This latest season of Netflix’s hit original series, Orange is the New Black, may be the best since its first season. A lot more of the storylines work, the relationships between prison subgroups interact more dynamically, and there’s less of a reliance on flashbacks. In trying to balance out comedy and drama, the show manages to create a lot of engaging television, and it’s great to see. What’s interesting is that most of the issues with this season aren’t evident until you pull back from the screen. Putting the show in a broader context raises more issues with the show’s narrative. But with all things considered, this was a stellar season for Orange is the New Black.
One of the best things about season four is Piper becomes interesting again. She’s still entitled and out of her depth, but her role this season really grounds her character. Piper’s fall from being a panty-selling kingpin gives her a more interesting arc. Especially as Piper is meant to be the protagonist or most interesting character, it was great to see her become a better character.
For the characters that got screen time, their storylines held weight as well. Obviously, it’s hard for every character to get adequate screen time, with such a huge cast. But the majority of characters that were prevalent were compelling. Maria rises as a prison power player; Judy King is an interesting manipulator, and Nicky gives a great performance with the stereotypical TV-drug-struggle plotline. Some characters, like Daya and Suzanne “Crazy Eyes,” only get a couple moments of intrigue in the season, but they do well with what they get. TV personality Judy King was also a fun, new, comedic character, who helped bring many real-world racial issues to the forefront of the show.
Another important overarching story element was the new guards. Since the exit of Pornstache, no guards have been quite as antagonistic. That all changes this season, with the introduction of the sadistic army vet squad, led by the tyrannical Piscatella. The new guards fostering a more hate-fueled, hostile environment really pushes the season forward. The racial tensions and the influx of new prisoners makes for a speeding train, with the lives of many prisoners tied to the tracks. And without totally spoiling the ending, not every character survives, and the season finale ends on a major cliffhanger.
Unfortunately, while many characters got very compelling story arcs this season, not every story worked. For whatever reason, Orange is the New Black tries to make Healey and Coates sympathetic characters. Neither attempt works, and considering their past actions; it seems awfully misguided. Now that Daya’s not worrying as much about her baby, she essentially serves no purpose outside of bickering with her mother (until the final episode). Sophia’s struggle in solitary is only prevalent in bits and pieces across the season. Crazy Eyes being sidelined for Caputo seems foolish. If Orange is the New Black thinks it’s male characters are the most engaging, they’re dead wrong. Many characters get due diligence this season, but there’s still room for improvement.
Orange is the New Black also seems to struggle with how to incorporate flashbacks. At this point in time, they don’t serve a real necessary purpose. We have enough background info on most all our protagonists at this point. The flashbacks for Maria worked, because they informed her new role in the prison. The Crazy Eyes story was also very interesting. But the flashbacks for Bayley, Lolly, Maritza and Soso just retread character aspects we were already familiar with. And again, no spoilers, but the finale flashbacks served no real purpose, and cheapened the action in the present. The show has thankfully started to phase them out, but they should’ve fully committed.
Overall, what makes Orange is the New Black work is refocusing on the horrors of prison life. Piper pays the price for her actions, while the other inmates are harassed by the new prison staff. As a show from the mind of the real-world Piper, her being relevant matters. It’s difficult to give characters equal time with such a large cast. Orange is the New Black does so relatively well, but lets a few slip through the cracks. The show balances out the horrors of prison with important social issues wonderfully (read more here!). This season is likely one of the best, because of how much it goes into what prison really looks like. Orange is the New Black‘s new season brought the hammer down on its inmates – and nailed it.