Orange is the New Black: Season Four

I didn't care that much for season three, particularly the big jump-in-the-lake finale. So I decided that for season four, I would do one big review instead of thirteen individual reviews. That might have been an error on my part, because this season was probably their best.

This review includes many spoilers. If you haven't seen season four yet and you plan to, you might want to stop reading now.

It's about power

If there's an overarching theme in Orange is the New Black, it's the abuse of power. From the smaller ones, like the horrible food and the shortage of feminine hygiene products; to medium-sized abuses, like forcing Blanca to stand on a table for hours and Piscatella not letting Red sleep for days. To the monstrous ones, like adding years to Maria's sentence because she's Latina, the horror of Maritza forced to eat a mouse baby, and the ultimate abuse of power: what happened to Poussey.

Poussey Washington was one of my favorite characters in this series, and it was so horribly unfair and upsetting that she died just as she had finally found love, along with the possibility of an actual career. Taystee's grief destroyed me. So did Suzanne's attempts to empathize with how Poussey must have felt when she was being suffocated.

The final episode of this season flashed back to a strange and lovely night in Poussey's life: losing track of her friends at a dance club, the drag queens with the phone, an improv group of Buddhist monks on bicycles. In her last onscreen moment, Poussey looked directly at the camera and we could see her entire future ahead of her -- the future she should have had, and the one she unfortunately wound up with.

It's about humanity

OitNB gives us complexity in nearly every character and every situation. It wasn't the vicious Humphrey or the heartless Piscatella who killed Poussey, after all; it was Bayley, arguably the nicest guard at Litchfield, even if he did try to exchange a hand job for a cheeseburger. It was incredibly painful that MCC tried their best to erase Poussey's existence, leaving her body on the cafeteria floor for hours as if she were a piece of trash while they worked frantically on covering the whole thing up. Even Alex, who had to suffocate her would-be assassin with a wad of toilet paper, was obsessed with acknowledging that Aydin was a person with a name and a past, not an anonymous collection of body parts stuffed in burlap sacks and buried in a prison garden.

Tiffany said at one point that pain is always there, but suffering is a choice. I was a bit freaked but ultimately impressed that she chose to keep interacting with Charlie Donuts, and how it finally made him apologize for what he had done to her. Not that that would ever be enough, but getting him to see Tiffany as a person helped her to heal, to learn to love herself. (Big Boo was a big part of that, too.) Over four seasons, Tiffany has grown so much as a person. I loved that she paid it forward by helping Nicky kick again.

Luschek's progression as a human being was a thing this season, too. He actually went to Max to apologize to Nicky, and then he exchanged sex with Judy King in return for Nicky's transfer. I actually like Luschek now.

And the lack of humanity

I'm always disappointed in Caputo. There's no question that he cares about the inmates: he just doesn't care enough. He came up with "enrichment classes," a great idea that could have changed lives, but then he allowed Linda From Purchasing to turn it into Concrete 101. He smuggled out that photo of Sophia in SHU to Danny Pearson... and then he helped cover up Poussey's death. I so wanted Caputo to turn on MCC, to fire Piscatella and Bayley, to tell the truth to the press. But of course, he didn't.

Taystee as Caputo's new, unpaid assistant was pretty much perfect, and not just because it was hilarious. Taystee became a physical representation of Caputo's conscience. Sometimes he acknowledged that conscience. But mostly, he kept her behind glass and pretended she wasn't there.

It's about community

The illicit panty business last season did nothing for me but gross me out, but I was impressed with how the situation morphed this season into a comeuppance for Piper. Her business rivalry with Maria backfired, pun intended, when Piper found herself the reluctant queen of the white supremacist clique and, in an incredibly painful scene, restrained, sobbing and screaming as Maria branded her with a swastika. That led to Red "fixing" Piper's brand, and gave us the season's best line:

"When God gives you a swastika, he opens a window. And then you remember there is no God."

It was beautiful how the Piper/Maria conflict, the racially profiled patdowns and Blanca's protest turned into an entire coalition of inmates focusing their anger where it belonged: on MCC and Piscatella. (Or it could have been beautiful if it hadn't ended so sadly.) I also loved Sister Ingalls deliberately getting herself in SHU to look for Sophia, and Red deciding to forgive and help Nicky instead of punishing her. I also really loved how Black Cindy and Alison the Muslim woman ("My friend Jihad") connected over their common disgust with Scientology.

It's about love. Or maybe it's about time

It wasn't a good season for lovebirds. Brook was devastated by Poussey's death. Suzanne and Maureen couldn't connect, and came to blows. (Is there hope for them now that they're trapped in the infirmary together?) After Lorna had hilarious visitation room sex with her new husband Vinny, she realized that she was about to do to him what she did to Christopher. But Nicky might be getting Lorna back. And post-panty Piper did reunite with Alex, and I was actually happy for them, since after their individual traumas, they clearly needed each other.

This season's Most Obvious Symbolism was the cardboard time machine Lolly created in the laundry room: a rendezvous venue for lovers, a place to pretend we can go back and erase our mistakes. Lori Petty as Lolly was the standout character for me this season. There was no going back for the unfortunate Lolly, who saved Alex's life and ended up in Psych. Fortunately, Angie and Leanne destroyed Lolly's time machine before it could hurt someone else.

Even though Lori Petty's Lolly was my favorite, I won't knock Blair Brown, who did a good job as Judy King. I thought her staged romance with Black Cindy to counter that Chitlin Joe and Watermelon Sam puppet show was hilarious. (So was Suzanne's corresponding little puppet show with the sock). But Judy as a character was mostly just there to showcase inequities, and possibly to make a human being out of Luschek. The best part of the Judy plotline was Yoga Jones constantly upset about her new privileges as Judy's roomie, although she couldn't quite bring herself to turn them down.

There were a lot of other elements that made this season memorable. Suzanne and Lorna sherlocking the shower pooper. Healy nearly committing suicide because he misdiagnosed Lolly. Aleida released, but dependent on her ex-boyfriend's baby mama. Piper alienating her new Hawaiian bunkmate. Other than Poussey's death, the most moving thing for me was finally finding out what Suzanne's crime was. Which brings me to...

Best episodes

4.1 "Work That Body for Me": Twice the inmates, half the guards, all of the incompetence. Frieda does "murder math."

4.6 "Piece of Shit": Luschek becomes a human being.

4.8 "Friends in Low Places": This episode featured two of the best scenes in the season: Nicky, Alex and Piper smoking crack in the miniature cornfield, and Red making Piper's swastika into a window.

4.11 "People Persons": Which finally explained how Suzanne ended up in prison. When that little boy backed off the fire escape while Suzanne tried desperately to stop him, omigod. Just writing about it upsets me.

4.12 "The Animals": Caputo told Bayley to leave, to get another job before he lost his humanity, but too late for Poussey. In a flashback, Bayley threw an egg at Frieda, who pretty much said it all when she screamed, "I'm a fucking human being!"

4.13 "Toast Can't Never Be Bread": Is this the bus to the underworld? I already wrote a lot about this episode above, so I'll just mention the moving funeral gifts of food, and Red reading to her family about gardens as a metaphor for humanity.

This season began with a death (Aydin), and ended with a death (Poussey). I wish they hadn't left us with a cliffhanger. Did Daya shoot Humphrey? If she did, what will it do to her life? If I thought Daya could get away with it, I'd be rooting for Humphrey to die. He might be the most completely evil character they've ever given us, and that's saying a lot.


-- Nearly every episode of this series mentions tampons or pads. This season, the weirdest menstrual mention was the cost-saving menstrual "cups" at CorrectiCon, which was a perfect little parody of prison products and situations that lacked even the tiniest smidgeon of humanity. CorrectiCon would have been funny if it hadn't been so sad.

-- I miss the old guards. Especially Wanda and O'Neill.

-- Modesto. It's 'modest' with an 'o'. Like gangsta with an 'a'.

-- I loved that they brought Taslitz and Miss Claudette back, even if it was just for a moment in Max.

-- Although Red's line about the swastika was by far the best this season, this one made me laugh for five minutes:

Hapakuka: "I'm representing the Others."
Sankey: "Like on Lost?"

-- The bit that struck me as the funniest was probably Donuts reading the Stephen King novel It while guarding a cornfield full of body parts in the middle of the night.

-- Where were they charging all of those contraband cell phones?

-- Maybe it wasn't Lolly's time machine that was the Most Obvious Symbolism. Maybe it was Taystee's new watch that got stomped by the guard, but still kept working.

I'm giving this season four out of four broken watches. What did you guys think?

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you. The one thing I would have changed would have been Donuts; I don't need him to horribly die, but just have him excised from the story in some way. I get the feeling the crew just liked working with the actor (who did a great job) and wanted to keep him around, but I don't need to see the inner conflict of a rapist. We already have a lot of evil characters whose personal lives we see.

What did you think of Healy this season? He was a lesser presence, but I loved what we got and we finally got a flashback episode for him. I really felt for Healy. The hate that he has in his heart seems to hurt him as much as, or more than, anyone else. I adored his plot with Lolly. Michael J Harney deserves an Emmy for making such an on-paper despicable and goofy character so sympathetic without softening his crueler qualities.

What was your opinion on Brad William Henke? Dexter, Lost, Justified...the guy is one of the best character actors out there and I was thrilled he got such a big role this season. I feel like there's more to tell with Pisactella, even if he is evil. He might be callous and superior, but I don't think he would make anyone swallow a baby mouse.

Billie Doux said...

Anonymous, I get what you're saying about Donuts. Being trapped in prison and having to interact every day with someone who raped you felt real and relevant, though, and I felt that that particular story was more about Tiffany, not Donuts. It was also an interesting choice for them to show a rapist who didn't realize that was what he did.

Healy has certainly gotten more sympathetic as the series has progressed. Honestly, it still ticks me off that with a cast that is 90% female and such a limited number of episodes, male characters keep getting backstories. There were two last season and two this season, and I thought Bayley's was a lot more relevant than Healy's.

I was pleased to see them add Brad William Henke because he's so good (as you mentioned, Dexter, Lost, Justified) but his character was pretty much one note this season. If he comes back next season, it would be nice if they gave him some dimension. Which is something they're very capable of doing.

Thanks for the terrific comment.

Juliette said...

I agree with you, I think this was probably the best season yet. Maybe that was partly because it followed such a clear arc, taking this prison that we've known as a troubled but relatively stable place (especially since we got rid of Vee) to a place where things have got so bad the entire prison riots and an inmate with as much reasons to keep her head down and serve her time as peacefully as possible like Daya ends up pointing a gun at a guard. I thought Daya was an interesting choice there - she hasn't had a lot to do this season and had less beef with these particular guards than others, but I thought maybe that was the point - the randomness of her ending up with the gun, but then her refusal to hand it over to Maria, because they are all at breaking point, including her.

Marianna said...

I think this was definitely the best season yet! When you think about it season three was all one big set up for this season. It's just like how in a show like Agents of SHIELD people complained during most of season one because it was mostly set up, so I think the sub-par season three was worth it for this spectacular season four!

topher darling said...

I think that I liked last season more than most people did but I didn't think it was anything great and I really wasn't recommending it to people. However, I can't shut up about this wonderful season and those final scenes of the last episode that blew me away.

Maybe I watch too many sci-fi, superhero shows but this show really seemed to be doing a better job than any other on television in reflecting our current social and political climate back at us. Some examples that come to mind were the white power groups' "Make the Prison Great Again"-style conversations (and their need to yell "White Lives Matter"), scape-goating the latinas as the problem with the prison, the fact that they didn't say Washington's name (and Bailey got let off), and even the little things like Watson pulling up the hood of her grey hoodie as they marched.

And I totally agree that it was all about power. I think Judy King had a great quote to illustrate that when she told Luschek that he's a straight, white male so he doesn't get to be the victim here. That being said, I'll agree that they did focus on too many straight, white males. I'm glad they didn't do Luschek's backstory during the Piece of Shit episode. Even though he might have gotten to be a little more sympathetic in exchanging sex for Nicky's freedom, he was still guilty of complacency while the prisoners were being tortured so fuck that guy.

Oh, and I'm glad that we didn't have to endure another Piper backstory. I liked what they did with her this season although she and Vause seemed a little "above it all" when they headed the other way during the riot. I am glad they have each other although I enjoyed seeing Vause in a non-Piper plot this season.

I really like how they folded the new characters in without detracting too much from the characters we've grown to care about. Boo and Doggett could've used more to do but I always enjoy their scenes and dialog. "I love playing this game with you. It never really gets old." Daya was completely underused and I agree that it's awesome that she got the gun. I enjoyed hating the white power klan and liked the Yoga Jones/Judy King show although it was a bit one-note. Hapakuka was fun new character but I had to look her name up so maybe they can give her more time and a backstory next season. The standout for me was Blanca. She's infinitely more fascinating and generally likeable although not completely sympathetic as she demonstrated by holding Piper's head down as she was branded. I think the best lines though went to Lolly and Frieda. A backstory on Frieda would be interesting but I think they've hyped her badassness up too much now to make her background plausible or relatable.

Overall tho, I absolutely loved it and it's going to be so hard to wait until next year.

mazephoenix said...

I'm in tears over Poussey, and Lolly. Poor Taystee, and poor Soso..
This was the best season yet. Still, Tiffany forgiving her rapist and then kissing him made me uncomfortable. I'm with Boo on this.
The new guards are awful and Caputo like you said doesn't care enough.
Healy, awful as he is did care for all the good it did him.
Piper getting a swastika brand was a direct echo of what happened to an inmate on "Oz". That was in the first episode, so it was actually worse.
But Lichfield is supposed to be a minimun security prison.
Lichfield's Nazis were used for comic effect in soem scenes-and then they were actually scary.
This was their best season yet.

Billie Doux said...

Since so much of the past two seasons have been about how awful private prisons for profit are, I wanted to post this -- it was just announced that the U.S. Dept. of Justice is ending the use of private prisons because they're clearly not as humane as government-run prisons.

Marianna said...

Billie, I saw that news story, and I thought I wonder if Orange Is the New Black had anything to do with creating motivation for this change to happen? (To be clear I'm not saying the Dept. of Justice gets it's facts from fictional TV shows, just that the show helped shine a light on the problem.)

Billie Doux said...

Marianna, even though the article didn't say so, I bet OitNB had something to do with it.