TV Review – Orange is the New Black: Season 4
There aren’t a lot of TV series set inside a prison. It was obvious that this show was in no way going to resemble FOX’s Prison Break, so the next comparison went to HBO’s Oz, but this series was different in that it leaned on the comedic. This series, created by Jenji Kohan, wasn’t going to be as dark as Prison Break or Oz with rape and murder as issues to delve, but the second season set the table a little bit for a potentially dark turn. Aided by the fact that the Emmys only recognize the show as a drama and not a comedy, as was the previous designation, this series has now taken dark subjects and really, really serious issues like rape and murder. In fact, Episode 1 of this fourth season leaves us with a very bloody crime scene inside the prison’s greenhouse.
Somehow, Kohan and her writers still manage to maintain the comedy and keep the forward momentum fun. It’s fun as the serious issues start to pile up. It’s difficult to talk about the series because it juggles so many characters. In the first two seasons, a different character got a flashback every episode. At this point, that’s two dozen or more different characters. That’s a lot of characters to track and remember. This season, the series cut back a little on flashbacks, but if a conversation should happen, it should start with the flashbacks Kohan chose to incorporate this year.
The first flashback involves Maria Ruiz, played by Jessica Pimental. She’s part of the Hispanic group of girls in Litchfield prison. Two other flashbacks this season are also about the Hispanic girls. One involves Maritza Ramos, played by Diane Guerrero, and the other involves Blanca Flores, played by Laura Gómez. With each one, we see the strengthening of the Hispanic girls. First, an influx of new inmates, including some white supremacists, forces the Hispanic girls to act tougher and then some missteps of Piper, played by Taylor Schilling, cause the Hispanic girls to expand and get a little greedy. Through it all, we see Maria rise up as a bad-ass leader.
There are three flashbacks involving three characters that I would say are connected, if only because all three are about people dealing with mental health issues. The first is Sam Healy, played by Michael J. Harney. The second is Lolly Whitehall, played by Lori Petty (pictured below), and the third is Suzanne Warren, played by Uzo Aduba. All three in their respective flashback-episodes give the best performances of the season. All three break your heart in devastating ways. All three deal with being alone or having abandonment issues.
Chief among them is Petty who I hope is recognized at the 69th Emmy Awards. She should certainly be nominated, if not deservedly win. Lolly was introduced in the second season and just seemed like a quirky person, a very quirky person, but this season delves into her mental illness. It makes her arc probably the most tragic, as she truly is a good person who is at times unable to help herself, literally.
The last two flashbacks involve Poussey Washington, played by Samira Wiley, and Officer Baxter Bayley, played by Alan Aisenberg. Poussey is a character who was introduced in the second episode of the first season. She quickly became a core character. Poussey is a small but scrappy, black girl with a French-sounding name. She worked in the prison’s library because she loved to read and was very intelligent. Her first flashback was the sixth episode of the second season, as we begin to explore her romantic life. She was a kind and passionate lesbian who developed a crush on her cellmate Taystee, played by Danielle Brooks. When her straight crush ends, she becomes a bit of an alcoholic until she encounters Brook Soso, a ditzy Asian girl, played by Kimiko Glenn, and they fall in love with each other.
Bayley was introduced in the ninth episode of the third season. He had no lines of dialogue. He simply was the guard helping to smuggle panties out the prison, as part of Piper’s secret underwear business. As the fourth season kicked off, Aisenberg seemed to fill the void that Matt McGorry made when his character left in the third season. Aisenberg (pictured below) didn’t have the sex appeal, but he did provide comic relief with his baby-face and naivete garnering him the nickname “Gerber.” He was a bumbling sidekick to the warden, Joe Caputo, played by Nick Sandow. He dabbled with doing bad things, but overall was a kind and sweet kid.
His flashback reinforced that. Yet, the writers seem to want to echo how much this prison institution corrupts even the sweetest person. At one point, Caputo tells Bayley, “This place crushes anything good. It’s like a monster that’s grown too big for its stubby little legs.” He continues, “One day you’ll be the monster,” as he also says, “Working here changes who you are.”
In Episode 12 of this season, Caputo’s words of this place crushing anything good is played out in literal fashion. Yet, it’s not heavy-handed in its execution. It’s quick and almost in the background that you almost don’t realize it’s happening, but when the realization does come, it’s powerful. More importantly, the aftermath is honest. It’s harsh, but it’s appropriate.
Given the events, this whole season is also a perfect reflection of the tense, race relations that have been happening in this country since the emergence of Black Lives Matter. It wasn’t all shocking and depressing. Kohan and crew were able to keep race relations, not so intense, particularly with new character, Judy King, played by Blair Brown (pictured above). Her character though was present more to show the special treatment that celebrity and wealth can have, even behind bars.
One interesting moment comes when in a form of punishment, the guards force Blanca to stand on top of a table and not move for days. It’s a form of torture that goes too far. It’s almost as if the writers listened to the song lyrics to the show’s theme song and got inspired. Regina Spektor wrote and performs the theme song called “You’ve Got Time.” The lyrics go, “Taking steps is easy / Standing still is hard.”
But, with all the things threatening to divide the people inside Litchfield, there are pockets of togetherness. We saw that with Piper and Alex, played by Laura Prepon. We saw it with Big Boo, played by Lea Delaria, and Pennsatucky, played by Taryn Manning, as well as Gloria, played by Selenis Leyva, and Sophia, played by Laverne Cox, and it’s in these moments of togetherness, these moments of humanity that this series shines so brightly. I’m not so sure there is a more humane and more human TV series currently in production.
Five Stars out of Five.
Running Time: 1 hr. / 13 eps.
Available on Netflix Watch Instant.