TV Review: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 4

Orange is the New Black Season
Courtesy of Netflix

Orange Is the New Black” has been less a television show than a movement. The drama — Netflix’s only truly great one — burst on the scene in 2012 as a vehicle of change, both in terms of what we view as prestige television and how we think about mass incarceration in the United States. Author Piper Kerman’s book of the same name, which loosely makes up the source material for show, proved as a window into the prison system for a readership that both lived outside of it and never expected to be a part of it; Piper herself as an author and as a character in the show (played by Taylor Schilling) spends most of her time at Litchfield highlighting the differences between her and the other inmates.

It’s a frustrating reflex, but a useful one, too; in terms of educating its mostly privileged audience, “Orange Is The New Black” is the most influential show since “The Wire.” The storytelling of the show hasn’t always been even, but especially in that explosive first season, showrunner Jenji Kohan and fledgling studio Netflix found a way to capture the national conversation about diversity in casting, transgender awareness, institutional racism and sexism, and the basic injustices of the military-industrial complex in one fell swoop. Laverne Cox’s character Sophia may be single-handedly responsible for a sea change in the visibility of and conversation around transgender people; the show not only brought trans issues to the mainstream but propelled Cox to the cover of Time magazine — which, in turn, paved the way for Caitlyn Jenner to make the cover of Vanity Fair.

But at times, the significance of the show seemed to overshadow the quality of the show itself. “Orange Is The New Black”’s second and third seasons dipped the show through an extended arc of hijinks that were markedly less terrifying than the obstacles and threats of the first season. The fact that the show upturned certain conventions of the prison-exploitation genre while simultaneously maintaining its parameters was one of the reasons the show became compelling for its viewers; at the same time, prison isn’t fun, and to act as if it were commits a disservice, both to real inmates and to the audience at home.

The fourth season does not have this problem. After one season of identifying as a comedy for the Emmys and two seasons of sloppier, less poignant storytelling, this fourth season, which debuted early this morning on Netflix, is not pretending that things are funnier or more upbeat than they really are. Either by accident or design, Kohan and her team have found a way to pull the rug out from under its audience, with a sudden reminder of the horrors of mass incarceration. A few things have happened to Litchfield all at once: Privatization, an employee walkout, and a sudden influx of new inmates. It is, as the show advances, a recipe for disaster; the precious and hard-won peace at Litchfield is quickly swept away by strife between different Latina gangs and a whole host of new correctional officers, cobbled together from a veterans’ hiring program and from surplus guards down at super-max.

The new inmates are not any worse than the ones we’ve come to know, but they’re new, and that puts both the viewer and the veterans of Litchfield on guard. The imposed closeness creates an atmosphere less like a weird indoor summer camp and more like the small apartment of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” magnified to take up a whole cell block. Humanity had acquired a rosier glow in Litchfield, but in season four, the viewer is reminded of Piper’s utter despair in her first few days in the system. There is a much darker undercurrent of twisted, unshakable evil at the heart of Litchfield’s fourth season — on display from the casually cruel COs and the quarreling inmates, yes, but also in its protagonist Piper, who takes to her self-appointed identity as a criminal mastermind to further and more worrying depths. Along with administrative changes at Litchfield are a few narrative ones for the show. A lot of the flashbacks, for example, don’t explore how the character ended up in prison, but instead just examine a facet of their character. And season four introduces backstories for more than one corrections officer, which are in their own way just as tragic and twisted as the inmates’. The result is both a narrative and a kaleidoscope, as many different interpretations of the same reality try to live together under the same (probably leaking) roof.

The show is still occasionally prone to self-indulgence. Early in the season, there’s an extended and unsubtle Israel/Palestine metaphor drawn in the conflict between Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) — now named Tova, after her conversion to Judaism in season three—and a new Muslim inmate, who of course ends up her roommate, trying to lay claim to the same space in an increasingly contentious living situation. It’s funny, but it’s rather stylized for what is otherwise a show that prides itself on verisimilitude, from poop to warts to menstrual blood.

But then again, the conflict might be there to toss in some comic relief in a season that slides from teetering peril to increasing ruin. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), whose rape last season was one of the most intense scenes the show has ever attempted, has become a stunning, vivid portrait of post-traumatic survivorship. All on her own, Manning has taken the character from insane to empathetic to infuriating and now to heartbreaking, as Pennsatucky has to live day in and day out under the supervision of a rapist who believes himself to be in love with her. In the fourth episode of the season, Pennsatucky has a quiet conversation with him that explains, calmly, that the fact that he loves her does not change what he did. It’s extraordinary for its simplicity; and in a television climate that is quick to use rape as a plot device and then discard either the victim or the memory of the crime, Pennsatucky is the embodiment of memory in the middle of a rape plot that is being pursued with astonishing grace. No wonder the show’s writers want to throw in some comedy; this is an incredible journey, but a harrowing one, too.

But if prestige drama has taught us anything — anything aside from the myriad ways to package and transport drugs — it’s that reckoning with horror is a fundamental part of being alive. In a landscape that is bleaker than ever, the stories of the Litchfield inmates continually take the viewer in a new direction, from parent-child dynamics to the economics of food stamps. There is a richness to the universe of “Orange Is the New Black,” and that’s because for the most part, it is our own. Early in the season, Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) stumbles into the phrase “the other one percent,” and though she doesn’t know what she’s saying, the writers surely do: Just as one percent of this country is unimaginably wealthy, another one percent of this country is incarcerated. The fourth season takes an unflinching look at the horror that human beings are capable of inside prison, but it also brings some of that weight to bear on the viewer. We are forced to consider what we are capable of making others endure, too.

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  1. Season 4 of OITNB is truly one of the best seasons of dramatic television, perhaps ever written. I feel this review from Variety captures the many facets and dimensions of Season 4, and I agree that the show has taken a (beautiful!) turn down a new road, a road they can’t come back from, and I’m looking forward to how the series will progress.

  2. Di says:

    Just had the time to sit down and watch the new season but I will say that i am bothered on the amount of Spanish conversation. Its a English station not a Spanish station.

  3. Melinda Rhodes says:

    OK sorry guys I just started watching season one so the comment I left b 4 this one was referring to season 1

  4. Melinda Rhodes says:

    This show is by far the best series I have ever seen. I seldom ever watch t.v and decided to just give “Orange is the new Black” a try, mainly because I myself am so not prison material but found myself having to indure 13 months in CMCF(Rankin County). I was hooked.

  5. I don’t know what the critics are watching but this show has become preposterous and silly. I got to episode 3 of season 4 and decided I couldn’t watch anymore. Trite dialogue, almost teenage, delivered in squeaky teeny-bopper voice and scattered anecdotal scenes too boring to and trite to watch, The addition of all those new characters diverts attention away from the older group of characters, and I want to know how someone got away with killing a guard, chopping up the body, planting him in the garden and no one notices or even talks about him missing. In short, like a lot of these shows, its writers can’t sustain a coherent story. Back to The Wire!

  6. Angela says:

    I love OITNB, but I have to say I was very disappointed in season 4!!! I still love the people but I expected more seeing the last 3 got better and better. I waited so long for the new season to be let out and was disappointed😢

  7. Lee says:

    Humanising rapists and killing black people is nothing new. It’s what Hollywood has always done.

    • Bob says:

      So rapists and people who have killed are not human after all?

      The message I took away from the show is that rapists can be anyone. Not to instill fear, but to show that it is not something only done by monsters. Anyone can commit rape, and its important we recognize that.

      As for the humanizing of the corrections officer who killed the black woman… Well he IS human. At what point did you start to believe he wasn’t? What the show is trying to say is that the prison system takes normal people and makes them commit terrible acts. Piscatella, his guards, the corrections officers… They are not monsters to start with. They go into the prison system and are changed by it, so that even the most well-intentioned people can commit heinous acts.

  8. Al Russell says:

    Why are we pretending that this is a TV show? There is no time that this is sent out on any station or network, broadcast or cable. Its chapters emulate a TV series format, but its intended distribution makes it part of a new medium.

  9. I just finished watching the 4th season moments ago. I thought it was raw and powerful although there were a few episodes this season that I lost some interest in. Overall it left me hungry for more and now I cannot wait for season 5 (if there is one).

  10. This will probably be controversial, but I didn’t care much for this season. In my opinion it was largely boring with no real progression and seemed to be wasting time until the last 2 episodes where a cheap writing tactic was implemented to pull at your heart to lead up to a bullshit cliffhanger ending when things look like they are suddenly starting to get interesting.
    I decided to do a marathon leading up to this 4th season after previously watching each season as they came out and in all 3 seasons I only stopped to eat and go to the bathroom.
    This season however, I found myself turning off the show and wanting to do something else often only to return a few minutes later hoping against hope that it would get better in the end.
    The whole “White Lives Matter” chanting was so cringeworthy in the early episodes I considered stopping the show then and there and Sophia who became one of my favorite characters literally had nothing to do this season, so praising the character that brought trans issues to the front in this season really makes no sense because she was BARELY in it!
    I have no idea what was going on behind the scenes but the writers really dropped the ball this season because I’m guessing they wanted to touch on social issues going on in our society right now instead of focusing on an interesting story.
    I understand if they want to take the show in a new direction by having it go darker and make it less of a comedy, but they really don’t earn it.
    I was a hardcore fan of this show and left disappointed, I’m sure that others will take up for it and enjoy it which is fine. This is just my opinion on where this season went and can only hope that next season will be better, even if I’m slightly pissed off that the cliffhanger made me want to see what happens next season instead of everything that lead up to it.

    • vinogirl12 says:

      Couldn’t agree with you more! This season was garbage, doesn’t even compare to the first three.

      • Lisa says:

        Agreed! It felt like everything that made it a compelling, interesting show was on the back burner, and in it’s place was a lot of dull, lowest denominator, simplistic, predictable dreck. The character interactions were silly, and didn’t give a sense of the developing relationships rather than just a side note, or filler. Characters who had worked well in the past didn’t work well in this season, and in fact were just annoying sometimes, and not believable. Suzanne was a unique and interesting character, and this season just turned her into a stupid, running gag and ultimately an annoying convenience for a contrived, over-the-top ending. Even red seemed scattered and jarring at times, despite the brilliance of Kate Mulgrew as an actress. Everyone was just simplified into a caricature rather than a character.

        And the whole guards who have free reign and are unstoppable and, of course, are evil and sadistic sociopaths, coupled with the few who aren’t evil but, of course, are incompetent and apathetic was such a turn for the worse for the series – so simplistic and that kind of thing has just been done to death and is too easy, and too stupid. They’ve had the bad guys in charge before, but it worked as it was just an element in the stories, rather than the substitute for a story. And of course the corporation is also the definition of all evil. And as though that isn’t enough, we have to have some boring, impotent race war thing that never really seems to go anywhere, just kind of bubbles like a toilet threatening to overflow and ultimately it just kind of fades away. So what was the point of it?

        Oh dear – and a super cheap trick cliff hanger ending. I was rolling my eyes the whole time. And then after it happened it felt so poorly written, like they didn’t know what to do next, what to do with the characters.

        And it just felt incoherent too – like they didn’t really have a sense of where they were taking any of it, and it was just one cheap writing stunt after another to try to string together something. Whereas in past seasons you had a sense of character stories developing, and that they all kind of tied together thematically as you grew with the community you are getting to know. This whole season was a mess and I don’t really care what happens next now. If it is going to continue like this, they should cancel it.

        Sadly though, cheap tricks work, and people are attached to the characters, so I expect it won’t get much criticism. It’s developed a fan base such that it has crossed into that “can do no wrong” territory, which is when a lot of shows start to really be awful, since they are held to no standard and the audience will be pleased no matter what. I think most people haven’t even thought through what elements made this show interesting/special to them… But in time, when the thrill fades, I don’t think this season will be remembered as special or worthy of the seasons that preceded it.

    • St James says:

      I actually thought the show finally stepped up to be what it should in Season 4. I always felt the show was a bit too lighthearted and fun considering the women were in prison. Compared to what I’ve read and seen in documentaries, I found the show made light of the realities of incarceration. I do feel the way season 4 ended was a bit cliche and over the top, but I’d say this season was the best since season 1. The arc to this season was incredilble.

      • I also did not like season 4 — killing off the most popular character as a means to advance “issues” just was sad. and I really like the back story that shows character’s lives –but this season; how much Healy can you stand? and I thought the sadistic new guard was over-the-top –inmate Vee was truly SCARY –but he new guards just seem like sterotypes and I can’t believe others wouldn’t stop them. And I wishe d better writing/ more moral compass/better actions from Caputo…..just disappointing. But I read a big analysis of how P’s death and Brooklyn night was W of Oz metaphor……

      • Lee says:

        I agree. It felt like a bunch of cheap tricks strung together for critical acclaim without any critical thinking.
        A lot of issues were touched on, but it never felt like the writers really cared much about the issues or the characters and they went to an awful lot of trouble to make rapists and racists sympathetic.
        In the end it felt more like apologia for the perpetrators than genuine interest in the victims.
        I mean did we really need to see an unrealistically sympathetic flashback for a killer?
        Do the writers really believe the policemen who kill these civilians are just well meaning bumblers?
        Really?
        This is what happens when an all white writers room tries to tackle race.
        Season 4 wasn’t an indictment of the status quo it was a defence of it.
        I used to love this show, but I won’t be back for season 5.

  11. keiko rose says:

    Wow, the author’s lack of understanding of the LGBTQI community is unreal, laverne cox singlehandedly responsible for trans visibility? Thank you for ignoring decades of work by activists, writers, anf the trans community….jesus. What kind of throwaway line is that?

  12. James Harper says:

    Only great drama, let’s not kid ourselves here. Looking at only the drama hour long Netflix originals with more than one season it shows Bloodline has been the only consistent one. House of Cards jumped the shark in season two when Zoe was killed, in my opinion, and has only gotten worse since. Orange is the New Black had a rocky season three, as anybody reading this comment would know, but I mean in general it is the Netflix show of the best quality. Daredevil shot itself in the head with its second season. Hemlock Grove knew what it was, and that was just horror shlock and it did an okay job. Honestly Bloodline by default should get that title.

    • therealeverton says:

      Except many feel Daredevil Season 2 is superior to season 1. (Rightly or wrongly thee) and most critics were very clear that Jessica Jones was superior to either. not to mention your opinions, shared by some, but definitely not by many critics, about House of Cards are by no means universal.

      There’s a TON of personal opinion in things like this, which is why people are querying that comment so much, but a consensus of critical opinion, let alone viewer opinion, throws that statement up as a minority personal opinion

  13. Matt says:

    I bet those salty comments below me (except for Julia) probably think the new ghostbusters is unnecessary too.

  14. julia says:

    yikes the people in the comments are way to salty it’s the author’s opinion grow up

    • therealeverton says:

      So you think people who counter the writer’s opinion with their opinion, and that of others need to grow up?. Or should you have perhaps picked out a specific comment that did otherwise.

  15. Melanie says:

    The only great drama on Netflix? Have you not seen “Bloodline”???

    • yankeesrj12 says:

      I really enjoyed season one, but season two is taking me a bit to get through. I believe I have four episodes left. I’ll finish, but I definitely think it’s dipped a bit this season. If ordered for a third season though, I’ll be back!

  16. Alex says:

    “Only great” Netflix drama? Did you watch House of Cards? Also, did you watch OITNB’s atrocious Season 3 and/or their God-awful Season 2 finale? I’m guessing the answer to both is a resounding no.

  17. Ghost Machine says:

    Only great netflix drama??? I see your OITNB and raise you House of Cards.

  18. therealeverton says:

    “The drama — Netflix’s only truly great one”

    Well awards givers, critics and viewers couldn’t disagree with that statement more!

    • Jack says:

      Actually, award organizations, critics, and viewers evidently agree with that statement. Tons of awards and nominations, tons of acclaim, and tons of viewership.

      • therealeverton says:

        SIGH – NO that means that they, like me, think OITNB is a very good – great show. It would only mean they agreed with the comment that it is the ONLY great show on Netflix if they didn’t also give lots of awards, viewings and nominations too OTHER Netflix shows.

        S

      • Corbin says:

        Agree! OITNB is one of Netflix’s most critically acclaimed show, and a lot of the actresses have received nominations and/or awards for their work on the show. The only other show that might be up there in terms of receiving a lot of love from the critics would be House of Cards.

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