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The Stories Are Darker And The Stakes Are Higher In ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Season Four

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?

There’s a lot going on in season four and pretty much everyone gets their moment in the sun. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • The last time we saw Alex she was facing down a hitman in the garden shed. That confrontation gets resolved and has far-reaching consequences that span pretty much the entire season.
  • Taystee gets a job promotion — she’s now the right hand of the warden. Brooks is one of the series’ most capable actresses and she certainly gets her moment this season, particularly in the final two episodes.
  • Red (Kate Mulgrew) continues to rule the roost and the kitchen but Judy King’s presence and her preferential treatment provide a nice little rivalry between the prison cook and celebrity chef. Mulgrew’s at her best when she’s delivering intimidating stink eyes and waxing poetic about how to get revenge the Russian way.
  • Sophia (Cox) is still in SHU. Her absence leaves a hole in the show but it’s not surprising given Cox has responsibilities elsewhere. For all of the talk about how Sophia’s wrongful punishment would shed light on how transgender people are treated by the criminal system, it felt like season three contributed more to that conversation than this this one.
  • Pennsatucky is still grappling with what happened to her, though Boo begins to impede her healing process. For anyone who might’ve been concerned with how OITNB would handle the aftermath of that revenge-rape scene gone wrong, relax. The show continues to handle sensitive issues with care. It would’ve been easy to have Pennsatucky wallow in hate after everything she’s been through. Instead, she shows even more growth as she begins to confront what happened, try to live with the aftermath of it, in some way forgive her rapist and, most importantly, move forward stronger and more confident in herself. Manning, again, deftly navigates all of the conflicting emotions Pennsatucky experiences after her rape and it’s a shame the actress doesn’t get more credit for what’s she’s been able to do with this character.
  • We couldn’t talk about Judy King without mentioning Poussey. The woman’s the biggest King fangirl in the prison and the chef’s residency gives us a few funny and poignant moments between the pair that work to expose racial stereotyping and the power of the 1 percent in our society. Of all the women in the prison, Poussey is the most grounded and her character continues to paint a beautiful, complicated portrait of what it means to be a woman of color and a lesbian.
  • Piper is enjoying her new status as Panty Galore, but her crime ring is threatened by Maria and the Dominicans who begin running their own business. She retaliates before being taught a lesson she desperately needed to learn. Whether it sticks or not remains to be seen.
  • Lolly (Lori Petty), the prison’s resident crazy lady now that Suzanne is seemingly normal again, gets more time, and it’s one of this season’s smartest choices. It’s rare that we get an accurate, non-judgmental depiction of mental health on TV. As wonderful as Crazy Eyes is, she played crazy for a good portion of the show’s first two seasons. Characters with mental-health problems often fall into tired tropes. They’re props for the story or, worse yet, their “crazy” is just used to further another character’s arc. Lolly may have begun that way when she met Alex in season three, but the journey she goes on this season, her relationship with Healey (Michael Harney) and what we learn about both of their pasts provide some of the show’s most gripping moments.

Of course, nothing’s perfect and, as is often the case, strengths can also be weaknesses. Too many characters, too many wildly veering storylines mean some decisions made by Kohan and her team seem perplexing. There’s a new guard order this season which causes plenty of problems for the ladies, but it’s a bit of a head scratcher as to why the show felt the need to spend so much time on the stories of the white males in power — Caputo, Healey, a goofy CO named Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) — instead of focusing more on its prison population. Perhaps it’s to humanize the bad guys, but we’ve seen enough TV shows that explain away white privilege and patriarchal power and it could be trimmed down a bit here. As Judy King so eloquently tells Luschek (Matt Peters), “Honey, you’re a straight white male. You don’t get to be the victim.”

If season three of OITNB left you feeling happy, season four instead offers a cold hard dose of reality. The stories are darker, the injustices the women face even more infuriating and the stakes are higher. Four seasons in, the OITNB shows no signs of backing away from what made it so compelling in the first place.

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