Orange is the New Black Season 4: Where is the Line Between Frustratingly Realistic and Torturous?
I’m a habitually slow watcher. When Netflix releases a show’s entire new season in one go, I try to pace myself and watch when I can make time. Consequently, I often end up being that guy who hushes everyone by saying, “no spoilers!”
Orange is the New Black, however, presents an exception to this habit. I picked up the show during its second season and have blazed through every new 13-episode set as it premiered. I loved the complexity and variety of identities being represented in conjunction with one another. I appreciated the reality intertwined with humor and grace. Maybe I’m being gratuitous with my praise — but I did also tune out pretty much every scene about Piper and/or Alex so that made for a much more enlivening experience.
As someone who has a vested interest in this program, I immediately noticed how different season four felt from its predecessors. It’s dark. Really dark. Things at Litchfield are crumbling with no foreseeable resolution in sight. Each episode digs itself further into a hole of bleakness and destruction. Even the punchlines are cruel and unusual (see: “What was the last goldmine?” “I don’t know…the War on Drugs?”).
At what point does a show cross the line from captivating, realistic writing into purely gross and torturous territory?
Episode five ends with Piper’s “Community Task Force” breaking into a chant of “white lives matter!” As the credits rolled and Netflix asked me if I wanted to continue watching, I began questioning: At what point does a show cross the line from captivating, realistic writing into purely gross and torturous territory? I just finished the season and I am still asking myself this question. But the unsettled feeling in my stomach tells me I already know the answer.
The show does have many elements working in its favor. It’s arguably one of the most racially diverse casts with a plethora of queer identities also represented. Mental illness is portrayed and discussed in numerous forms. There are many things this show does that other shows simply do not, which is why it rends my heart all the more to see a program with so much potential become a vehicle for violence and apologetics.
Whereas the last three seasons have built up captivating storylines about women of color, victims of trauma and abuse, and people of a non-hetero orientation, this season expends the majority of its effort attempting to make you feel sorry for the white men who wronged those in the aforementioned groups. When the white supremacists at Piper’s task force meeting ask “Don’t all lives matter?” this comment is intended facetiously. Except it isn’t. The entire theme of this season could be boiled down to “all lives matter” and I’m not having any of it.
…this season expends the majority of its effort attempting to make you feel sorry for the white men who wronged those in the aforementioned groups.
There was not a single storyline this season that did not end up exploiting or abusing a marginalized group. The writers are quick to defend themselves early on, though, by forcing Cindy to espouse the idea that black people cannot be racist. A curious conversation for a group of all-white writers to incorporate into their show and then force it out of the mouths of women of color.
This conversation simply sets the tone for the remainder of the season, in which nearly every white man who consistently brings pain and torture to the women of Litchfield is given his very own sob-story. CO Bayley kills Poussey in what might be one of the most upsetting TV-character deaths of all time. Yet, rather than focus on his incompetence or implication in the larger system, the show builds up to this scene by crafting Bayley’s backstory. The viewer sees him as a nervous country boy who never meant nobody no harm, honest! Things simply got out of hand and he was just doing the best he could with what he’d been given, right? The writers want you to believe that, when Poussey is lying dead on the linoleum, no one was really responsible.
Another indefensible plot line is Pennsatucky’s forgiveness of her rapist. The pain and anguish of season three has apparently dissipated so much so that ‘Tucky is ready to make good with the man who made her feel inhuman. While Boo does provide a voice of reason and a very real threat to CO Coates, the writers clearly don’t want her winning the battle. Instead, they spend an excess of time building up CO Coates as a deeply conflicted man. Woe is him, for he must see so much pain and suffering around him! He has understood the error of his ways and is “doing his best” to restrain himself from raping once more. I can’t help but feel this entire strand of events was simply written to give Pennsatucky something to do this season — and this was really the best the writers could come up with? Whereas other faults of the show are capable of receiving a thin veil of “but that’s simply what prison is like!” this storyline is pure fiction and hence purely unnecessary and gross. There is no excuse for this plot line.
Perhaps the only CO and/or prison staffer the viewer is not made to feel bad for is CO Humphrey, one of the new guards who also turns out to be a psychopath. Though he isn’t portrayed as a good guy in even the faintest sense, he is all too easily given his way. In one of the season’s more disturbing scenes (a hard-won title, frankly), he forces Maritza to swallow a live baby mouse. Perhaps prison is truly this grotesque, but the fact that this storyline is given little to no resolution indicates it was written purely for shock factor as opposed to illuminate some aspect of the prison-industrial complex.
I can’t blame Caputo himself, of course, because he’s a fictional character. But I can blame the writers for creating a character who seemingly loses all of his ideals in the span of a few months.
There’s the matter of Joe Caputo — a character who was once a voice of reason, now another insufferable cog in the machine. He seemingly gets nothing done this season, besides scoring himself a ladyfriend in the even-more-insufferable Linda from MCC. He paces and sweats excessively, but seems to have lost every bit of interest in making a difference. His attempts at reforming MCC’s corporate ways become more and more half-hearted with every episode. By the end of the season, he’s showing up at Fig’s door, late at night, confessing that he is now a broken man. As with Bayley, this narrative is intended to garner sympathy. One is supposed to think to themselves “I am sure if I was in his shoes, I would do the exact same thing. How could I not?” And yet, how could I? I can’t blame Caputo himself, of course, because he’s a fictional character. But I can blame the writers for creating a character who seemingly loses all of his ideals in the span of a few months. And for what? A Corporate Go-Getter with some bad veneers and a gun in her purse? Side Boob would be really disappointed. Though, my guess is that the band is on hiatus.
Lastly, there’s Sam Healy. He was arguably never much of a good guy as opposed to a sad-sack punching bag in the first place, but this season delves deeper into the man behind the verbal abuser of his Russian mail-order bride. In season four, we see how aggressive and manipulative his loneliness has crafted him to be. A flashback reveals not only a bad mullet but a past as a social worker who is interested in sleeping with his patients. Despite this explicit violation of medical ethics, Healy is seemingly justified by a complicated relationship with his mentally ill mother. He sublimates these issues onto Lolly, and takes her on as his schizophrenic protege. That is, until he realizes Lolly wasn’t lying about how she murdered a guard and has an existential crisis so severe he attempts suicide by walking into a lake.
The narratives of Orange is the New Black have been commandeered by men. Okay, fine, yes, a cis-het white man can be a complicated person. For that experience I suggest you turn to House of Cards, Narcos, Daredevil, Master of None, or the majority of other shows distributed by Netflix and all major broadcasting companies. Orange is the New Black was once a safe and inclusive place for so many women of a litany of backgrounds. A block of time one could tune into and not be forced to confront yet another man working through some stereotypical problem.
I put too much trust into a single show to tell every story I felt was missing from other places on television.
Perhaps that collapse of season 4 is a fault of that very inclusiveness. I put too much trust into a single show to tell every story I felt was missing from other places on television. I expected so much from a 13-episode block that how could it ever deliver? Maybe it’s all a cruel metaphor: just as Litchfield has been overcome with masculinity and oppression, so has the very show itself.
I wonder if there is still hope for Orange is the New Black? Maybe I’m just not “getting it.” Perhaps the show forced itself to its lowest point in order to come back with strength and resilience. But damn, who isn’t tired of being resilient? Unfortunately, we all have to wait another year to find out if this show knows something that we don’t — or if something we love will resign itself to a fate of becoming yet another graveyard for queer, brown bodies and a pedestal for oppressors.