When season three of Orange Is the New Black ended, fans were left feeling hopeful. Sure, Litchfield was about to welcome an influx of maximum security prisoners from down the road and Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) had let the power of running a prison panty empire go to her head. But watching the female inmates get just a taste of freedom when the fence went down was a moment both the characters (and the audience) needed. It was as if OITNB was saying, “Hey look, prison isn’t really that terrible after all.”
If season four is trying to tell us anything, it’s that prison actually does suck. Maybe “suck” is too light a word. Coming into work on a Monday morning and having Bob in the cubicle next door spoil that episode of Game of Thrones you weren’t able to watch sucks. Prison, on the other hand, is the most dehumanizing, degrading environment a person can possibly endure — and for the ladies of Litchfield, being behind bars just got a heck of a lot more dangerous.
In the interest of keeping things spoiler-free (and not violating the page-long embargo our good friends at Netflix had us sign) we’ll refrain from mentioning any major plot points. Instead, let’s talk about how Orange Is the New Black is a show that continues to forge new ground and live up to its hype — this latest season included.
When Jenji Kohan’s drama premiered on Netflix way back in 2013, there weren’t any grand expectations. It wasn’t the streaming platform’s cornerstone show — that honor went to House of Cards. It was a series about women prisoners with actual women as its main characters — not many networks bank on that kind of thing these days. It featured women of color, LGBT characters, and transgender actress Laverne Cox. And yet, in its first week, it became Netflix’s most-watched original series; it’s held that title for three years running. The show opened conversations about race, religion, sexual orientation, feminism, patriarchy, addiction and more. It featured a talented cast of actresses who have since gone on to be nominated for Emmys, Golden Globes and Tony Awards — blazing trails on the stage and on the screen.
Season one was groundbreaking, but then again, of course it was. We were being introduced to characters and storylines we hadn’t seen on TV before. Then season two came, exceeding expectations, playing to its strengths by spotlighting its secondary cast of actresses. But second seasons should be better. Writers should be feeling more comfortable in the worlds they’re creating, actors more confident in the characters they’re portraying, show runners — well they should be a nervous wreck no matter what.
Season three of the series was admittedly not its strongest, but it did build on what Kohan and her team started. Piper, though by no means anyone’s favorite character, had an interesting, if occasionally annoying, arc, becoming a panty kingpin. Alex (Laura Prepon) spiraled into a black hole of paranoia after her deal with the cops for less jail time meant her former drug-lord of a boss was gunning for her. Daya (Dascha Polanco) had her baby sans C.O. Bennett (Matt McGorry) and grew even closer to her own mother. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) bonded over the loss of Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) while Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) had a spiritual conversion that was handled with humor and grace. But the season’s most compelling storyline came courtesy of Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning). Her rape at the hands of a prison guard and her friendship with Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) gave us an honest look at the terrible trauma of sexual assault.
All that to say, season three was pretty dark but it pales in comparison to where the show takes us when its fourth season kicks off June 17. If there were any question in the minds of the people who run the Emmys as to whether OITNB is a comedy or drama, it’s laid to rest in this latest installment. Murder, drugs, race wars, corporatization, overcrowding, human-rights abuses — you’ll find all of that this fourth time around.
The addition of new inmates kicks things off, setting the scene for plenty of racial clashes that are sometimes, frankly, uncomfortable to watch. New characters emerge as major players, among them Maria (Jessica Pimentel) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) — who gets her own flashback this season and it’s a funny one.
Blair Brown’s Judy King also gets deserved attention this year. Her presence at Litchfield causes all kinds of problems for Warden Caputo (Nick Sandow), who’s balancing the need to treat her like every other inmate with corporate’s insistence that she be “as comfortable as possible” in order to keep the press off their backs. King is an old, racist bigot without realizing it. Her relationships with Poussey (Samira Wiley) and Cindy redeem her a bit, as does her drug-induced threesome with a fellow inmate and a prison guard. It’s nice to see the show portraying older characters as actual people with actual sex drives and, gasp, a little bit of sass. There’s been talk her character was based on Martha Stewart but she reads more Paula Deen and her moments on screen give the show a much-needed dose of humor.
The ensemble cast makes OITNB both wonderful and exhausting. Sure, they could probably all act their way out of a paper bag, but keeping up with all of the characters on the show — a tally that only increases this year — can be difficult. Perhaps that in and of itself is a commentary on prison life? People are constantly flowing in and out of the bunks; best get used to it and move on. Maybe it’s just another reason to tip our hat to Kohan? After all, what other series, save GoT, can effectively juggle so many characters and make us genuinely care about all of them?