More than most settings for a TV series, Orange Is the New Black’s Litchfield prison allows for many characters to come and go throughout the seasons. In OITNB’s case, they tend to come (in many ways), though few ever really leave. That leaves its already huge cast as one that’s ever-expanding, something the show doubled-down on when it doubled its prison population at the end of Season 3. To avoid Litchfield being shut down, Caputo (Nick Sandow) threw his lot in with a corporation that would run the prison as a profit private enterprise, which includes extreme budget cuts and an emphasis on government incentives and tax credits. It was also a smart way to provide the series with new correctional officers, new inmates, and a newly oppressive system — one that the minimum security lifestyle had not previously enforced much.
That fresh start is very much felt in Season 4, which picks up exactly where the previous season left off, just after the beautiful scene of the women swimming in the lake, which encapsulated the best parts of the show. It wasn’t about a prison break or escape or a long con full of twists — it was just about these women exploring something new, getting to show us new parts of their personalities, and ultimately, just having fun. And while Season 4 kicks off with a set of funny scenes, things quickly take a dark turn with a vicious act that highlights the show’s sometimes jarring combination of comedy and drama.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), who has always been the show’s uneasy protagonist. Though Piper’s story sets up the framework for the series, the reality is that she’s the least interesting character. That’s no fault of Schilling, who brings some particularly compelling moments to a character that can be hard to root for. Orange Is the New Black spends a lot of its emotional currency exploring the backstories of the inmates, and showcases circumstances of incarceration that often play into a cycle of letdown — by family, friends, and society. Piper’s story is vaguely comedic as the rich, white, blonde woman who got caught up in a scheme outside of her milieu, but it’s hard to make that feel desperate. Season 4 seeks to change that.
Season 3 began spending more time with the other inmates, but Piper’s plot involving her panty side business took up a lot of the show’s real estate later in the season, culminating in her sending Stella (Ruby Rose) to max — like a stone-cold boss. It raised Piper’s cache among the inmates, and gave her some shading that made her more interesting for viewers. But Season 4 makes the mistake of stripping all of that away fairly early on by showing Piper’s bumbling miscalculations in both running and holding on to her empire. It’s funny, and then tragic, like so much of Orange Is the New Black can be, and yet the balance never feels quite right.
That’s the wonderful and frustrating thing about OITNB. It adds a fun story like the advent of Litchfield’s most notable new inmate, Judy King (Blair Brown), a kind of Paula Deen type who charms the inmates and correctional officers. Unlike the hated Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), Judy brings a much more mellow and lighthearted vibe to the prison, bringing together the women at a time when they are deeply racially divided. But that’s the other, darker side of it — Season 3 saw the black inmates deciding to become more insular, and now the same thing is happening with the Latinas (and the Dominicans in particular). Tensions continue to rise among racial boundaries, culminating in some extreme moments.
These issues absolutely deserve exploration, but a silly subplot that creates a microcosm of Middle Eastern tensions between Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) who is now Jewish, and her bunkmate who is Muslim, doesn’t work as well. Orange Is the New Black doesn’t always handle these plots with the time or subtly they deserve, but sometimes something broader and bolder is called for, especially when it becomes exceptionally absurd. As an example, the prison runs out of sanitary pads for the women, because they are considered “non-essential” items. At a private prison convention, Caputo hurries past a display touting a one-time purchase and massive savings for women’s prisons by buying reusable menstrual cups instead of pads. Instead, he busies himself playing with laser guns, something Litchfield would never ever, need and couldn’t afford anyway.
Though for the most part Caputo does his best with Litchfield, he’s always been in over his head, and is eager to impress his new bosses with money saving ideas. It speaks to the larger themes in Orange Is the New Black, ones that are often addressed in the flashbacks (which are still hit or miss). Like Caputo, many of these women (though not all) were trying to get by, pleasing others, and getting themselves into trouble where the consequences were beyond what they were prepared for. Some of those mistakes follow them into prison, and (like with Piper) continue to define their ever-increasing mistakes.
Sometimes those mistakes play for laughs, and sometimes they are heartbreaking, like with the mental illness issues Lolly (Lori Petty) struggles with. In another particularly affecting subplot, Doggett (Taryn Manning) carries the weight of being raped by a correctional officer she thought actually cared about her. But where things take an even more unfortunate twist is when he confronts her about being cold towards him, and she uses the word rape to describe their encounter. Confused and horrified, he tells her, “but I said ‘I love you.’ That makes it different.” “But I don’t feel any different,” she says with her eyes downcast before she walks away slowly.
There’s a lot of focus on non-consensual sex, and how murky it can become when it’s traded as power, not just between male COs and female inmates, but in lesbian relationships and women dominating men. But plots disappear or are shoved aside from new stories without necessarily allowing the first ones to be explored the way they should be. The flashbacks in particular often give just a tease of a story without really filling in the right blanks or revealing anything we may not have already known or have guessed. Time management has never been the show’s strength, and the flashbacks can really put a spotlight on those woes.
And yet, spending any small amount of time again with Taystee (Danielle Brooks) who has a new office job with Caputo, or Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) as she wades through the waters of a doomed romance, or Lorna (Yael Stone) engaging her imaginary life with a real-live husband, feels like seeing old friends. Some may annoy you (like Kimiko Glenn’s Brook Soso), but they can also surprise you. Emotions come not from be plot-driven set pieces, but from the smallest character moments. What keeps the show compelling throughout rockier times is that it’s a kaleidoscope of characters and character moments, which cover a broad spectrum of personalities and feelings. A good show — comedy or drama — is one that draws you in and makes you want to keep spending time with its characters. Orange Is the New Black has always had that. The show isn’t just about Piper, and it’s not about any one woman. It’s just about women.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Orange Is the New Black premieres Friday, June 17th on Netflix.