Along with Game of Thrones, I look forward to a new season of Orange Is the New Black all year long. Sure, as can be seen on this blog, I do watch other television series, but I look forward in anticipation to OITNB in a way that I do not other shows. I absolutely adore the incredibly diverse and talented cast, I like the show’s stylistic and narrative choices, and I truly respect the writers and show runners for not turning away from social issues, but instead confronting them head on. A lot of people, at least in my group of friends which has very diverse tastes but all of us do watch this one show, disliked the third season of the series. I really did enjoy it, and I seem to be in the minority here, but it fits in nicely with the overall narrative as well as further explored topics that are uncomfortable and difficult. That said, this fourth season, which premiered a couple of weeks ago on Netflix, is by far the show’s best, and is an epic feat of storytelling. I am still breathless, days later, thinking about the ride the show took me on.
While the first season was mostly about Piper Chapman’s entrance into Litchfield Penitentiary and how she would manage the very unstable dynamics of prison, each subsequent season has featured a “big bad” of sorts. The second season saw the arrival of Vee, a character who shifted the entire mood of the prison. Season 3 had a more intangible baddie, but a baddie nonetheless, which was a corporation and the privatization of the American prison system. This season is no different, where prison guards take over as the most terrifying incarnation of evil. These men, and a woman, have too much power, too much collective strength, too little education and training, and the more the show progressed the harder it was to tell any difference between guards and prisoners, sometimes the scale of evil tipping overwhelmingly in favor of the guards. The theme song sung by Regina Spektor mentions “the animals”, but who these animals are this season is very unclear. George Orwell’s Animal Farm must have been in the writer’s minds while prepping this new batch of episodes, it couldn’t not have been.
The tonal structure is also better than ever this season. The first half of season 4 is definitely a comedy, relying heavily on hilarity and slapstick, it’s not by chance that the amazing Lori Petty is prominently featured and her character Lolly brings tears of laughter every time she’s on screen. Somewhere in the middle, though, the tone slowly shifts to the more dramatic, culminating in a devastating and tragic final act of episodes so difficult to watch, let alone binge. This is how you do television!
Where are our favorite inmates this season? Piper, high on the “power” she gained by being the ringleader of the pantie business, has realized that she needs some muscle to help her out and inadvertently ushers in a white supremacy prison contingent. Alex, shaken over her attempted murder, grows closer to Red’s family and is now tied to the unpredictable Lolly, whether she likes it or not. Taystee gets a job working for Caputo, which allows her a level of access nobody had enjoyed before. Nicky, thank goodness, is back. Lorna struggles with married life as a long distance relationship, coupled with her unstable jealousy. Newly Jewish Black Cindy finds a foe in a recently arrived Muslim woman. Daya tries to find a new place for herself in prison as her mother’s release grows closer. Sophia is still in the SHU and her release seems unlikely any time soon. Poussey and Brook’s relationship grows closer and more romantic. Yoga Jones struggles with her new status as part of the 1%, as she is picked to be the roommate to the high profile celebrity Judy King (a mixture of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen), who arrives with all the perks of being rich and white bring with them. Maria and Blanca, with the arrival of a high number of Dominican inmates to the prison, find out what power and status can do and how it can significantly impact the Litchfield experience. Crazy Eyes navigates her first romantic relationship ever. All our other favorites are around as well, but these are the ones we focus on the most this season.
Peaceful protest, brutality, black lives matter, interracial relationships, privilege, drug addiction, mental health… these are just some of the topics explored this season. Just yesterday I was discussing the new season with some friends and some found it to be a little preachy (even though they said the season rocks as well). I didn’t find it to be preachy, but my ideology and experience matches up in many ways with the show, so maybe I just don’t mind a message with my entertainment.
To say anything else would spoil the viewing experience, but everyone should be prepared with how emotional and raw this season gets, and how difficult it is to deal with some of the events. The great thing is that the show has already been renewed for three more seasons, and this season leaves off in a place that clearly shows that those in charge know what they’re doing and are already thinking ahead to next season and the aftermath of this season’s events. Now, what am I going to be doing with myself for the next year while I wait for it to come back?