This post contains serious spoilers for the fourth season of Orange is the New Black. It may be triggering for those sensitive to mentions of rape and police violence.
The fourth season of Netflix’s beloved series, Orange is the New Black, was released for streaming on Friday, June 17. The third season has been widely criticized for feeling like a “filler” season, filled with silly plotlines and low-stakes problems. Season four has managed to take many of the small problems of season three and up the ante, creating a season that was, if anything, a little too high-stakes for comfort.
Season three came with the introduction of MCC, a for-profit prison corporation, brought in to save Litchfield from closing down. MCC implemented new hiring practices, causing Litchfield’s lovable team of COs to walk out of their jobs and be replaced with untrained part-time workers. MCC is arguably the root of all problems in season 4. Their alienation of the old COs opened the door for the season’s main antagonist, Captain Piscatella (Brad William Henke) and his team of sadistic COs. MCC’s fear of bad publicity is responsible for Sophia Burset’s (Laverne Cox) extended stay in the SHU, Warden Caputo’s (Nick Sandow) season-long existential crisis, and, most notably, the mishandling of a peaceful protest and the subsequent death of Poussey (Samira Wiley).
One of the few aspects of season three that was heavily praised was how OitNB’s writers dealt with Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) being raped by CO Coates (James McMenamin). Doggett’s reaction is frighteningly realistic, and her new friend Boo (Lea DeLaria) helps her deal with this trauma. Season four sees Doggett avoiding Coates as much as she can, until he corners her and she confronts him about his actions. Coates later apologizes, rekindling their friendship. This plotline took a very dangerous turn this season. There is already a very prevalent narrative about rape being an “accident” on the part of the rapist, something that is at the forefront of many minds in the wake of the Stanford rape trial. While Coates does seem genuinely sorry for his actions, that doesn’t prevent him from threatening Doggett in the kitchen in the final episode, insisting that it’s taking everything he’s got not to rape her again. Yet their friendship continues, and Coates is still portrayed as sympathetic.
Episode eleven, “People Persons”, is the point where everything in the show changes. The humor in the episode is good, as always, but seems sort of out of place, especially when, at the end of the episode, the viewer finally learns how Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) ended up in Litchfield: she accidentally kidnapped and killed a child. While OitNB has always dealt well with darker material (Yoga Jones is also in Litchfield for the accidental death of a child), something about Suzanne’s youthful friendliness and naiveté contrasts with the direness of the situation in a particularly disturbing way. The season has taken a very dark turn, which it does not come back from.
The last two episodes, “The Animals” and “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again”, tell an even more frightening story. The inmates have had enough of Piscatella and the COs’ abuses and stage a peaceful protest, standing on top of cafeteria tables. The COs start forcibly pulling them down, and CO Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) grabs Poussey, pinning her to the ground. Suzanne attacks Bayley and he becomes so distracted that he doesn’t realize the amount of force he’s applying on Poussey. She stops breathing before another CO is able to pull Suzanne away. The aftermath of Poussey’s death is chaotic and terrifying. MCC’s publicists refuse to allow Caputo to call the police, a coroner, or even Poussey’s father to alert them of her death, insisting that they need to find the “right angle” first, and relieve MCC of liability. All of the inmates are deeply affected by the loss. After hearing Caputo tell the media that his CO was not at fault for Poussey’s death, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) lashes out, running back to the dorms shouting and punching walls, and rousing the rest of the black inmantes. The chaos spreads throughout the entire prison, culminating in a hallway face off where CO “Humps” (Michael Torpey) loses the gun he illegally brought onto campus, and Daya (Dascha Polanco) points it in his face.
The writing this season easily topped that of season three, and manages to get viewers who may have been turned off by the last season reinvested in the goings-on at Litchfield. But the entire tone of the show has changed. What was once equal parts drama and comedy has taken a dark turn that it may not be able to come back from. The show has already been renewed for three more seasons, but it may see viewership drop without one of its most beloved characters and refreshing humor.