Orange is the New Black: Season 4 Review and Critique [Spoilers] / by Alexandra Fox

I just finished Orange is the New Black. While this season had some very strong moments, I also feel like much of OITNB has moved from shedding light on women's prisons to making light of serious issues. Endless spoilers below, but here are my thoughts on where OITNB excelled and fell short this year:

Where it falls short:

Lori Petty and Mental Illness

Lori Petty's character, the paranoid, unpredictable Lolly, moved to the forefront this season when she helps Alex Vause escape death by murdering a hitman-disguised-as-CO. With Lolly, the show had an opportunity to seriously examine mental health, particularly as it pertains to incarceration. 

Instead, Lori Petty's character has started to feel like a mockery of mental illness. Rather than dive into the serious mental health challenges that result in nearly two-thirds of inmate populations diagnosed with mental health problems and less than half who have ever received treatment, the show instead uses Lolly as a continuous punchline, serving up a daily feed of aliens, spaceships, and government conspiracies. 

OTINB does redeem itself in "It Sounded Nicer in My Head": a look into Lolly's backstory, where we see how a kind, well-meaning woman becomes a social outcast surviving on the edge of society. We're given a glimpse into the serious terror of living with schizophrenia, not just the occasionally comedy from someone seeing and imagining things that are not there. 

in "People Persons", OITNB strikes a real and emotional note when Lolly is - not altogether wrongly - identified for the murder of the CO in the garden, and shipped off to Psych. In one of the more emotional moments of the season, we see Lolly screaming for Mr. Healy, whom she has begun to trust. The bleakness of her new situation - the screaming inmates, the forced medications and the inevitable isolation - becomes clear.

I think OITNB comes close here, but fails to drive home the seriousness of mental illness and how it relates to incarceration. We see how a short-sighted system fails a person like Lolly, treating her as a criminal, rather than an individual who desperately needs medical care. But we're never shown exactly how she ends up in prison, to help fill out the story. We see how prison takes no special care of someone like Lolly, though we can also appreciate that counseling with Healy seems to move her toward rehabilitation.

At the end of the day, though, Lolly is seemingly lost forever to that impenetrable, formidable place called 'Psych' - although this, perhaps, might be the truest note to Lolly's story. 

Mockery of For-profit System Misses the Actual Mark

No, "CorrectiCon" probably doesn't actually exist, but vested interests who make a profit by cheating inmates who have no political power to defend themselves do. 

Here, again, it feels like the show has good intentions to emphasize a serious flaw in the American correctional system, but the over-doing on the comedic factor minimizes the seriousness and the reality of which the prison industrial complex is a money-making machine

OTINB raised a number of important issues in Season 4 dealing with for-profit prisons and the exploitation of inmates and their families: cheap and unsafe food, exorbitant prices for necessities like tampons, overcrowding and understaffing, to name a few. These were important insights and I'm happy the show acknowledged them, but wary that the way in which such issues were introduced - lighthearted and perhaps overdone - could cause them to be overlooked by viewers or seen as exaggerations, which examination shows they certainly are not.  

Ok, maybe I'm being too serious. At the end of the day, OITNB is a comedy show. But corporate greed in corrections that create unsafe and unfair conditions for prisoners is a real issue.

Asian American Stereotypes

Yes, it's true that Asians account for a amazingly small percentage of the US prison population (the total at just 1.5% of inmates, compared to 5.6% of the population), so it's nice that the show even focuses on one or two Asian characters in a recurring cast of <30. 

But I wonder: the one Asian character that they do choose to develop this season: does she have to be so.... ridiculous?

Maybe I have a personal vendetta against Brook because I feel like it's such a silly and shallow representation of the Asian American experience. (In contrast, the development of Chang in earlier seasons seemed much more dimensional, relatable, and valuable to the show's narrative). What really is the purpose of having Brook on the show, anyway? Unlike other characters like Maria Ruiz, whose ethnic identity comes up in a salient way this season, Brook's character does not offer any insight or thought about Asian identity. 

The only apparent value of Brook's character is to show that she is an outcast, because she is in such a small minority. This was a touching issue in earlier seasons when Brook's apparent isolation drove her to nearly commit suicide - but is broached in season 4 only with Hawaiian Hapakuka, not Brook. It seems so unlikely that a person of Brook's background and privilege would end up serving an extended prison sentence. Are these really the type of individuals that manage to make up the small percent of Asian incarceration? 

Plus, they named her 'SoSo'. She seems painfully unaware of issues around race inequality, and struggles with her own brown-or-white? identity issues: both of which certainly exist in the Asian American community, but it's unfortunate that these are the character points the show chooses to highlight.

They also spent a good 5 minutes, literally, making her do math.

I'll wait....

Less Character Development

The flashback episodes focusing on particular prisoners and their road to the present was notably lacking this season. As a result, we don't get the same kind of understanding and personal empathy for the characters that developed in previous seasons. For me, for example, seeing how individuals like would-be world-class athlete Janae Watson get entangled in the system is both powerful and revealing.

Instead, OITNB gave up camera time to highlight COs like Bailey, Luschek, and Healy - the last two of which have, in my opinion, outlived their welcome and usefulness on the show. We know Luschek is an unmotivated blunderer who couldn't care less about his job or the inmates. We know Healy is a sad man with deep-rooted misogyny and very confused attitudes toward women. Does diving further into either of these characters help forward the show? 

Why not instead look into a character like Ouija - one of the new Dominican arrivals, who in the first episode questions Flaca about her drawn-on teardrops. The show has never taken a stab at unravelling gang violence, and how the system that breeds and proliferates gangs feeds the prison industrial complex. 

No New Black Cast Members

Save for hijabi Abdullah (whom I thought was a great addition, though we never learn much about her), no new black characters are introduced this season. While there are plenty of additional Hispanic and White faces added to the featured cast, the show pretty much focuses on just four black characters the entire season.

As most of the show's characters become more characterized as the series moves on, I felt that this created a sense of flatness and lack of development among the black cast. The longer someone has been on the show, the more they fall into a certain schtick: Lorna is sensitive and dangerously romantic. Healy is awkward and sulking. Suzanne is theatric and loves janitorial.

While the racial tensions this season were focused on conflict between Whites and Dominicans, it felt like any issues dealing with unequal treatment of black women in prison fell solely on Cindy, Taystee, Watson, Poussey, and Suzanne - without any real development or furthering of any of their stories.

Where it excels:

The US Prison System is Incarceration over Rehabilitation

Aleida finds herself alone outside prison, with few options.

Aleida finds herself alone outside prison, with few options.

Aleida Diaz's character perfectly illustrates the struggle ex-convicts face upon trying to reintegrate into society. This is a problem we've seen on the show previously with other characters, most notably when Taystee lands back in prison after simply not knowing how live in the outside world. As the show stresses again and again in Season 4, the prison system does not rehabilitate its inmates, nor teach its women how to be productive members of society upon release. And so we have a re-incarceration rate in America over 50%, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics reporting 77% of released prisoners are arrested again within 5 years.

We see Aleida struggle to figure out what she can possibly do to make it once she's back in the real world. We are even given into insight that the psychology of prison inflicts on inmates - that they are tainted, dangerous, and outcasts. 

White Privilege and White Power

Piper gets caught in the middle of a growing white power organization.

Piper gets caught in the middle of a growing white power organization.

Even in prison, white women have it better. 

From the very first episode, we see that Piper enjoys a certain advantage and security from being white, when she’s dropped off in the ‘suburbs’. This season, racial divides come to a head and form a large part of the season 4 narrative.

Although uncomfortable at times (and at times poorly made light of), I’m glad that OITNB decided to highlight the reality of white supremacist organizations that exist both within and outside prison walls. 

We see how readily authority figures (who are nearly all-white), are ready to target and discriminate against minorities under the guise of 'keeping the prison safe'. In barely-veiled language, Piper communicates to CO Piscatella about the 'dangers' she feels from the influx of Dominican prisoners, resulting in targeted stop-and-frisk procedures from the COs.

Even when Piper loses her power struggle to Maria, she clearly still enjoys a favored position in prison on her privilege of being born white. While she is shocked and revolted by the outward displays of white supremacy from other inmates, she nonetheless does not discard her privilege, nor does she risk herself when fellow prisoners like Hapakuka are left at vulnerable. 

Prison Labor and Political Leverage

Blanca is forced to stand upright on a table when she refuses to take a shower as a resistance against being man-handled by COs. Her refusal to step down becomes a new form of protest.

Blanca is forced to stand upright on a table when she refuses to take a shower as a resistance against being man-handled by COs. Her refusal to step down becomes a new form of protest.

Overcrowding is a serious problem that, as the show illustrates, can result in violence and unsafe conditions for inmates. What was painfully illustrated this season was the steep uphill battle that prisoners face when fighting for rights or expressing their grievances.

We're given a glimpse into a system where prisoners' rights to information, speech, religious practice, and more are often curtailed beyond what is necessary to maintain order, and often without basis or explanation. To combat this, inmates have very little power or position to voice their concerns or hold prison officials accountable for their actions.

The thirteenth amendment abolished slavery in the US... except as a form of punishment for committing a crime. The result is that prisoners can be forced to work in difficult and demanding conditions, with little or no pay. 

Convict-leasing partnerships allow for private corporations to profit off of this cheap labor. The problem, though, is that labor rights and protections that have been put in place over the years often do not cover inmates - and, even when they are flouted, prisoners are in little position to do anything about it. 

Poussey Washington and Black Lives Matter

Throughout the season, and finally culminating with the murder of Poussey Washington, we see that black lives are more expendable than any other. 

Officer training is a huge and important cornerstone that the Black Lives Matter movement has been fighting for these past few years. Here, OITNB shows a poignant example of an all-too-common narrative: a young, untrained officer uses excessive force to 'subdue' a non-threatening, non-violent, and non-resisting black individual. 

I was personally devastated by the loss of Poussey, but the arch for the final two episodes of the season was definitely one of the strongest stories told. Poussey is one of the most beloved characters of the show - smart, witty, well-educated, she's landed in prison for a ridiculous sentence (six years), because of the backwards laws around drug sentencing that disproportionately target minorities. 

The days following her death, as well, echo what we've seen across the country in how the lawmakers, media, and the public have responded to unprovoked deaths by police officers. MCM looks for a way to paint Poussey as violent and dangerous. Caputo voices his support for Officer Bailey. There appears to be no course for punishment or change among the officers to address what has happened here.

Caputo's Fight and the Immensity of the Prison Industrial System

Caputo has always been an extremely well-developed character and an integral part of the show. I think OITNB has done an excellent job in illustrating the difficulties of creating change within the prison system, through the lens of Caputo's personal struggles between his morals and his career - what he wants to do, versus what he can do with the constraints he's presented with.  

Far from perfect, Caputo does try to make a difference in the lives of the women he's been charged with. We hear again and again his ideas on how to create programs that prepare inmates for life on the other side, ways to make conditions safer, plans for boosting morale. But, again and again, he runs into resistance. There are always innumerable vested interests fighting against any change that might upset the flow of penal profits. What could be a better reflection of the real-life difficulties around prison reform?

Looking back now, I think Season 4 was, in all, better than I had initially felt when watching it. While it feels like the show is making light of serious issues at times, the writers do a fair job of filling each episode with real-life material, examining the complexities and realities of the US penal system. 

What did everyone else think?

- A