Like the viewing experience of Orange Is the New Black season 4, the act of writing about and reviewing it was — is — difficult. It’s a discomfort that turns to horror with a sharpness and a ferocity. Therein lies a harsh reality that cuts deep — and unfortunately, does so deeper for some — but one we must face if we are ever to bring justice to those who need it most.
Disclaimers: 1) Spoilers for season 4 are ahead, and 2) I will not be giving this season a scaled, starred review, as it feels inappropriate to do so given the subject matter.
From the outset, the fourth season of the Netflix smash hit was evidently different from the binge-worthy installments that preceded it. Season 1 was across-the-board a booming success, a show teeming with talent and vivacity, a lot of dark comedy and cliffhanger endings that left me craving more. Ditto season 2! And hell, even season 3 still felt like the same Orange, just moving toward the even-grittier guts of the pasts, presents and futures of Litchfield’s inmates and staff.
Like some other fans of the show, I never really watched for Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Rather, I watched for those around her, the well-written and complex cast of female characters that were at once charming and witty, hilarious and humanly flawed. I watched for Taystee and for Cindy, for Flaca and for Maritza. For Suzanne Warren, for Sophia Burset. I watched for Poussey Washington.
I am not black. I cannot speak for black people — I am not qualified to do so, and I would never want to silence the voices that need to be heard, acknowledged and amplified. There is not anything I could say on these subjects that could not be said better by someone who is black. (In this particular scenario discussing OITNB, read Ashleigh Shackelford’s piece, “Orange Is the New Black is Trauma Porn Written for White People.”) And that — acknowledging that perspective and understanding when to speak and when to listen is so incredibly important — is something Orange failed to do in season 4.
Lolly (Lori Petty) and Alex (Laura Prepon) committing a kind of third-time’s-the-charm murder in the garden shed – one failed and one successful attempt, and then some corpse mutilation – was not anything I had expected to see. I’m all for twists and turns (look at me, I’m a massive Game of Thrones fan) but that? No ma’am. It was a jarring beginning, a glowing neon sign that seemed to flash, “This season will be different.”
And what that didn’t show me at first, it showed me later. Season 4 was a tornado of writing I couldn’t decide was lazy or insensitive or both, and trauma told from the perspective of people who have not been traumatized. For a series about people of color, the Orange writers’ room is blindingly white. Everything from the “race wars” ignited by Piper’s narcissism and false sense of superiority (in every sense of the word) to the ending about which we’d been receiving hints throughout the season but still didn’t see coming, to the “white lives matter” chants to the slurs to the victim shaming. It was all a hard pill to swallow, one that got lodged a few too many times.
As aforementioned, there were some moments I enjoyed throughout the season, like the return of Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) and her interactions with her “prison mom” Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), the exploration into Suzanne’s back story and hearing Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) tell stories in that Morello-y voice of hers. But those were not nearly enough to outweigh the bad. They didn’t even come close.
I don’t necessarily think this season had entirely evil or negative intentions. I think there was a kind of motivation to be progressive, to bring light to the horrors the black community unfairly faces each and every day, to say that black lives matter – but it didn’t land right. It didn’t really land at all actually, it felt more like a crash and burn after barely getting off the ground. Despite whatever intentions OITNB had going into and throughout season 4, the atmosphere of the show devolved into bleakness with each episode, finally into full-on despair. It became increasingly difficult to watch, and left me asking a question that goes beyond just the context of the series, “Where do we go from here?”
It took a healthy length of time to gather my thoughts about this season and the wrongs that took place, and really synthesize them. This is something that I recognize is, as a white woman, a privilege to be able to do considering the circumstances and the contexts about which I was, and still am, thinking. Unless there’s a massive, miraculous overhaul, I’ll likely not be watching season 5. That’s not a knock on the actors, as we’re all aware of how wildly talented they are (Samira Wiley, you’re my forever favorite), it’s one on the writers.
So I’ve had a bit of time to speak, but now it’s time to give space for growth, recovery and movement forward, to further educate myself and my peers. To listen.