Orange is the New Black was always an interesting, innovative show, both in its subject matter and even its mode of distribution (Netflix). But last season, the narrative became unfocused, the hole at the centre of the show (protagonist Piper Chapman) became more difficult to deal with and there was a distinct lack of forward momentum, drifting to a vaguely spiritual conclusion. This season, the show has a clear, strong through-line and doesn’t shy away from the darker corners of the issues that the show’s setting and theme brings up. In fact, it isn’t until the very end that it becomes clear that this season, more than others, is about gender, power, race and privilege in modern America, and its a scathing, effective critique. Though this is the fourth season, the show has never felt more fresh and relevant.
Let’s start with the most problematic issue: Piper. The first season of Orange is the New Black was essentially a fish out of water tale, contrasting the upper-class white privilege of its protagonist with the gritty surroundings. But Piper’s self-pity and tendency to play the narcissistic victim became grating in season two and by season three she was simply the least interesting aspect of the show. That doesn’t really change here in season four, but it’s as if the show’s creators have finally realized it. Piper is essentially one of an ensemble here. Season four isn’t about her in any specific way, and it’s interesting the degree to which the series’ creators go to create some kind of sympathy about this character. Piper does get in over her head here, and suffers some fairly painful consequences, but she’s not the only one who plays out that arc. And, it’s interesting how little her storyline resonates when compared with the others. Perhaps it’s Taylor Schilling’s dead-eyed performance or the way in which her character’s holier-than-thou attitude invites criticism, but even at Piper’s lowest point this season, it’s hard to feel as if her suffering really means anything, in the metaphorical sense.
Compare this with some of the other characters, such as Taryn Manning’s Pennsatucky, who has to deal with being a rape victim who has to maintain relationship with her rapist, or the heartbreaking story arc involving Lolly (Lori Petty) and her struggle with mental illness. Laverne Cox’s transgender character Burset suffers almost Biblically this season (complete with an effort on the part of Sister Jane to save her), and Kate Mulgrew’s Red sinks lower and rises farther than most other characters in modern drama. This is all rich, powerful stuff with deeply interesting and sympathetic characters, viewed with an unblinking eye. Even though the show stops dead in its tracks whenever it focuses on Piper, there’s enough other elements to make this season terribly effective.
Race has played a role in past seasons, and this season the tensions at Litchfield reach new levels. White supremacists make an appearance here, but the Black and Latino groups that coalesce along racial lines (even splintering for a time into Dominicans vs Mexicans vs Puerto Ricans) are more than up to the challenge. In one of the series’ deepest ironies, all of these racial divisions in the prison become secondary to the power relationships between guards and inmates, privilege and poverty and the deeply compromised morality of the corporate world. The final episode in particular features an absolutely disgusting display of corporate spin-doctoring that’s one of the ugliest things this show has yet featured (and this season features people defecating in the public shower). It’s an effective reminder that power ultimately trumps even race in the modern world.
With all of that darkness, this is still a show with a great deal of humour and is replete with self-aware one-liners. Characters even discuss the plot lines of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, lamenting how much quality TV they’ve missed since being incarcerated. There’s something very charming about the way these women relate to each other. There’s hate, but there’s also a lot of love, and even some of the male characters (notably Caputo and Healy) are as sympathetic as they’ve ever been, with all their imperfections.
Without getting into spoilers, it’s safe to say that season four of Orange is the New Black is a heart-wrenching journey that stands alongside the best TV programming available in recent years.