Before you read anything I have to say about the new season of Orange is the New Black, you need to read this essay by Ashleigh Shackleford about all the ways the show abuses its Black characters for the sake of making its white audience feel better about themselves. I’m a white guy, and on this issue it’s imperative that you listen to the opinions of Black people before you worry about mine. If you stop reading here and just go check that other essay out, then that’s great; no hard feelings.
Also, obviously, I’m going to discuss spoilers.
I loved the third season of Orange is the New Black. The way it ended, with most of the inmates seizing an opportunity to spend an afternoon by the lake, was an incredibly joyful moment that capped off a season with a lot of engaging plots. The only thing overshadowing it was the arrival of a bunch of new inmates and the implication that Litchfield’s new management at MCC was going to bring with it a lot of problems. I expected that Season 4 would follow through with that narrative promise; it certainly did.
Like with the previous seasons, the first half of Season 4 leans heavily on comedy and setup for later serious dramatic plot lines. I found myself giggling almost incessantly through the first five or so episodes (when the show is aiming to be funny, it works incredibly well for me).
Then the mid-season turn happened where Piper forms a white power gang and persuades the guards that the Latinas, who have started a rival business to Piper’s own dirty panty operation, need to be targeted for closer scrutiny. It follows in the show’s grand tradition of Piper doing stuff without fully comprehending the consequences of her actions; the only difference here is that she lights the fuse on a race war within Litchfield and sways the (all white) guards to favor a particular side. This is serious stuff, and while Piper gets punished brutally for it (Maria Ruiz, the leader of the Latina gang, jumps Piper and brands a swastika on her arm), the narrative arc flows so that Piper immediately finds forgiveness among her white peers who modify the brand, covering up Piper’s complicity in exacerbating racial tensions in Litchfield. Her character arc for the remainder of the season is concerned with her trying to redeem herself by not being so self-absorbed (while Piper’s self-absorption is part of the problem, the core of it is that she used white supremacist power structures to try to give herself a business advantage). Piper’s objectively a terrible person, and the show spends too much time trying to make her sympathetic when it’s not being comedic.
Piper’s only a small part of the show’s problem though. This season is packed to the gills with shoutouts and echoes of many of the recent events that have built up steam for the Black Lives Matter movement. The two that are most obvious are the episode between Linda from Purchasing and Crystal Burset and the death of Poussey Washington. In episode 8, Crystal Burset, whose wife Sophia was put in solitary the previous season as a “protective measure” because of her continued harassment by other inmates for being trans, goes to Joe Caputo’s house in the evening to demand information on Sophia’s status (MCC has publicly denied that Sophia is in solitary at this point, but won’t give any information about where she is in the system). While Caputo is trying to persuade Crystal to go away (Caputo’s great flaw is that he refuses to acknowledge that he’s a villain; he might be a sympathetic one at times, but at every turn he makes the morally wrong decision to preserve his own career), his girlfriend Linda from Purchasing loses her patience and emerges from his house with a handgun pointed at Crystal.
This was the first point in the season where I felt deeply uncomfortable with what was going on. Following the Pulse shooting, Americans are naturally more sensitive to the issue of gun violence than normal, and seeing Linda from Purchasing aiming a gun at a Black woman who was peacefully trying to help her wife while declaring that she’d be within her rights to open fire because Crystal is trespassing on private property put me on edge in a way that a lot of the previous horrors of the season hadn’t. The whole scene is probably supposed to be reminiscent of the Trayvon Martin shooting, and that’s exploitative enough, but using the threat of gun violence to underline how evil Linda from Purchasing is (as if this weren’t obvious from her very first appearance onward) is gross. Of course, the imminent threat of death to one Black character is bad enough, even if the situation resolves peacefully, but it also foreshadows the major turn of the season, Poussey’s death.
I think it’s safe to say that Poussey is one of the least morally complicated characters on the show. She’s in prison for a nonviolent offense, she tends to stay out of the larger prison intrigues (or actively works against them, in the case of the Vee plot from Season 2), and her personal story lines tend to be more based in relationship drama than anything. This all makes her extremely likeable. Where it’s easy to point out flaws in many of the other major characters that make it hard to fully support them, Poussey doesn’t have the same kind of baggage. From a narrative perspective, this makes her a valuable character to employ as collateral damage in the culmination of the main plot of the season. Most of the audience will be invested in her as a character, and they’ll be sad when she’s killed off.
The problem is that this narrative move is hugely exploitative when you factor in Poussey’s identity as a Black queer woman. Her plot for the season revolves around her budding romance with Soso, which is a remarkably lighthearted one in an otherwise incredibly dark season. So many of Poussey and Soso’s scenes together are unambiguously happy in a series where many comedic moments turn dramatic with little or no warning; it gives this sense that something terrible is eventually going to happen, and then it follows through with that. Poussey’s death here falls in the tradition of the Queer Tragedy, which was often used in more homophobic times as a way to include queer characters in stories but with the implicit assumption that being queer would inevitably lead to ruin; an LGBTQ character who got to live happily was an anomaly and potentially scandalous. Compounding that tired trope is the fact that Poussey is Black, and removed from the primary conflict among the guards, Latinas, and white power gang, and her death comes without warning or narrative necessity to heighten the audience’s sadness that things have gone so wrong in Litchfield. It’s the literal breaking of a Black body for the catharsis of a white audience. Let’s not even get into the respectability politics of choosing to kill the educated, affluent Black woman over someone with a more complicated background.
Even the way the show handles Baxter Bayley, the guard who kills Poussey, is problematic. He gets an episode exploring his backstory so that we might feel some sympathy for him because he’s a young white guy who made a mistake (that’s not a narrative we’ve heard in the news recently). In the aftermath of Poussey’s death, the show points out that her friends don’t need to hear from her killer regardless of how awful he feels, but it doesn’t give the audience the same consideration. I don’t care that Bayley feels terrible; he’s a coward throughout the season who is complicit in the terrible treatment the inmates receive. The less time spent trying to make this character sympathetic the better. Anything else is just exploitative.