Twists, turns, redemptions, falls from grace. Orange is the New Black is a show which genuinely has it all. As it’s weaved its wicked web, it’s become nothing short of essential viewing.
Proceed to season four with caution though; it’s going to get a little emotional up in here…
*Orange is the New Black spoilers coming up*
Perhaps more so than any other current television show, Orange is the New Black does a spectacular job of putting the characters you’d least expect in the greatest of moral dilemmas, unafraid of rocking the boat when it comes to its most beloved inmates. It’s these quandaries which breed unexpected moments, yet the show has a knack of making each surprise feel natural, as though it were fated. It has the confidence to allow the weight of the moral decisions the characters face to come to the fore, to carry the story and provide the emotional body blows. And it works so well because the show’s not afraid of doing the leg work in setting up these inmates as people who you have a real connection with, and then pushing them in unexpected directions.
The rug might be pulled from under your feet, but it never feels forced or trite.
It boils down to excellent writing and excellent performances. Four seasons worth of outstanding development of these characters, their relationships and what makes them tick means that it doesn’t have to do anything convoluted. It just simply has to ask “what if?”, and then lets the drama unfold.
What if sweet Dayanara (Dascha Polanco) picks up a loose gun and faces down a guard? What if Healy (Michael Harney) realises that he’s failed in his position of power? What if Piper (Taylor Schilling) finds herself aligned with Neo-Nazis? What if Caputo (Nick Sandow) has to announce the death of an inmate on national television?
That last one, the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), is the twist which has the greatest impact. The one which was necessary to drive the inmates to the brink of self-destruction. The one that tips the scales of balance and creates uncertainty in the prison. She’s the innocent party, uninvolved in all of the hate, violence and gang wars. A good person in a world where good people can’t get by. She’s punished for this, and we are punished for thinking she can be happy. Punished badly, in fact. It is quite possibly Orange is the New Black’s most heartbreaking moment to date, and it tees up one heck of a cliffhanger.
Yet it’s not just the questions which the writers ask of the characters that make it all so compelling. It’s those which they ask of themselves throughout the season. If you could go back in time, what moment would you go to? What would you change? These are the questions we see the inmates confronted by as they deal with the repercussions of the decisions they’ve made, and determine how these decisions will colour those they make in the present. It’s those questions which lead to Dayanara pointing a loaded gun at CO Humphrey as the season closes. Does she want to be the “good girl” anymore?
And it’s that same line of questioning which leads to Piper’s redemption after her turn to the dark side. In truth she’s marginalised this time around, which is fine by me as she’s always been one of the show’s more polarising elements. It takes half of the season, her reaching her lowest ebb and being branded with a swastika before she becomes humanised once more, but she gets there eventually. She becomes the latest in a long line of characters to undergo their redemption. Healy is more sympathetic now than ever before. As is Caputo. But it works both ways, with characters we’ve grown to love showing their tougher sides.
Season four’s Most Valuable Player though is Lolly. Her arc is simply wonderful, and the performance from Lori Petty is just perfect. The murder which she plays a role in of Vause’s (Laura Prepon) would-be killer in the opening episode is the catalyst for unrest between the prisoners and the guards. It’s the driving force for much of the tension which builds to a crescendo at the climax, and how she deals with it effects not just herself, but her fellow inmates and her counsellor. Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Caputo, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) all have great years, and the addition of Judy King (Blair Brown) and her antics with Luschek (Matt Peters) might bring some comic relief, but it’s Lolly’s arc which encapsulates the spirit of Orange is the New Black most accurately. It’s funny, gripping, and so, so heartbreaking. And that’s what this delightful, unpredictable show is all about.
Rating (out of 5):