‘Orange Is the New Black’: Reviewing every season 4 episode

Senior Television Writer
06.19.16 85 Comments

I really liked the new season of Orange Is the New Black, particularly the second half of it. Now that many of you have had the weekend to watch the whole thing (and if you're not done yet, you can come back to this when you are), I have specific thoughts on each episode – and I'm writing all of these capsules assuming you've seen the whole season, so there will be spoilers for later episodes in discussion of earlier ones – coming up just as soon as I rent a bounce house in the shape of a frog…

EPISODE 1: WORK THAT BODY FOR ME

Given where season 3 left off, the premiere obviously had to pick up in the immediate aftermath, with Alex's life still in danger (until Lolly rescues her, kicking many of the season's plots in motion), the other inmates frolicking in the lake, and the arrival of both Judy King and a whole batch of less famous new prisoners.

In the past, particularly during the Vee arc of season 2, the show has suggested that Litchfield is on the verge of going from minimum security summer camp into something resembling our usual preconceptions of prison. With all the new inmates and Desi Piscatella's appointment as captain of the guards, this season finally takes us straight in there, with the Catch-22 of corporate management layered on top of it.

Also picking up right where she left off: Piper, still feeling insufferably gangster in the wake of getting Stella sent to max. If you're inclined to like Piper at all – or, at least, don't want to constantly wish her off the show – then these early episodes were tough to get through at times, but the payoff is ultimately worth it.

Lots of foreshadowing of later plotlines here, including O'Neil insisting that women don't riot (which they will in the finale), and a bored Cindy suggesting starting a race war for her own amusement (Piper will inadvertently do it for her). Foreshadowed but not paid off yet: whatever it is in Kukudio's file that so alarmed even Caputo when he read it.

Though the show had gone flashback-less a few times in the past, this is the first time they did it for the premiere, and the first season where multiple episodes were flashback-less. Even with the ever-expanding cast, I'd say that's a good idea. The flashbacks can be useful if the story is good, and if it's the only way for us to truly understand who one of these people was before they got to Litchfield, but we've reached the same point Lost eventually did by season 3, where they began to feel not only obligatory, but a distraction from the present-day narrative.

EPISODE 2: POWER SUIT

That said, Ruiz's flashback was very necessary, given her move from minor character to one of the season's top movers and shakers. Her flashbacks here do a good job establishing her disdain for the kind of ethnic pride/gang intersection that she'll soon become a part of due to her frustration with the way things were being run in the prison. And also nice to see the origin of her relationship with her future baby daddy, which pretty much defined her in earlier seasons.

There are a lot of interesting pairings in this one: Yoga Jones becomes Judy King's reluctant roommate, here resenting her new role as part of the One Percent (before she'll soon grow to love it); Caputo and Linda from Purchasing begin their flirtation (prompting his purchase of the eponymous garment) after they come up with the idea to hire military vets as the new guards; and Piper hiring her new bunkmate to be her one-woman Secret Service detail.

It also begins the season's complicated, and at times uncomfortable, character arc between Pennsatucky and Doughnuts, as she's surprised to learn that he's not giving Maritza the kind of special attention he used to give her when she was driving the van.

EPISODE 3: (DON'T) SAY ANYTHING

Soso's flashback, on the other hand, was largely unnecessary, since previous seasons had already established what kind of person she was before she got here. Instead, the story with the “sex offender” mainly served as a parallel to the lies she told about Poussey to get her in with Judy King, which set up the expectation that we would see similar lies blow up in the past on that guy, only for the flashback plot to just peter out.

Taystee getting a job as Caputo's secretary will pay dividends throughout the season (particularly in the episode where she figures out his password is “sideboobrulez” and gets Internet access), while Piscatella's anger at her suggestion that they are co-workers is the first major clue that he's not just a tough guy, but someone who sees the inmates as inherently less human than himself.

The Morello marriage arc was pretty hit-or-miss (and in hindsight feels like a way to keep her occupied until Nicky's return), but the visiting room's reaction to Lorna and Vinny having in-person phone sex was pretty amusing.

EPISODE 4: DOCTOR PSYCHO

I've been waiting for a full-on Healy flashback since we got a glimpse of him as a kid last season, and “Doctor Psycho” didn't disappoint. Healy, like Piper, is one of the show's more fundamentally unlikable characters, and the story of his mentally ill mother wisely chose to explain his issues about power and women and sexuality without ever apologizing for them, and it set us up for why he would be so interested in helping Lolly, because her delusions remind him of his mother's.

Also in the “explained, not redeemed” camp: Doughnuts, who's surprised to hear Pennsatucky refer to his multiple rapes of her as exactly that. Some later episodes (particularly one of his conversations with Bayley) will suggest he's less troubled by the accusations than he will claim he is to her, but this would be far from the first guy to not understand the crime he was committing, even as he was doing it.

We take a trip down to max to see Sophia's attempts to contact Caputo and escape her current nightmare (and to get a brief glimpse of Nicky), and that material's pretty harrowing. In contrast, the early stages of the Piper/Ruiz rivalry are fairly mild, being played mostly for laughs (Piper getting feces on her hands) before the much darker stuff that's coming.

The show is always clever with its pop culture references, and this is a particularly comic book-heavy episodes, not only with Judy and Luschek discussing the eponymous Wonder Woman villain, but Suzanne getting Spider-Man's mantra about power and responsibility backwards, and insisting her way makes more sense.

EPISODE 5: WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE BALTIMORE

Like her buddy Flaca's episode last year, the flashback to Maritza's unsuccessful life as a con woman is entertaining without being illuminating enough to be worth the bother.

Of more interest are the parallels between Caputo going to CorrectiCon with Linda from Purchasing and the abuses the new guards are starting to get up to back at Litchfield. The convention offers prison-themed toys to the corporate executives (some of whom, like Linda from Purchasing, have never even been inside a prison), while the new guards (lacking the proper training and experience of the previous ones) are starting to view the inmates as their own toys, which will go in a twisted direction with Humps a few episodes down the line.

Suzanne wanting to be a private detective is both a good running gag and helps set up a bunch of Lorna/Nicky dynamics for later in the season, but it's not nearly as funny as Piper realizing that she has founded a white supremacy group at Litchfield. 

EPISODE 6: PIECE OF SH*T

No flashback, and this one doesn't need it, since so much of the material is about how sins of past seasons are still causing pain in the present, particularly in our glimpses of Nicky (falling off the wagon), Stella (already off the wagon), and Sophia (slitting her wrists with the help of the magazine Nicky slipped her) down in max. And, of course, much of the Nicky material runs in parallel with Luschek very slowly coming to realize just how terrible he is (not that he knows about Doughnuts and Pennsatucky, but when the rapist has the clear moral high ground in any argument with you, you are pretty damn awful), not enough to meaningfully change his behavior, but at least enough to (with some help from Judy's lawyers) get Nicky back into minimum. (Nicky giving into her despair and taking drugs right as her transfer in the works is one of the season's more heartbreaking images.)

Meanwhile, we see more repercussions of Piper's thoughtless, narcissistic behavior, as Ruiz gets busted with the bootleg panties and faces the threat of multiple years being added to her sentence, which in turn kicks off the very dark turn the season will take from here.

EPISODE 7: IT SOUNDED NICER IN MY HEAD

In one of the series' earliest episodes, someone insisted that Litchfield was nothing like the prison on Oz. Well, Oz's privileged white POV character also got a swastika branded on him (and would, eventually, deal with it in the same way that Red “fixes” Piper's new scar), and Piper suffering that fate here signals just how bad things will get for the rest of the season, while also bringing a violent, definitive end to her stint as TV's most annoying crime lord. The return of Nicky to minimum also offers a chance for the show to acknowledge how much it and its characters have changed in her time in max (which she'll later say was 94 days, because time moves slower on the show than it does for us, even if the references stay current).

There are points being made in the Lolly flashbacks about how the world might have once felt friendlier and more livable for a mentally ill person like her, but the episode winds up defining Lolly almost entirely by her paranoid delusions, when that's already basically how we knew her at this point. Those scenes do prime us to better understand her behavior in later episodes, though, and her “time machine” will become a useful spot when other inmates need privacy. And Lori Petty is excellent, both here and throughout Lolly's tragic story of the season.

EPISODE 8: FRIENDS IN LOW PLACES

Though the branding incident finally scares Piper straight and makes her take ownership for a lot of her bad decisions, she's still dealing with the impact of them on others, as here the other former sweatshop workers have good reason to be mad at her for losing their jobs and being reassigned to the construction “class” (which is really just MCC's sleazy way of turning them into slave laborers). Piper's tearful phone call to her brother was a good reminder that, as annoying as the character can be, Taylor Schilling is giving an excellent performance, and can be extremely sympathetic when the occasion calls for it. Piper and Alex needing to smoke crack in the cornfield (with Nicky, whose habit is already so bad she's stealing Red's stuff to pay for drugs) to finally be honest with each other about all their recent tragedies also seemed about right for a relationship that's always thrived on a high level of drama.

This episode also sets up Judy King as a wild card in the simmering Litchfield race war, as she starts up her fake relationship with Cindy as a way to smooth over bad feelings about her old puppet show with Chitlin Joe. (A part of me wished that the young Blair Brown actually appeared on a show with puppets that Orange could feature archival footage from.)

And, oh boy, Joe Caputo. He's among the show's most well-intentioned characters, but he has his weaknesses, and instead of being horrified when Linda from Purchasing pulls a gun on Sophia's wife, it turns him on just as much as his fight with Danny did for her at CorrectiCon.

EPISODE 9: TURN TABLE TURN

From my own TV-obsessed perspective, the scene where Angie and Leanne's group discuss Breaking Bad and all the different USA shows (Pennsatucky: “I thought that was just one long show”) was one of my favorites of the season. (And better than the similar conversation about Benedict Cumberbatch over at Morello's table.)

Blanca's flashback was one of the season's more satisfying, because the contrast of her life as a well-groomed home health aide and the unibrowed force of nature she is in Litchfield was striking, while still making sense as a journey from Point A to Point B. Her battle of wills with her difficult old client also nicely sets up her determination to outlast the guards' attempt to humiliate her with Abu Ghraib-style stress position torture. And that's not even the nastiest thing a guard makes an inmate do in this episode! Humps forcing Maritza to eat the baby mouse is among the most disturbing things I've ever seen in a TV drama (at least one critic I spoke with about it felt it crossed a tonal line for this particular show), and underscored why most of the new guards have no business in this job.

EPISODE 10: BUNNY, SKULL, BUNNY, SKULL

Late in season 1, Taystee got paroled, but a few episodes later was back in Litchfield because she couldn't fit in in the regular world. Alex spent most of season 2 as a civilian. And there's no lack of real-life history of paroled convicts who wound up back behind bars to finish out their sentences. So it wouldn't ring false if Aleida wound up back at Litchfield down the road. But if she doesn't, that'd be a new path for the show to follow: a former inmate who gets out and stays out, but who remains part of the narrative because a loved one is still there (and on the verge of being in a lot more trouble, which we'll get to a few episodes from now). If that's the plan, I'll be curious to see how much the show can get away with featuring Aleida out in the world without it feeling like a distraction, or if she's well-established enough that she can serve as an example of the life awaiting many of the inmates once they get a chance to go home.

Sister Helen gets largely backgrounded this year, but as a trade-off gets one of the season's most memorable moments when the cell phone she smuggles into max inside her private parts falls out at the worst possible moment. And that in turn sets up Caputo for his most heroic act of the season, as he completes her mission of proving that Sophia is in solitary so that Danny and Crystal can arrange to have her sent back to minimum security.

I assumed Piper winding up on the table next to Blanca would lead to more bonding between the two than actually happened, as the lockdown near the start of the next episode ends their punishment early. Still, it's a good moment for Piper to genuinely stand up for other prisoners, and not out of self-serving reasons.

EPISODE 11: PEOPLE PERSONS

Oh, the Suzanne flashback. So damn sad. Though we've seen her capable of great violence, Suzanne is by nature such a gregarious and gentle person that I'd always wondered how she ended up at Litchfield. Having her unwittingly kidnap a little boy (whom she thought she was just having over for a playdate) and then scare him into falling off a fire escape is horrible, but also seems exactly like the kind of trouble she would get herself into. And imagine how much of this weight must fall on her poor sister, who has apparently devoted most of her life to keeping an eye on Suzanne: she takes one weekend off – over Suzanne's objections – and a little boy dies and her sister goes to prison for a very long time(*).

(*) It does raise questions of what she's doing in minimum security if she was involved in the death of a child during a kidnapping; either a sentence in max or a mental health facility seems more likely given the circumstances – given my minimal, largely TV-aided understanding of criminal law.

Remarkably, the present-day material involving Suzanne and many of the other inmates is even darker, as Caputo's absence allows Piscatella and the guards to run amok, including Humps staging a prison fight club involving two mentally ill women that ends with one of them so savagely beaten that it instantly stops entertaining the blood-thirsty crowd, and Piscatella running a rogue investigation into the body found in the garden. (Said investigation also gives us some new information on how Red wound up here, as we learn that five chopped-up bodies were found in her freezer back in the day.) And Healy nearly drowning himself once he realizes he can't fix Lolly, or himself, or anyone else, was incredibly powerful, even though Healy himself is usually so awful.

EPISODE 12: THE ANIMALS

Note the director: Matthew Weiner, in his first job for television since the end of a little show called Mad Men. Weiner was handed an episode that's devastating on so many levels at once, but particularly in the accidental death of Poussey. It's bad enough that Poussey dies, but made so much worse because she seemed on the verge of so many good things, between Judy King's offer to help her get a job (even if it was low-level, it would still be a big leg up on what many of her friends can hope for when they get out) and her reconciling with Soso after their fight about political protests and privilege.

And it feels even worse because she dies at the hands of the one wholly decent guard in the whole place. In the background, the season did a remarkable job of showing how much poor Bayley had grown from the scared and shallow kid who took the job last season, and when Caputo tried to scare him out of the job early in the episode, I thought it was a shame, because Bayley seemed the one real hope for the future of the guard staff. Instead, because the inmates are rightly outraged over the behavior of Piscatella, Humps, and others, because Bayley is still woefully inexperienced, and because Suzanne hasn't been getting proper care o top of being involved in the fight club, a tragic, stupid accident happens, and Poussey gets choked out before Bayley can even realize he's doing it.

It also hits hard because the episode seemed to be building to something much more inspiring, as Piscatella's heinousness (which, to be honest, eventually turns to the cartooinish side) leads each of the prison's sub-groups to decide to protest him on their own, until his manhandling of Red inspires a mass “O Captain! My Captain!” moment from the entire inmate population, while Caputo is unfortunately off seeking sympathy (and, based on his bloody earlobe in the finale, more?) from Fig. Everything seems to be going so well, and instead we wind up with Taystee wailing on the floor next to the body of her best friend. Awful, and yet expertly set up.

EPISODE 13: TOAST CAN'T NEVER BE BREAD AGAIN

And here the use of the flashbacks are essential, not because they teach us new things about Poussey (though we learn a few biographical details that didn't come up the last time), but because they allow her to still be alive in some form while everyone in the present is grappling with her death. More powerfully, the flashbacks allow her to be free. It seems at first like the set-up for some terrible streak of luck that ends up with her involved in the crime that puts her away, but instead reveals itself to be Poussey Washington enjoying a perfect night in New York, hanging with drag queens and fake improv monks, getting high, having fun, and truly understanding what a world full of possibility looks like, even as we're all coming to grips with the idea that her time at Litchfield slowly robbed her life of all its possibilities. For a brief, glorious moment, she sees so much that she seems capable of even seeing us in the audience, looking right at the camera and smiling: a happy, healthy human being with dreams and pain and a life, and not the number who will be denied humanity and everything else the longer she was in prison. Amazing.

The present-day action was plenty powerful in its own right, whether in moments small, like Norma singing to a grieving Soso, or big, like Caputo going off-script during the press conference. By trying to set up Bayley as their fall guy, the PR goons from MCC leave him with a terrible, impossible choice: protect Bayley (who was directly at fault, but was mainly the victim of decisions made by Piscatella, Caputo, and the MCC executives), or satisfy the inmates' need for justice. Caputo unsurprisingly chooses Bayley, and while we can understand the decision from our omniscient perspective, it's also easy to understand why Taystee would feel betrayed enough by his remarks to start a riot, which now has all the prison's groups converging out of anger rather than solidarity, and ends on the cliffhanger of Daya holding Humps' illegal ankle pistol on him.

The last part isn't the ideal choice, in that there are at least a dozen characters with more immediate grievances against the guards who would make more emotional sense in the moment. Daya has her own bad history with a different generation of guards, and the back half of the season briefly touched on the idea that she was being corrupted by her friendship with Ruiz, but I spent those final beats of the scene wondering why the creative team chose her instead of one of Poussey's friends, or Blanca, or Ruiz, or Maritza, or almost anyone else. (Even Judy King's enough of a wild card, despite her impending release, that I would at least wonder what she might do with that pistol in her hands.)

But everything up until that moment hit like a ton of bricks, and that shot of Poussey's smiling face was a gorgeous, gut-wrenching image to end things on. Can't wait for next season, even though it'll surely be about a year from now. (Among the downsides of the Netflix binge model: if you watch right away, the wait for the next year is soooooooooo long.)

And I haven't even got into any of the season's many other subplots, like Cindy's rivalry with new Muslim cellmate Alison, Red dealing with her own snoring bunkmate, Boo's understandable outrage over Pennsatucky's willingness to forgive Coates – which included, in the finale, her decision to kiss the guy to encourage him to keep his job – Sophia and Gloria's reconciliation, and a whole lot more.

The show gives you a lot to unpack, and while not all of it works, so much of this season did so spectacularly.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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