6 things to know about ‘Orange Is the New Black’ season 4

Men plan, God laughs, then Netflix releases 13 episodes of a show all at once.

My intention was to watch between four and six episodes of the new season of Orange Is the New Black, write an advance piece on where the show stands as it enters its fourth season, then watch the rest after it debuts tomorrow (technically, tonight at midnight Pacific) and do a spoiler-filled piece after I had seen the whole thing(*).

(*) The last couple of summers, I tried – as an experiment to marry my usual episode-by-episode approach with the Netflix binge model – to review two episodes a week, but it ultimately proved unsatisfying. By the time I was writing about the season's midpoint, most of the readers had long since finished the whole thing and forgotten the granular details. So this time out, I'm going to do what I've done for several binge/streaming series lately, and write one big post with brief thoughts on each episode (and on various story arcs), to be posted early next week.

Instead, episode 6 was when the season really started to take shape, which led me to watch episode 7 to see what happened next, and all of a sudden I had binged the whole damn thing during the period when I actually had time to write a proper review.

So until I have time for the aforementioned season 4 spoiler omnibus, here are a few things I will tell you about the new batch:

1. Orange remains the best of the Netflix dramas when it comes to balancing episodic and seasonal plot concerns. Too many streaming shows have lost the ability to tell interesting stories from hour to hour, turning them into 10-13 hour blocks of… stuff.  That stuff can have great moments, and feel very satisfying when everything converges at the end, but it can also be a slog in the middle, especially when there isn't enough story to stretch across an entire season. With the number of characters Orange has, and the flashback structure (which a few episodes don't bother with), that's never been a problem here. There are a bunch of big arcs to the season in terms of the state of the prison under corporate control, rivalries between different factions, romance and other relationships, etc., but most of the episodes feel satisfying enough in their own right that they would work in weekly isolation from one another.

2. This is a much darker season than the last one. Maybe Orange is on some kind of odd/even split between comedy and drama. Seasons 1 and 3 were relatively light (at times, season 3 was too light), while season 2 introduced Vee and put a lot of characters into very bad places, while season 4 at times verges on dystopian nightmare, as we see just how bad this place can get under the new management. Since I've always found the show more effective as a drama that occasionally pauses for whimsy rather than a comedy that sometimes gets serious, this worked for me, but there is some intense and twisted stuff happening here.

3. Get to know Maria Ruiz. Ruiz, played by Jessica Pimentel, has been around since season 1, but kept pretty deep on the bench, with her feelings of separation from her baby mainly used to prepare Daya for her own pregnancy. This season, Ruiz becomes central to a lot of what's happening, and even if some of the plot mechanics required to make that happen feel iffy, Pimentel becomes the latest minor Orange player to show she's ready for a brighter spotlight.

4. Be prepared to hate Piper. More than usual. But not forever. There have been times when the show seems determined to make you like its entitled original main character, and others where the creative team just throws up its hands and accepts that she is The Worst. The new season steers hard into that skid, with Piper at her most insufferable as she plays gangster with her bootleg panty business. Eventually, though, things get so bad elsewhere that Piper begins to seem like a minor irritant in comparison, and she eventually proves empathetic again. (To me, anyway; I won't be surprised if for many of you, there's just no going back.)

5. Blair Brown is fun as Litchfield's most famous inmate. We got a few glimpses last season of Brown as Judy King, a Martha Stewart/Paula Deen mash-up doing time for tax evasion, and soon she's in the middle of things, upending things for guards and inmates alike, and proving to be much sharper and more complicated than everyone assumes.

6. The last few episodes may be the show's strongest run yet. I need some time to sit with it, but some incredibly sad and powerful things go down near the end, and all of it feels earned rather than manipulative. There are some bumps earlier in the season, but by the end, it had that Novel For Television feeling in the best possible way, where you can't imagine doing anything else until you've finished the story.

Episodes go live in a few hours. Feel free to comment about them here until the new post is ready on Monday or Tuesday.