips and doesn’t even speak up about Poussey’s death. All he does is stand behind the perpetrator.
And here we are. Unlike previous years where I couldn’t wait to see what was next (season 1, when Piper was beating up Pennsatucky), fist-pumping because: justice (season 2, when Vee was hit by the van) and smiling from 1 tiny moment of freedom (season 3, when the inmates got out the fence and were playing in the lake), season 4 makes me wanna curl up in the fetal position. And it also makes me not look forward to anything else from the show.
I have to give all the kudos to the actors on this show. OITNB has introduced us to some amazing talents, like Emmy Award-winning Uzo Aduba, and Samira Wiley, and Danielle Brooks. They have been a light in this show’s darkness.The fact that people ARE so heartbroken over Poussey’s death is a testament to the gifted Samira for making us fall in love with that character. And Taystee’s response in mourning and grief was masterful acting and I hope it gets Danielle nominated for an Emmy.
But one of them is now gone from the show since her character is dead. It makes it feel… incomplete.
There were no good feels on Orange is the New Black season 4. There was just tragically ever after. This is not supposed to feel like Game of Thrones. I don’t that I’ll be watching season 5.