It's back

What inspires the blistering rage of “Orange Is the New Black”?

Now in its fourth season, there is no mistaking the real-world injustices skewered by the barb of this prison drama’s ire

Pennsatucky’s story proffers a staggeringly complex depiction of rape trauma. (Netflix)

The piece contains major spoilers for the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black.

Orange Is the New Black began as the story of Piper Chapman, a wide-eyed yuppie who finds herself incarcerated, for drug smuggling, at the Litchfield Correctional Facility in upstate New York. The show has evolved considerably since then, with Piper fading into the background and a vibrant, diverse cast of characters moving into the fore. But in the latest season of the series, which dropped on Netflix earlier this month, she emerges once again—not as a WASPY anomaly, but as a symbol of the destructive nature of prison life.

At the start of Season 4, Piper is running an illicit enterprise, smuggling inmates’ underwear to men who … have an interest in such things. “I am the prison pussy panty business,” as she puts it. When a rival group tries to encroach on her turf, Piper launches a full-on gang war. It goes very badly. “I think I was trying to win at prison,” she says during a moment of clarity, as if suddenly realizing the absurdity of that ambition.

The sad truth is that nobody — not a single inmate, not a single guard — “wins” at prison. Season 4 of Orange retains the jaunty dialogue and kooky cast of characters that we have come to know and love, but it is far bleaker, far more blistering than any of its predecessors. Two murders bookend the narrative, which is pockmarked by a slew of other tragedies: gang violence, transphobia, addiction, sexual assault, psychological torture. Inane interactions, like a seemingly harmless game of “Would You Rather,” often take a dark turn. As the prison warden Caputo says, “This place crushes anything good.”

Season 4 picks up just after Litchfield has transitioned into a for-profit model, and a wash of new inmates have flooded into the facility. The prison is desperately overcrowded, to the point that it runs out of menstrual products and a tampon black market blossoms among the inmates. The callousness of this system—which sees living, breathing women reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet—is highlighted by Caputo’s visit to a conference, where prison executives toy with stun guns and cheerily debate the cost-saving merits of the menstrual cup.

The trickle-down effect of Litchfield’s corporate culture is disastrous. Following the staff walk-out that took place last season, most of Litchfield’s guards have been replaced by former soldiers, who are hired because their employment allows the prison board to claim tax credits. Unlike Pornstache—the nefarious, but doofy villain who once plagued the inmates—this new group of corrections officers is rendered as a thoroughly unfunny, sadistic bunch. One forces prisoners to fight until blood is drawn. A second disciplines Blanca (Laura Gomez) by forcing her to stand on a table for days, covered in her own urine. Tensions between inmates and guards gurgle and boil throughout the season, until a peaceful protest devolves into chaos and Poussey (Samira Wiley, possibly the most adorable human on the planet) is crushed to death under the knee of a guard.

This horrible scene is, of course, a direct reference to Eric Garner and Black Lives Matter. Orange has always been brave—I’m hard-pressed to think of another series that pays such deliberate attention to women who are black, or Latina, or poor, or fat, or gay, or old—but this time around, it is loud and it is angry.

Orange is the New Black

Tensions between inmates and guards peak when a peaceful protest devolves into chaos and Poussey (Samira Wiley) is crushed to death. (Netflix)

There is no mistaking the real-world injustices skewered by the barb of Orange’s ire. Sophia Burset is driven to the point of madness in solitary confinement, like so many transgender prisoners in this country. Among the influx of new inmates is Judy King, a Martha Stewart-Paula Deen hybrid, played to perfection by Blair Brown. When Judy arrives at the prison, she is promptly granted her own room—and a Soda Stream. Orange is steeped in contemplations of privilege: who has it, who doesn’t, how it is magnified to glaring effect within the prison walls.

Occasionally, the show’s efforts to put forth a crusading social commentary can veer into heavy-handedness. Its depiction of veterans as uniformly cruel seems especially unfair. But for the most part, characters are treated with sympathy and nuance. Pennsatucky’s story, in particular, proffers a staggeringly complex depiction of rape trauma. After being sexually assaulted by a guard last season, Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) struggles with depression and, eventually, tries to sympathize with her attacker. “What if he’s just a regular person who made a mistake?” she asks an incredulous Boo (Lea DeLaria).

There are myriad ways in which that sentiment is problematic, but sometimes, forgiveness is easier than anger. “I didn’t forgive him for him, I forgave him for me,” Pennsatucky explains. “I’m tired of feeling shitty all the time.”

The mental gymnastics that inmates have to perform to cope behind bars can feel depressing, but there is happiness to be found at Litchfield. In spite of its rage, Orange revels in the sweet, intimate moments between prisoners: Piper and Alex, Poussey and Soso, Nicky and Lorna. After Poussey’s death, the entire prison rallies around her best friends, her “family.” The show’s prison system is cruel and dehumanizing, but still, humanity persists.


The real Piper of ‘Orange is the New Black’ visits Congress to stand up for women prisoners

“Orange is the New Black:” Still not afraid of old, fat, trans, and ethnic women

Is Big Boo from “OITNB” right about the effect of legalizing abortion on crime rate?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *