Hey there. Amanda Blue here. So I have this friend who’s good (to say the least) with a camera, but he’s also good with words and never half-asses much of anything – including TV show and movie reviews. After both of us binge-watched the hell out of the newest season of Orange Is The New Black this past weekend, he sent me the following and it seemed a little selfish to keep it to myself. So, without further ado, Mr. Warren Gamache‘s thoughts on OITNB S4!
“I’m afraid I’m not myself in here, and I’m afraid that I am.” So says Piper Chapman in the first season of Orange Is The New Black. “In here” is the operative phrase. Outside, she can choose to be who she wants to be. Inside, her range of choices is limited, and Season Four, the strongest season so far in the series, brings into stark focus the fact that all the characters are crushed under the weight of the bad-and-worse alternatives imprisonment offers them.
We pick up where the previous season left off: the inmates escaped en masse through a breach in the fence to a nearby lake to cool off and let loose; hapless but well-meaning Warden Caputo grapples with the loss of his staff in a walkout over pay and benefits; and buses drop off hundreds of new inmates. Meanwhile, Chapman, having coldly had her former lover exiled to maximum security with some planted contraband, struts confidently through the empty halls fancying herself a “gangsta – with an A.”
One of the most gutsy decisions creator Jenji Kohan made with Orange Is The New Black is making the protagonist only fitfully likeable. A product of an upper-class Manhattan value system which emphasizes social correctness while maintaining an insular distance from the society’s faultlines of race and class, Piper Chapman relentlessly projects insincerity even as she tries her best to ingratiate herself. She can’t help but be condescending. Narcissistically invested in her self-image as a paragon of fairness, concern and understanding, she’s not above petty maliciousness when pushed.
In a season one episode, when her nemesis Tiffany Doggett tries to bridge the gap between them the only way she knows how – pushing a Christian conversion involving baptism – Chapman rattles off a snotty lecture about Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Christopher Hitchens and the failings of religious faith. Satisfying in the moment, no doubt, but with a more fully-formed sense of empathy she would have realized that while standing up for herself, Piper was also attacking the underpinning of Doggett’s identity. Perhaps a simple, “Thanks for your friendship, I’m not ready for this” would have sufficed.
Like Charles Foster Kane, Piper will need more than one lesson, and as the season unfolds – I would say spoiler alert, but you get a glimpse in the trailer – Piper gets more than one, when her vanity project of contraband undies stops being a lark and she faces the pressures inherent in an illegal business, whether undies or drugs: Risk of exposure, subsequent fallout, and competition from people more ruthless than her. If she was still the central character of the show, Season Four would have been a grim exercise indeed. Thankfully, as with every season, the producers have expanded the show, with an emphasis this season on the Latino inmates, who, with the influx of prisoners, are now a majority in Litchfield, and well aware of the power that comes with it.
Orange Is The New Black has more curiosity than most shows, using a flashback structure to flesh out the humanity of inmates who might otherwise seem caricatures. Inmates from the corners of the screen are brought into to spotlight in a seemingly random way as we dive into back stories that run the gamut from comical to truly heartbreaking, but always seem to loop around to power dynamics, whether in society or between individuals, and a bad choice made at a moment of truth.
This season, we get a closer look at the wild-maned and monobrowed but iron-willed Blanca Flores, who is willing to suffer a certain amount of indignity for the sake of pragmatism, but knows how to make a defiant gesture, and Maritza Ramos, whose back story confirms everything we know about the character. Shallow and vain, Maritza more than any other inmate seems to be reliving high school in Litchfield, giggling with her BFF and playing social politics within her clique. Her ability to hold herself apart from the reality of prison life collapses in a scene of almost unbearable cruelty.
We also learn more about Lori Petty’s Lolly Whitehill, a character who, when she appeared in Season Two, seemed imbued with the facile but well loved TV traits of zaniness and quirkiness, but was slowly revealed to be grappling with serious, perhaps life-threatening, mental illness. As well, we explore more of Counsellor Sam Healy’s life of quiet desperation, and follow Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren’s back story further as it unfolds with inevitability of true tragedy. Uzo Aduba continues to inhabit the breakout character fully and I expect another Emmy is in her future.
Balancing the grimness of the season, Blair Brown has a turn playing Judy King, a TV chef and celebrity-because-celebrity mixture of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen, serving a short sentence for an unspecified white-collar crime. She’s pure Southern hospitality; as soon she arrives, she effortlessly makes the entire prison her domain, the other inmates guests in her temporary place of residence. She has no interest in being a jailhouse kingpin of course, but sees no reason to deny herself the comforts of freedom. Not exactly evil – although her eyes have the hollowness of psychopathy at times – she has much experience playing the system and has a light corrupting influence on everyone around her. Officer Luschek, a weasel by nature and born toady, falls easily into her orbit, and even the stalwart Yoga Jones – gang-pressed into being the famous lady’s safe Caucasian roommate far from the overcrowded dorms – starts looking for angles.
If there’s a criticism to be made of Orange Is The New Black, especially the current season, it’s the show’s apparent fixation on the issue of private for-profit prisons. It’s a little much to expect notoriously liberal Hollywood to support private for-profit anything (except entertainment) but the reality of mass incarceration in the US is that 94% of federal inmates are held in public-run facilities, staffed by prison guards belonging to a powerful public sector union whose hold on the system is far more entrenched than the corporations that make up that other 6%. A more balanced look at the issue would be refreshing.
And there you have it, folks! Let Warren know what you thought of OITNB Season 4 (or what you think of this Netflix Original Series in general) by leaving a comment below.