Some Thoughts on Season 4 of Orange Is The New Black

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Well that was a pleasant surprise.

This weekend I was able to binge watch the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black, a show that I’ve always enjoyed but that I worried might be running out of steam. The previous season wasn’t bad, but I thought it kind of meandered and was a bit unfocused. These are characters that I always enjoy spending time with, but I was beginning to think that perhaps their stories had mostly been told. However, the new season that dropped on Friday showed that the show can still bounce back and telling compelling an interesting stories. Season 4 starts off a little rocky, but then it really pulls itself together and delivers perhaps the darkest season to date. The show has quietly been laying the groundwork for a lot of things that finally paid off this season and while there is still humor, the show has steered more into the drama side of things, to the overall betterment of the series. I watched every episode in 48 hours not because I just felt obligated to get it done, but because I was invested in what was going to happen next. I felt more uncomfortable and upset watching this season than any other season in the past, but that’s exactly what made it perhaps the best season of the series.

Season 4 picks up immediately after the events of the season 3 finale: Litchfield Prison has been privatized, leading to massive turnover with the guards and a sudden influx of new prisoners which leads to overcrowding. Both the administration and the prisoners struggle to adjust to this new world order – Caputo (Nick Sandow) is now the warden and though he means well he is little match for the corporate infrastructure of the new prison administrators or the harsh new guards led by Piscatella (Brad William Henke). With the prisoners, the arrival of so many new faces has shifted power to the Latinas, who are now the largest ethnic block. This greatly empowers Maria (Jessica Pimentel) and leaves others like Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Piper (Taylor Schilling) to scramble to keep the power that they have been able to amass in the past. The divisions between the prisoners become even more pronounced and a general unrest sweeps over Litchfield. The arrival of celebrity prisoner Judy King (Blair Brown) also is a chaotic presence, as she is granted special privileges in order to keep her happy and minimize lawsuits. With power up for grabs, the world of Litchfield becomes bleaker and darker – especially when exploring the new relationship between the prisoners and the guards. When those two entities come into conflict, the results are violent and deadly.

Because the series has devoted so much time to these characters over the past three seasons, the reliance on flashbacks are minimized. They are still employed occasionally and provide helpful backstory for some of the characters – we finally find out what landed Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) in prison – but they are no longer the driving force of the storytelling. Piper’s role has also been minimized, to the betterment of the series. She was a useful entry point to this world in season one, but she’s among the most boring of the characters on the series and time is wisely spent with other characters. She still has a role to play, but I’m glad that it’s transitioned to be more supporting. A little Piper goes a long way.

The fourth season of Orange Is The New Black also focuses more on mental health than any of the previous seasons. “Crazy Eyes” has served as comic relief for much of the series, but the addition of Lolly (Lori Petty) last season has forced the show to take a more in-depth look at what it is like for the mentally ill in prison and the limitations of what can be adequately dealt with. The show also explores inmates dealing with the aftermath of rape, Morello (Yael Stone) repeating the behavior that landed her in prison as well as Mr. Healy’s (Michael Harney) dealing with his own psychological baggage, which helps explain some of his past behavior. It’s all heartbreaking and very sad, but it also a reality of prison that I’m glad that the series spent more time addressing.

I don’t want to scare you off by emphasizing that the show goes to some much darker places this season; there are still moments of happiness and humor in the show, which are needed to help break the tension. I laughed out loud on numerous occasions, perhaps because I was primed to need a comedic release. There is still some silliness, especially when you get Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) just talking about life and pop culture. Bus as someone who likes when series and movies are “dark and twisty,” I definitely appreciated Orange Is The New Black’s turn toward the dark side.

The fourth season of Orange Is The New Black might be the most difficult to watch (and don’t Google anything about it as I’ve avoided a pretty huge spoiler), but it is also the most satisfying of the series. When the finale was over, I didn’t feel exhausted from my marathon viewing but was rather disappointed that there wasn’t more to watch. I’m already looking forward to the fifth season, as there are some pretty big issues that still need to be resolved. Litchfield is still a powder keg and I want to see if it will finally explode. Now that the viewer understands the dynamics of Litchfield and knows the characters so well, Orange Is The New Black was able to take the series to the next level. If the 4th season is any indication of what’s to come, I’m very optimistic for future seasons.

Orange Is The New Black is currently streaming on Netflix.

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