“Orange is the New Black’s” Fourth Season Leaves Room to Think

by Anika Hashem

All episodes of the highly anticipated fourth season of “Orange is the New Black” came to Netflix this June, bringing back the superb acting, skillful storytelling, and heart-pumping drama that has come to be expected of the show. Within the confines of 13 episodes, Season 4 was able to deliver a layered narrative up to par with, if not better than, those present in previous seasons. It included the same lighter, more comedic aspects that gave Season 1 its edgy humor.

Anyone who found themselves enthralled with the character dynamics, carefully crafted backstories, and tremendous performances that made the previous seasons of “Orange is the New Black” a success, would be just as impressed with the fourth installment.

This season went in new directions, bringing in aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement, incorporating racial dynamics that raise stakes between inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary. One of the central characters, Piper Chapman, finds herself accidentally stirring up white supremacists within the prison.

While there is an obvious seriousness surrounding this and how potentially dangerous it is for the inmates of color, the nature of Piper’s unlikely involvement provides a layer of comic relief to lighten the tension it creates. Furthermore, this storyline gives the women of color at Litchfield a chance to express their experiences with issues that had only ever been touched on before.

This series of events also contributes to a stronger foundation for the heated finale.

The idea of a prison riot was on the horizon for much of the season, often in response to the prison staff’s increasingly questionable practices of. The prison was privatized at the end of Season 3, and the following series of changes dramatically decreased the inmates’ quality of life.

Along with this season’s discussion of racial conflict, the critique of the private prison system became part of this season’s social commentary. This not only served to encourage a critical look at a flawed justice system, but also allowed for dynamic character development among the prison staff, especially that of the commissioner, Joe Caputo. Because of his position of power at Litchfield, Caputo faced challenges that created ethical conflicts for the audience to ponder alongside this pivotal character.

The closing episodes of Season 4 became engulfed in tragedy when the prison finally erupted in a riot, and, in the chaos, a correctional officer accidentally suffocated a young black inmate. While the lack of intention was clear, and the CO in question is often referred to as “one of the good ones” due to his consistent respect for the inmates, the inmate died because of his negligence and lack of training.

We struggle with the characters as they face the tragedy, unclear about who’s to blame. The situation at least partially addresses the real-life concerns of dealing with malpractice at the hands of officers in the justice department.

However, the show does not address the brutality and racial profiling that dominates debate on this issue. In addition, many activists are outraged because they feel that this inmate’s death wasn’t necessary, and that the show (whose writers are mainly white) was exploiting “black death” for shock value.

That said, the inmate’s death is more than just gratuitous tragedy. It leaves us with grey areas to contemplate.

The interpersonal and internal conflicts that try nearly every major character were key in creating tension at Litchfield Penitentiary. The underlying conflict between the inmates and the prison personnel was ever-present, making the divisions within the prison population second to the systemic flaw that dominated much of the inmates’ strife.

This was addressed by the idea of a “common enemy.” It seemed that the inmates were on the cusp of a riot for the majority of the season. Having to deal with constant abuse and inhumane treatment diminished the occasional confrontation between inmates. All the inmates needed was a final straw, which made its entrance during the penultimate episode.

Inevitably, the tension that mounted throughout the season was released, leaving us with a lot to absorb in anticipation for Season 5.

Themes that found their ways into the forefront of Season 4 are undoubtedly going to appear in Season 5. How these topics are integrated into the possible resolution of the conflicts that close Season 4 is dependent on the characters that approach them.

The format of “Orange is the New Black” facilitates our understanding of how varied perspectives can be, as no one character is the protagonist. Furthermore, as Season 4 proved, flashbacks have a remarkable ability to sway our opinions and impressions of the characters at Litchfield. As we look back at how and why the characters ended up at Litchfield, the more relatable they become.

No matter what direction “Orange is the New Black” decides to take with the socially conscious material, it will certainly not be one-sided. Giving us a full scope of perspectives is part of what makes the storytelling in “Orange is the New Black” so effective.

Season 4 of “Orange is the New Black” triumphs in toying with our emotions, our relationships with the characters, and our understanding of what is true about Litchfield and those who reside there. There is nothing black and white about what happens within the prison walls.

Because of its striking finale, Season 5 could spin in any direction, bringing intense grief or overwhelming satisfaction to the viewers. Most likely, it will bring both, as “Orange is the New Black” won’t settle for simplicity. It is the complexity in every storyline that makes this show such a standout on the Netflix platform.

The chaos that marked the cliffhanger ending of Season 4 will inevitably come into play early in Season 5. But, as striking as the finale may have been, viewers will carry the softer, more tender moments of Season 4 equally close in anticipation of what comes next.

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