Orange Is the New Black returns, darker and more relevant than ever

By Bethonie Butler

There's only one television at Litchfield, the fictional prison at the center of Orange Is the New Black, and the inmates are usually arguing over it. While some want to watch entertainment, news does occasionally seep in.

Season 4 is more tuned in than ever to the world beyond the prison, as the show tackles societal issues - especially race and civil liberties - from the inside out.

In the first of this season's 13 episodes (releasing all at once on Friday, June 17), Litchfield gets an influx of new inmates - one of many consequences of the formerly federal institution being sold to the private outfit Management & Correction Corporation (MCC). Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez), one of the prison's more blunt inmates, puts it this way:

"It's sardine time, b****es. We a for profit-prison now. We ain't people no more. We bulk items."

There are plenty of laughs and insightful one-liners to go around, but Season 4 is also really heavy. Have tissues on hand, and maybe some hooch while you're at it. (I'm being intentionally vague here as Netflix has promised that anyone who divulges certain plot points will get disciplinary slips - shots, as the inmates call them.)

When Orange Is the New Black premiered in 2013, the series marked Netflix as a major player in the original-programming game. I can already hear the protests from the (dwindling) House of Cards crowd. But by the end of its first year, Orange Is the New Black became the network's most-watched original show ever, at least according to Netflix, which doesn't disclose ratings. Less quantifiable is the show's generous dose of heart, which it owes to its talented ensemble cast and a skillful mix of comedy and drama emerging from the writers' room, led by show creator Jenji Kohan.

Brad William Henke as Desi Piscatella. Photo / Netflix
Brad William Henke as Desi Piscatella. Photo / Netflix

Orange Is the New Black, based on Piper Kerman's 2010 memoir, has taken quite a bit of creative license in adopting its source material. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the character Kerman inspired, isn't even the star of the show. It would be hard to single out just one amid so many fan-favorite characters (Taystee, Morello, Poussey, Maritza, Big Boo and Red - to name a few). Piper ranks as the least interesting inmate at Litchfield, and to the show's credit, it figured this out early on.

But the essence of Kerman's story - a white, educated middle-class woman doing a minimum-security prison bid alongside women with life experiences vastly different from her own - has remained a consistent theme, and a particularly salient one this season.

Orange Is the New Black is one of the rare shows you could screen for a sample of the U.S. population and have everyone in the audience see someone who looks (not to mention loves) like them. The show has been hailed for genuine portrayals of lesbian and bisexual relationships and Laverne Cox's Emmy-nominated role as a transgender inmate, Sophia Burset, whose storyline this season emphasizes the lack of compassion shown to her by fellow inmates and those in charge.

OITNB's diversity, along with the show's flashbacks, which reveal the often heartbreaking motivations behind their crimes, helps us empathise with the characters. These women could be any one of us.

A scene from the TV show, Orange Is The New Black. Photo / Netflix
A scene from the TV show, Orange Is The New Black. Photo / Netflix

In its third season, OITNB hit a delayed sophomore slump - still solid, but struggling to churn out fresh plot developments, and settling on some that just weren't as absorbing. If you were tempted to write the show off, don't.

Last season ended with the majority of Litchfield's inmates escaping after a guard walkout. The women got out through a large breach in the fence and ended up at a nearby lake, where they basked in a few moments of relative freedom.

The first episode this season finds Litchfield in continued chaos, with most of the inmates still frolicking and Piper walking around like she owns the place, flush with the success of getting her hookup-turned-nemesis, Stella (Ruby Rose), sent away to a maximum security prison.

"I'm gangsta, like with an A at the end," Piper tells a fellow inmate, who brushes past her en route to the lake. An eavesdropping inmate finds the declaration appropriately laughable.

Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), who spent years as the prison's assistant warden, is now in charge (official title: director of human activity). To help control the mayhem, MCC sends in maximum-security correctional officer Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke), who looks like he stepped off the set of a G.I. Joe reboot and quickly impresses Caputo with his no-nonsense approach to prison order and protocol. To replace the guards who left, Caputo and his colleagues hire military veterans - MCC will get tax credits as a result. The new guards get the perk of on-campus housing, old structures made livable by (what else?) inmate labor.

"This place is like 'Rehab Addict: Litchfield Edition' and with, like, real addicts," observes Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks).

Danielle Brooks as Tasha 'Taystee' Jefferson. Photo / Netflix
Danielle Brooks as Tasha 'Taystee' Jefferson. Photo / Netflix

Caputo's team of war vets are familiar with Piscatella's brand of discipline. Less prepared are the holdovers from last season, including the baby-faced Baxter Bayley, who got swept up in Piper's illegal panty-pushing business and is even more overwhelmed under corporate rule. There's also Luschek (Matt Peters), the prison's morally corrupt electrician, and Officer Coates (James McMenamin), the guard who raped Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) while accompanying her on prison errands.

OITNB was praised for its handling of Pennsatucky's rape last season, and the show - not to mention Pennsatucky's fellow inmate Carrie "Big Boo" Black (Lea DeLaria) - hasn't forgotten her traumatic assault. This season's developments on that front are complex and disturbing and heartbreaking all at once.

Tiffany 'Pennsatucky' Doggett (Taryn Manning), left, and Carrie 'Big Boo' Black (Lea DeLaria). Photo / Netflix
Tiffany 'Pennsatucky' Doggett (Taryn Manning), left, and Carrie 'Big Boo' Black (Lea DeLaria). Photo / Netflix

One of most consistently realistic aspects of life at Litchfield has been the self-segregation of white, black and Latina inmates. It's so rigid, in fact, that there have been running jokes about where "others," such as half-Japanese inmate Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), fit in.

Overcrowding heightens the racial tension. The predominantly white "family" of Galina "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) isn't white enough for several of the new, more militant white inmates. Even the now-majority Latina population faces division within its ranks, by island or country - mainly Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

The conflict leads to flashbacks for Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), a Dominican inmate whose father's strong beliefs about Mexicans left them estranged. Maria's efforts to keep her Latina cohorts united put her at odds with Piper - a plot development that simmers for a few episodes and then comes to a boil.

A scene from the TV show Orange Is The New Black. Photo / Netflix
A scene from the TV show Orange Is The New Black. Photo / Netflix

Flashbacks are an essential part of OITNB, and they are especially powerful this season. As fans have probably guessed, Litchfield's resident master of winged eyeliner, Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero), isn't as ditzy as she seems. We also get some insight into the criminal past of Blanca Flores (Laura Gómez), the disheveled inmate who used to commandeer bathroom stalls to talk to her boyfriend, Diablo, on a contraband cellphone.

Season 4 also stands out for its treatment of mental illness. After previous glimpses into the childhood of Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba in her Emmy-winning role), we finally watch her crime play out in a flashback that shows the devastating consequences of her lack of impulse control.

Conspiracy theorist Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty) gets more screen time, and the show is better for it. A brilliantly cast flashback (Christina Brucato as a 20-something Lolly) brings her paranoia into sharp focus and draws a parallel to the backstory of another Litchfield personality - the prison's long-suffering counselor, Sam Healy (Michael Harney). A more recent scene offers an infuriating reason for Lolly's continual incarceration - and it helps establish this season as the show's strongest in terms of social commentary.

Lori Petty as Lolly in Orange is the New Black. Photo / Netflix
Lori Petty as Lolly in Orange is the New Black. Photo / Netflix

The tragicomedy of Orange Is the New Black demands a delicate balance, and Season 4 doesn't always get it right, though most of the jokes are funny. Black Cindy, er, Tova (Adrienne C. Moore), who memorably converted to Judaism last season, uses the few office supplies available to her to fashion a mezuza for her bunk, which she shares with a Muslim newcomer.

The most annoying antics are hinged to the arrival of Litchfield's highly anticipated inmate: professional chef and TV host Judy King (Blair Brown). The show goes to great lengths to paint Judy as a sassy Southern belle with Paula Deen tendencies, and I do declare it overwrought (sips sweet tea). But Judy's pampered stay at Litchfield also highlights the system's class and racial inequalities.

Orange Is the New Black became a source of debate last year before the Emmys, when the TV Academy ruled that the show could no longer compete as a comedy. Netflix appealed the decision and lost, leaving OITNB firmly in the drama category.

A scene from season four of Orange Is The New Black. Photo / Netflix
A scene from season four of Orange Is The New Black. Photo / Netflix

Season 4 feels more like a drama than ever, and that's not a bad thing. Orange Is the New Black has introduced a multitude of characters we don't usually see on television and given them complicated and intimate relationships that speak volumes about issues not contained to prison's impenetrable walls.

For a show that has always played on themes of privilege and power, this season's dark trajectory is as inevitable as it is haunting.

Orange Is the New Black's fourth season is available to stream on Netflix from today.

- Washington Post

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