What a riot!
Welcome to a jam-packed long weekend at Litchfield Penitentiary. Things are about to get messy. Prison guard Bayley’s killing of Poussey (Samira Wiley) at the end of Season Four has awoken her fellow inmates, stirring them into revolt against those that watch over them and the system that has repressed them, starving them of food, healthcare and education. The same system that tries to brush the death of Poussey under the table. And they have the upper hand. A gun, and hostages; those that once guarded the ladies of Litchfield have themselves become the prisoners, and with them under their watch, the women take control of the lockup.
What they fight for is threefold. A proper chance at rehabilitation, a sustainable quality of life, and justice for their fallen friend. Or, fourfold, if you include the Cheetos that they list in their demands. Leading the charge is Poussey’s closest companion, Taystee (Danielle Brooks). This is her season, and Brooks leads the line fantastically. With Taystee moving to the forefront, she drives the core of the story arc with charisma, charm, and powerful drama aplenty. She sure can deliver one hell of a rallying speech. And though she becomes a strong leader, capable of bringing positive change to the system which has shackled her and her peers, she becomes blinded by her unbending need to reveal the truth of Poussey’s death. But is justice for the dead worth more than an improvement to the lives of the living that are left behind? What Orange is the New Black does so effectively is to examine these shades of right and wrong, good and bad. Nothing is black and white, and the right thing isn’t always the right thing.
And these dilemmas apply to many of the best throughlines. Alan Aisenberg’s non-villain CO Bayley is racked with despair over his tragic error, wanting to face up to his actions, yet incapable of doing so, either as a result of his family, his employers, or his own choices. Brad William Henke’s Piscatella (the season’s big bad) has himself faced tragedy at the hands of the prison system, but can this justify his stalking through the halls of Litchfield like a hulking horror movie monster? Which, incidentally, is one of the season’s finest (and scariest) moments.
The change in the status quo takes a little while to flourish, but once it does, it opens up an array of new dynamics. The antics of the once goofy meth heads become tormentful and terrifying when they find themselves suddenly empowered. Vice versa, the despicable neo-Nazis are somehow (and somewhat) humanised. Boo (Lea DeLaria) finds love in all the wrong places, and Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) struggles without clear rules and routines (all the while continuing to steal every scene she’s in). Piper (Taylor Schilling) meanwhile is largely given a back seat, deprived of focus until the penultimate episode. It allows her a path to redemption after years of growing increasingly insufferable, and room for others to grow into her space.
One or two of the inmates are underserved or go missing on occasion, however, nine times out of ten the way in which the show balances its ensemble is mighty impressive. Almost as impressive as how convincingly it pushes expectations of its characters, and how deeply it delves into issues of women’s rights, sexuality, the rights of prisoners, family, friendship and motherhood.
It really is a beautiful thing.
Rating (out of 5):
Orange is the New Black: Season Three Review.
Orange is the New Black: Season Four Review
Buy Orange is the New Black: Seasons One – Four on Amazon.