Recurring Cast: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, Nick Sandow, Uzo Aduba, Brad William Henke, Lori Petty, Natasha Lyonne, Taryn Manning, Dascha Polanco, Blair Brown, Yael Stone, Selenis Leyva, Michael J. Harney, Alan Aisenberg and Kate Mulgrew
For just a moment, I thought Orange is the New Black had lost its touch. It hadn’t really done anything differently, keeping to the same formula that seems to be working out for it since the beginning. We are thrown into this prison environment, which is quickly turning out to be a place where the public is horrendously misinformed due to their own preconceptions or a sense of misplaced mythology. In this prison, we are shown the lives of several of the inmates and the story lets their characters do the talking, allowing their performances to breathe and shape the outcome of the season. However, maybe by the time we hit Season Four, this becomes too much. Someone made a brilliant argument that a lot of Orange is the New Black’s success comes from being forced to binge-watch this show. It is brilliant in a thirteen hour marathon, but would be harder to love if we were forced to tune in each week, as other shows make us do. Simply put, there are one too many episodes where we poke fun at characters with seemingly pointless dialogue segments made only to show off the characters we love, but nothing too consequential happens for the first half of this season. A lot of this comes down to the staggering cast list. It makes Game of Thrones look minimalist. Piper Chapman actually has enough to do this time around, but by now the show delights in making sure she is only the lead star on paper. There is much more fun to be had with Blair Brown’s celebrity in prison, Judy King, Lori Petty’s crazy conspiracy theorist and the return of Natasha Lyonne, my personal favourite character to the show. However, with so many characters, it is hard to shake the sensation that they are fighting for the spotlight and that the storyline is getting very overcrowded. A neat allegory for the prison in general.
However, these flaws break way to make room for some outstanding television. Orange is the New Black has always been strong on its social messages. For one, the very premise challenges our expectations of prisons. However, political statements run riot this season, as though the writers have decided to use their fan base to tell some controversial and important point of views on political subjects. The main one is the privatisation of the prison which continues from the last few seasons. Caputo always feels like a good man trapped in a monstrous beast (a point he makes himself in a later episode), trying to do the right thing, but bogged down by a very commercial system. There is the argument to be made that in a story about convicted felons, there is not one bad guy in this show, only a broken system that forces people to act out of fear, naivety or desperation. Staff at the prison have never set foot in an actual prison. Inmates are treated as livestock. It is sobering stuff, but vital for the public to understand. The other big topic of the season is gang-life. As the prison gets overcrowded, the inmates team up out of a misguided sense of safety. Piper, believing herself to be the Godfather after Season Three, unites the whites, accidentally creating a Neo-Nazi hate group (it seems off Nazis haven’t featured before and in a few episodes, they fit the show’s cast like a glove). The Puerto-Ricans escalate into a serious threat, determined to establish dominance first and in reacting in a way, begin the very descent they are trying to avoid. Even the guards feel like a gang in their own rights, which becomes the next key topic to make. After the break-out in Season Three, there is a major staff change which sees ex-army guards come to Litchfield, including the hulking Piscatella. They work as an unit, covering up the mistreatment of the inmates and accidentally escalating themselves into a monstrous unit of dictators, made all the more shocking as they believe themselves the model citizens. The guards have never been better. I never got the hype over Pornstache and Bayley feels like an imperfect replacement of Bennett, made all the more interesting as he never feels like he is capable of swooping in and saving the day like Bennett did. There is also the character of Judy King, where the show pokes fun at how the system treats celebrities. She is allowed everything she wants, treated like a VIP, yet she still feels like a suffering woman. It is another smart extension the show takes on. On top of social issues, I have to applaud Orange is the New Black on its own ethics of creating good jobs for female actors. Everyone is well-written, three-dimensional and a dream job for any working female actor. Even the extras are miles away from the usual casting of tall, beautiful models, usually cast in spite of them being devoid of any acting ability and sticking out like a sore thumb. It is a step in the right direction for not just TV, but film as a whole.
By the end of the season, you have not just been taken on an intelligent, fun journey but an emotionally hard-hitting one as well. The real joy of Orange is the New Black is our inability to realise what is coming until it does. Its characters both act naturally and unpredictably. This season sees the show build up a potential hero character only for them to break away and do the exact opposite. It is hard to tell whether Caputo is a hero, villain or inconsequential to each issue in the show. Does he have a positive effect on the events that happen this season or is he helpless on the side-lines, despite his position? Is he the real prisoner? There are several OMG moments throughout the season that shock the audience in a delightful way. There are so many little stories building up in the background it is impossible to predict where and how the true drama will come from. Both Episodes 11, 12 and 13 end in powerful ways, burning the show into your mind for the foreseeable future. A specific review will spoil the fun, but just remember this: you will not be disappointed.
Final Verdict: Orange is the New Black feels smarter and more shocking than ever, slow but nonetheless essential viewing.