Stephanie Farnsworth reviews the latest season of the award winning Netflix show Orange is the New Black.
Warning: article contains major spoilers.
Orange is the New Black has finally returned, and it needed to make up ground. Season three drew a lot of attention (in part due to the hype surrounding guest star Ruby Rose) but its plots fell short of the high standard they had set right back in season one. Season four has managed to recapture the magic, largely because it has gone with story lines which are relevant beyond the show. It’s made the series go back to its best strength: of being a profound critique of the state of society at large as well as the US prison system.
Piper’s descent over recent seasons into complete narcissism and being ignorant of her own privilege was an accurate reflection of white middle class society, which is exactly why it was often so mundane to watch when there were far many other more diverse, realistic and intriguing characters. She also became slightly more watchable as a character by the end of this season, and all it took was her branding with a swastika to make her assess her own flaws and try go back to the person she once was. She’s still narcissistic and entirely oblivious at times but occasionally we see smatterings of good intentions behind her actions. Her character progression (although painfully little and tortuously slow) means that the dynamic with Alex has taken on a less toxic feel and might be something audiences can actually support if the writers don’t feel they need to repeat the will they/won’t they tension that has dominated the last three seasons (even when Prepon merely guest starred).
Outside of Piper and Alex, the story lines largely reflected the current state of affairs. Sophia’s time in solitary confinement and the denial of her rights is so easily paralleled with Chelsea Manning and the unknown number of trans women who are denied basic rights due to the horrific excuse that it is “for their own protection”. This unfortunately meant that we got far less face-time with Sophia. The cast for most of the episodes was entirely cisgender. It did feel as though more of Sophia’s story could have been told and she didn’t need to be entirely absent for so many episodes at a time. It would have been much more effective to see Sophia’s story for ourselves rather than the interpretations by cisgender people such as Nikki.
Sophia’s time in solitary confinement and the denial of her rights is so easily paralleled with Chelsea Manning and the unknown number of trans women who are denied basic rights due to the horrific excuse that it is “for their own protection”.
The new season brought with it a new cast of inmates and untrained, former military Correctional Officers, and with them overcrowding and a more hostile, volatile version of the inmate-jailer politics of previous seasons. The neo-Nazis brought into Litchfield highlight the insidious nature behind cries that “All Lives Matter” in a reflection of the growing fascism within Western society. As supporters flock around Trump and Europe struggles with its own rise of extreme right wing politicians (as well as anti migrant sentiments). Orange is the New Black has managed to throw a spotlight on the dangers of a rise of such extreme and bigoted views but more than that, it’s also shown that there may be little that can stop it at this point.
The neo-Nazi inmates never gained a credible amount of power individually. They’re not popular and most people think they are fools, yet they do hold power when their inherent views that people of colour mean less are validated by a white supremacist prison system. Their views can’t just be laughed off as something that exists in isolation when the lives of people of colour are treated with contempt.
The devaluing of black lives was highlighted most prominently by the heartbreaking death of Poussey Washington. If you tell me you didn’t cry then I won’t believe you because the reason it was so brutal to watch was because it was real. It didn’t matter that this was a drama show on Netflix because most of us have seen the videos or read the stories about people of colour being killed by the police. Poussey’s death wasn’t just the mirror of one (like Eric Garner, she was suffocated by law enforcement; like Sandra Bland, she died in prison and her death was met with a call to “Say her name”) but of the many people of colour killed each year by law enforcement officials who are supposed to be trusted with protecting lives, but are often a danger to black lives. There are so many more stories we will never hear about because they weren’t captured on camera and it’s especially horrifying to speculate on the number of similar cases taking place in prison, and so it was right that Orange tackled this.
Poussey’s death was a mirror of the many people of colour killed each year by law enforcement officials who are supposed to be trusted with protecting lives, but are often a danger to black lives. There are so many more stories we will never hear about because they weren’t captured on camera.
However, while Orange is the New Black managed to brilliantly defer to an issue that all too often has gone ignored I wouldn’t say it was handled in the best way and the show may find itself faced with accusations that it reverted to the ‘bury your gays’ trope, particularly in the wake of the uproar about Lexa that seems to have pushed fans too far.
At the end of season three, fans endured a year-long cliffhanger as to whether Vause would be killed in the greenhouse, and while she survived, many of the other characters at risk in this season were also queer. Suzanne was made by a guard to beat her ex-girlfriend Maureen which seemed for a while to have gone too far. Next up was Poussey’s life. They managed to save the white lesbian at the start of the season only to kill the lesbian of colour at the end. The Black Lives Matter movement represented a much needed story line but there were plenty of straight cis characters this issue could have been explored with. The roster of characters, while diverse compared to other shows, is still comprised by a majority of cis straight people, and yet once again it’s queer lives that are in the firing line.
The roster of characters, while diverse compared to other shows, is still comprised by a majority of cis straight people, and yet once again it’s queer lives that are in the firing line.
Poussey’s lesbian identity also seemed to be erased as soon as she died. Despite the fact that everyone in the cafeteria watched her death, her girlfriend was inexplicably absent even though she had been seen mere moments before. Her reaction was denied. In the season finale, clips of Soso were also sparse and she was only once mentioned by Poussey’s friends. While there was rightly the acknowledgement that black lives are more likely to be at risk, there was no acknowledgement of the oppression and violence that LGBTQ+ women of colour face. It seems Orange is the New Black was only capable on focusing on the one facet of Poussey’s identity which was hugely disappointing from a show that has led the way in acknowledging the intersections of identity since it first launched.
I describe Orange is the New Black as a far superior show than others when it comes to equality, but it still has work to do. Its intentions are clear but it’s still precariously balancing on the edge of falling into the dangerous bury your gays trope and erasing identities. It’s still groundbreaking on issues that other shows fear to even begin to include in their scripts but I can’t help but feel slightly wistful for more. They’ve delivered so superbly in the past and audiences don’t need to accept anything less than writing truly committed to telling the best and most relevant stories.
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