Thursday, July 7, 2016

Dear TV Gods...

Many thanks for an emotionally satisfying fourth season to Orange is the New Black.

With Orange is the New Black being a tentpole for diversity and a rich well of complex character development, I immediately latched onto it as one of my favorite shows. Through 3 progressively-stronger seasons, OITNB has harnessed topics of interest and a supremely talented cast to rightfully cement itself as a staple of pop culture and TV history. And with Season 4 expanding on and perfecting both diversity and character growth, the show has pushed itself- through blood, sweat and tears- into tragically-relevant and poignant new territory. {Season 4 spoilers below}

Before delving into the powerful socio-political themes of racism tackled by OITNB in its fourth season, I feel its important to highlight my personal favorite aspect of any TV show: the impressive development of characters. And oh, did Orange provide. With intriguing backstories aplenty for characters that have been present since the first season (Ruiz [Jessica Pimentel] and Maritza [Diane Guerrero]) and brief looks at the lives of especially tormented favorites (Lolly [Lori Petty] and Nichols [Natasha Lyonne]), the show expanded on its sprawling cast of characters with arcs that felt genuine to the already-established characters. Of course ditzy Maritza is imprisoned because of her youthful hubris gone awry- mirrored in a darker tone with her twisted encounters with Humps [Michael Torpey]. Of course Nichols returns after a stint in Shu, and is still struggling with her rampant drug addiction. These developments weren't surprising, but the lack of shock doesn't limit their impact; the sincerity of these evolutions are what helps add the missing pieces of the characters we already love.

While season 4 strengthened itself by developing some of its most underutilized players and by constructing a captivating and devastating plot around for-profit prisons, the true glory of the season comes from its expert look at the many complexities of racial prejudice. The spotlight being fixed on the Latinas not only gave a chance for Ruiz, Blanca [Laura Gomez], and Maritza to step forward as significant characters, but also gave viewers an opportunity for educational enlightenment. The distinction being made between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans might've appeared humorous, but was a genuinely important distinction; not all Latinx people speak the same language, have the same customs, or come from the same place. Further, the Latina's arc helped to establish the new guards as a clear foil to "minorities" in the prison- though, at the beginning of the season, it was a ruse as to which group would truly suffer the greatest by the end. Though the end of the season clearly established a connection to black rights movements, it was the abuse of the Latinas at the beginning of the season that adequately presented the rising action that lead to the alarming climax in episode 12.

As a show that has always made diversity and the discussion on racial differences a top priority, it is no surprise that the themes of race were handled so skillfully this year. But perhaps most effective and depressingly relevant with the horrific murder of Alton Sterling is the show's interpretation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Whether it be new-character Judy King [Blair Brown] representing the subtle, restrained racism that is so prevalent in current society, or the blunt killing of Poussey [Samira Wiley] that is a disgustingly-familiar rendition of the murder of Eric Garner, OITNB skillfully captures the spectrum of racism in 21st century America. Looking further, the unfortunate tales of Lolly and Suzanne [Uzo Aduba] can be looked at as an inspection of racial bias in mental health care; Suzanne, who had been an inmate for years, was never given the care and attention that Lolly received from Healy [Michael J. Harney], at least from what viewers saw. Additionally, the Latinas never work particularly hard to help the black girls, or vice versa, depicting how easy it is for prejudiced groups to ignore other groups in favor of their own personal gain.

Returning to the depressing highlight of the season, Poussey's death and the events surrounding it bring up moral quandaries that only the viewer can answer for themselves: the (supremely written and shot) riot following Caputo's [Nick Sandow] speech will certainly lead to harsh punishments, is it really what the kindhearted and carefree Poussey would've wanted? Is CO Bayley [Alan Aisenberg] deserving of hatred, murder being murder, even though it was clearly a foolish accident? Do unaffected prisoners, (like Piper [Taylor Schilling] and Alex [Laura Prepon], who were clearly retreating from the hostage hold-up led by Daya [Dascha Polanco]), have a right to ignore what they aren't directly affected by, or should they join the outrage because of the solidarity of it? These are questions that viewers will see differently, answer differently, and feel differently about. And with a season that showed us enlightening character growth, devastating loss of a beloved character, and a wicked finale that displayed humanity at its most frustrated and impassioned, these questions miraculously still rise above all other accomplishments as the defining traits of the season. Regardless of what season 5 has in store, the queries presented to viewers throughout season 4 has shifted the show into new creative and emotional territory that has, as of now, designated it the best season of the series.

Blessings and Afflictions

  • Blessing: Piper is no longer insufferable! As a renowned #PiperHater, I thought the day would never come when I didn't hate her guts. But after being branded, losing her panty business, and nearly losing all her friends, Piper admitted her wrongdoings, and the world sighed a collective "Hallelujah!"
  • Blessing: Yoga Jones' [Constance Shulman] development! I have a huge soft-spot for Yoga, (look at those sad eyes!), so any scene or growth with her character is greatly appreciated. Placing her with the egotistical Judy King gave us a juxtaposition of epic proportions that allowed the audience to see Yoga's weaknesses- and hopefully, her strengths, as she rebounds from this in season 5.
  • Affliction: Maybe it was the rushed introduction of her character in season 3, or maybe it's because Uzo Aduba rarely needs a scene partner to display her skills, but Kukudio [Emily Althaus] never made any impact on me, and her and Suzanne's love/hate arc seemed pointless in a season of exceptional plot and character developments. It was a nice distraction from the doom and gloom, sure, but I don't need a character "crazier" than Suzanne to keep my interest in Suzanne.
  • Blessing/Affliction: Nichols is back!! Having the poor, lovable lady back in Litchfield is always a blessing. Having her back because of a rushed and poorly explained swish of Judy's wand, however? Not so much. I kept expecting a further explanation, or a backstory showing Judy speaking with the mystical lawyer, for me to be fully on-board with Nichols' sudden return. Instead, I was more along the lines of Caputo signing her return papers: a "huh?", a shrug, and an eventual acceptance of the return. 


Lori Petty as Lolly Whitehall
It would be easy to applause Petty's talent based on her acting in her final scene: Lolly is found to be the killer of the assassin from season 3 and is dragged away helplessly into the terrors of Psych. But what Petty does so excellently is give her character much more than just one heart-wrenching scene. Instead, Petty infuses a lovable, childlike innocence into everything Lolly does throughout season 4 that shows us just how much the mental health system fails those who need it most. Thank you, Saint Lori

Danielle Brooks as 'Taystee' Jefferson
The comedic talent displayed by Brooks in the first half of season 4 is a feat given how hilarious Taystee already was in the first 3 seasons. But more amazing is Brooks' ability to show Taystee's quiet frustration, hope for justice, and aching loss in the season finale, which all built to her riveting fury that started the riot. Uzo Aduba has rightfully earned several Supporting Actress Emmys as Suzanne, but this year, it's Danielle's time to shine. Thank you, Saint Danielle

Taryn Manning as 'Pennsatucky' Dogget
Too often, rape in a show is used as a "shocking twist". But in OITNB, and with the skill of Manning, Pennsatucky is able to show a side of rape too often missing from media: the disgust, the trauma, the worry for others, companions who desert you, and attempts at forgiveness. 'Tucky's encounter with Maritza, and her forlorn sigh when she proclaims she no longer likes ducks, is a seemingly simple, yet shockingly powerful showing of how a rape victim is forever changed after an attack. Thank you, Saint Taryn



  1. I thought season 4 was a great improvement over season 3. I appreciate your analysis and insights especially about Piper's transformation. The phone conversation with her brother redeemed her to me. Maybe the most unselfish thing she ever did.

    1. I completely agree about the improvement of seasons and Piper's transformation! Thank you for reading and for the kind comment.

  2. I thought season 4 was a great improvement over season 3. I appreciate your analysis and insights especially about Piper's transformation. The phone conversation with her brother redeemed her to me. Maybe the most unselfish thing she ever did.