I wasn’t the biggest fan of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK when it first debuted on Netflix. To me, it was simply a show featuring a privileged white woman navigating prison life while trying to understand her relationship with the ex-girlfriend. And that annoying guy from AMERICAN PIE played her husband. However, the past two seasons were beginning to shed light on issues that really need attention in our polarized society. The writers started to flesh out the lives of other characters besides Piper Chapman and deeply examine the corporatization of prisons in the United States.
But Season Four just dropped all the balls as the writers attempted to juggle too many conflicts at once, badly mishandling sensitive topics for the sake of shock value. The show has fallen into the same trap in which so many other stories on television have plunged. Mainstream America gets a kick off of the horrifying conclusion to the season, but those who have experienced real trauma only find that their feelings have been exploited by entertainers.
Important societal issues surface in the first half of the season: race relations, stop and frisk, prison overcrowding, tribalism, and rape. The characters develop in promising directions that prompt us to think about their roles. Due to her new job, Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) has the opportunity to influence Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), the new warden and “Director of Human Activity.” Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) reflects on what is means to be Dominican and tries to unite her fellow Latinas. Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), the most complex character of the show, has a new relationship with Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), one of the few Asian prisoners. It is a bond in which we see so many barriers fall. Black and brown characters are reclaiming space, getting a chance to voice their frustrations, and finding opportunities to do something about them. Furthermore, Piper (Taylor Schilling), is beginning to realize that she has to be more responsible with her words and actions. She is also understanding that race does matter even though we don’t want it to. Rape, an act of violence that is commonly overused in television, is deconstructed through conversations between Tiffany Dogget (Taryn Manning) and Carrie “Boo” Black (Lea DeLaria) rather than simply being exploited as a device. But that conversation, like all the other plot lines, goes sour.
The season begins to unravel quickly after Ruiz and her “gang” brand a swastika on Piper’s arm after she unwittingly starts a white supremacy group. While it was certainly gut-wrenching watching Schilling scream as hot metal burns her skin, I couldn’t help but wonder: what was the point? Nothing was gained by the audience. No lessons are learned either in this fictional world. Ruiz is now perceived by the world to be ruthlessly cold and Piper simply ends up spending the following two episodes crying on Alex’s shoulder, wishing that she would’ve been a better friend. She doesn’t learn shit about race. From that point on, all the characters for whom we were rooting become terrible, pathetic people who make all the wrong decisions. While all characters don’t need to be lovable and heroic, what happens is insane and insensitive. Dogget ends up falling in love with her rapist who is apologetic and wants forgiveness. Caputo, who spends the entire season reflecting on his role as a leader in a corrupt system, ends up screwing over all the women he has been trying to protect. If those were shots in the leg, here’s when that leg gets amputated…
Poussey is killed… not by one of the racist, psychotic guards but by a naïve, well-meaning guard – and you have to be kidding me -- on accident. What kind of messaging is this? Especially in an era in which we’ve seen the deaths of so many young black people in the hands of white cops. The young white guard, named Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenburg), doesn’t even realize that he is suffocating Poussey as he is trying to get Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba) off his back. And it’s pretty clear that the writers portray Bayley as being unintentional in his actions. While we want justice brought against the other asshole guards who are clearly abusing their positions of power, we are now forced to feel for this young man who has had such an insignificant part in this show. He is suddenly boosted into the spotlight. This is NOT the right message in a time when there are so many authority figures who have intentionally abused and murdered black lives, using “self-defense” and “on accident” as an excuse. No justice has been witnessed in actual society and this “ground-breaking” show is not providing it either. Right now, people of color in the United States are angry and they want to see abusive people brought down. What they don’t want to do is to spend time figuring out how to feel about a young white boy who didn’t mean to do anything harmful.
And so we are robbed of the chance to even ponder our feelings for Poussey’s story -- her prospects in life, her relationship with Soso, her complex identity. We don’t get to continue these discussions because she’s DEAD. She’s not part of the equation anymore and the show will move on with Bayley’s story. Poussey served as the bridge between so many different cultures. She defied stereotypes and inspired others to rise above their challenges. In the most disgusting manner, her body was left on the floor of the dining hall for hours similar to Michael Brown’s body, which lay for four hours on the hot pavement after his death. While people need to be reminded of these tragedies, it is irresponsible to show such disrespect to a body while providing no way out of the grief. The writers didn’t give viewers any path toward hope, which is a demoralizing message to those fighting for justice and equity.
Maybe the show will redeem itself in the next season although it’s really hard to see how they are going to write their way out of this mess. In case you’re wondering, I’ll be watching the next season. I’m not the type to dump something that is still developing, especially when I know that the creators, writers, and actors on the show are empathetic people who really do want to make a difference. This is not to excuse their misguided ideas. Let’s just hope that they spend time examining their choices and listening to the critiques of their botched creation.