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Last year, I made no secret of my dislike of season three of Orange is the New Black. Going into season four, I was worried that the show would be unable to capture the magic it had in season two, which had been the high watermark for the series. And I was still on the fence about whether or not the show had rebounded for a good part of my Orange binge this past weekend. At least until I saw the final four episodes of season four. As with my past season reviews, I’ll take a few paragraphs to offer a spoiler-free review of the season as a whole and then (after the spoiler warning) get into the more in depth look at the specific moments within the season that elevated Orange is the New Black to new and brilliant heights.
One of the things I was most disappointed with in season three was the disjointed nature of the season as a whole. Seasons one and two worked so well because the show was able to craft a cohesive story arc (in season one, it followed Piper’s orientation into all aspects of prison, while season two gave the prison the clear threat of Vee to unite against)- something that was painfully missing in three. Season four’s structure managed the best of both worlds, allowing for a wide range of seemingly disparate arcs that eventually all met in the season’s absolutely gut-wrenching climax. The intricate plotting necessary to pull off what Jeni Kohan and her staff managed this season is not easy. With so many balls in the air, I remain amazed at what Kohan and her team managed to achieve.
With that said, I’ll simply say that if you haven’t watched season four yet, please do so. If you were like me and on the fence about the show following season three’s less-than-stellar outing, give it a chance again with season four. It’s something pretty special. And be sure to watch it with a box of Kleenex handy. You’re going to need it. Now, let’s move onto the spoiler-filled portion of the review.
Looking back on the season as a whole, it was pretty obvious that Poussey was going to die. She checked off all of the necessary boxes of a character marked for death: finding a stable, loving relationship, coming to terms with her past, making concrete plans for her future, and having hope that something better was on the way for her. All of the signs were there, yet I certainly didn’t put them together, as I was so engrossed in watching one of Orange is the New Black‘s most pure and kind characters finally start getting the things she has dreamed about for years. But that is what made this particular story beat so powerful: Poussey was a character everyone rooted for. And Jenji Kohan did right by her every step of the way this season.
But before I really dive into Poussey’s death, I want to talk a bit about what made the season so great (despite seeming a bit off in its earlier installments). My tried and true process for testing the strength of a season arc is pulling a single plot element and seeing if the season arc falls apart as a result. For a truly great overall season arc to work, each character arc needs to be essential to its success. With this past season of Orange, if you remove even one individual arc, it all crumbles. Ruiz’s drug business? Necessary to delve into the depravity of certain guards. Piper’s panty business? It is the direct cause of the Latina inmates getting profiled, and it leads to the rise of the white power movement (which, in turn, sparks the racial tensions). Alex killing the hitman? That leads to the investigation and Red’s sleep deprivation- a direct cause of Poussey’s death. Each arc, each flashback, each moment leads to that final scene in the prison: Daya holding Chekhov’s proverbial gun.
That level of plotting is a thing of beauty to behold from a purely technical standpoint. But when it is imbued with the emotionally resonate writing, directing (especially Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner in the season’s penultimate episode), and acting that was present this season on Orange, well, that’s just something that almost never happens. Each facet of the show was working at peak performance this year, and these 13 episodes represent all that this series can achieve.
One of the highlights of the season for me was getting a chance to see new and underdeveloped inmates take center stage. Yes, the season had amazing work from the usual suspects: Natasha Lyone proved once again that the show is poorer every time Nicky is off the gameboard, Kate Mulgrew absolutely killed it this season as Red, and Laverne Cox did a superb job working through the hell Sophia went through this season. But it was the work of the previously unsung cast members that really stood out for me.
I never thought Maritza was a particularly compelling character, but man, what an arc. And what great work by Diane Guerrero to turn a previously one-note character into someone with such amazing emotional depth (even if the character often turns it off in favor of being spacey and flippant in the presence of others). In fact, a number of the show’s Latina characters had a breakout season, including Jessica Pimentel’s Ruiz (who could easily take over the whole game within the prison- and her command of the inmates makes Piper’s delusion about being top dog simply laughable) and Laura Gomez’a Flores (I did not see that backstory coming). The character beats across the season were so strong, its nearly impossible to single out just one or two compelling performances- clear evidence of the show’s incredibly strong cast when every member of the team can step up off the bench and hit one out of the park when called upon.
It is that depth that made the season work so seamlessly, from a performance aspect. As I mentioned previously, every arc of the season was leading to the final moments of episode 12 and Poussey’s death. Killing a beloved character is a delicate business, particularly on a show that has, in the past, seemed terrified of writing its characters off the series (thank god Diaz got out- I was starting to think that no inmates were ever released from Litchfield). While I am a proponent of writers taking characters wherever they deem necessary, major plot points and turns need to be earned. One of my key issues with season three of the series was that Piper’s transformation into a kingpin was not earned. So, the death of Poussey needed to be earned. It couldn’t simply come out of nowhere. It needed to be intricately plotted. It needed to be expertly written. And directed. And acted. And it was.
Poussey’s death was a tragedy that stemmed from the privatization of Litchfield. It was a tragedy that stemmed from incarcerating a young woman for six years for having a small amount of weed on her. It was a tragedy that stemmed from giving a prison guard job to a young man who was poorly trained and absolutely not cut out for this. It was a tragedy that stemmed from having women in general population who need real mental health counseling. And it was a tragedy that stemmed from a system that just doesn’t care. That is broken. That needs someone to try to fix it. A tragedy born of apathy. And it hit on every level it needed to.
The question I was left with is how does the show move forward from here? There isn’t a panacea for what has happened, and I don’t blame the women for taking things into their own hands. But MCC isn’t about to give up the prison, they certainly won’t fire the guards simply because the inmates want them to, and Caputo has taken the side of his employers over that of the women in his charge (a particularly cruel twist I did not see coming). This isn’t something will go away in the season premiere next year. This will be an arc that continues and resonates throughout the rest of the series. And that is exactly how it should be. Poussey was someone special. She had her entire life ahead of her. And watching the spectacular Samira Wiley smile into the camera in the closing shot of the season, I couldn’t help but smile through my tears. Because Wiley’s performance turned Poussey into the heart of the series. Without that heart beating, I’m not sure what comes next.
— I could write a book on how Poussey’s death drew from a number of major social issues affecting the world at large today (Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breath, long sentences for non-violent drug offenders), but I wanted to touch briefly on the major television issue it touches on: the Bury Your Gays trope. This spring has seen a lot of attention focuses on the trope of TV writers killing of queer women on their shows (for a list of all the dead queer ladies, head here), and rightfully so, since it’s a pretty awful trend on television and far too prevalent. But the death of Poussey, in my mind, doesn’t fall in line with the deaths that made headlines and sent fans into a tizzy. Orange is the New Black is one of the most diverse shows on television, and offers a number of queer characters and a wide swath of women of color. While that doesn’t give it a pass to kill off a queer woman of color out of the blue, Jenji Kohan and her team took great pains to craft Poussey into a complex and vibrant character over the past four seasons. It’s no coincidence that Poussey was given the flashback in the season finale, following her death. It was used to drive home how wonderful she was, how bright her future could have been, how young and full of life she was. The writers loved this character and killing her off was not simply a means to advance the story. Her death created the flashpoint for the show to begin anew, for characters to grow and change, and for the show to take on a new, darker tone moving forward. Sometimes characters are killed because the story needs it, and we need to look at that for what it is. This was one of those times.
— One story arc I was less than thrilled with was the Pennsatucky-Coates arc. I do understand Pennsatucky’s need to forgive Coates, and the complicated source of her feelings towards him. But I don’t think the show did a strong enough job explaining why she was forgiving him, and looking into the psychological elements surrounding that. Perhaps we’ll get a better look into her mental state next season.
— The more the show puts Piper in the background, the better the season. When the series treats Piper as simply another one of the inmates, her stories are more interesting, and the season works better.
— I hope the writers delve deeper into Healy’s decision to commit himself.
— I did not expect so many characters to have murder (or, at least be connected to murders) in their backstories. Red having five chopped up bodies in her freezer came out of nowhere (ok, not nowhere, since she was in the Russian mob, but still) and Suzanne being involved in the death of that boy? Yikes.