(Some spoilers for OITNB Season 4 throughout.)
Orange Is the New Black recently signed a deal with Netflix that will ensure that the show, currently in its fourth season, will air through at least its seventh. Multiseason renewals are not the norm in the TV business, for reasons habitual, financial, and cautious, all concerns Netflix prides itself on not having. Still, generally speaking, few shows make it to their seventh seasons with their mojo intact: TV, like most things best served fresh, gets stale. But nothing is a more promising sign for the future quality of Orange Is the New Black’s than its newest season, as good as any that it has aired, and good in ways that are fundamentally linked to our deep knowledge of its characters and setting and tone. This intimacy gives OINTB the cushion to treat provocative issues—rape, racism, prison violence, excessive force—in ways that are not just nuanced for scripted television, but nuanced full stop, nuanced compared to the news, social media, and public discourse. The season is an extended plea against snap judgments, against reducing tragedies to arguments. It could not be more timely.
OITNB picks up right where the last left off: The inmates of Litchfield women’s prison have all gone and jumped in a lake, on the other side of the prison fence. The fitfully well-meaning warden Caputo (Nick Sandow) calls in a riot squad from the nearby maximum-security prison to deal with the mass escape, and the new guards never leave, their escalating control and abuses of power constituting the season-long story arc. The guards are not all that is new about Litchfield, which, last season, became a for-profit prison. To goose the bottom line, the new owners double capacity. Beds become bunk beds, breakfast starts at 4 a.m., the shower line runs two hours long, and the social dynamics of Litchfield are thrown into chaos.
Litchfield has always been divided along racial lines. When Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) first arrived, this was the first lesson she learned: The inmates split themselves up by race and socialize accordingly. But the new influx of prisoners upsets the racial status quo. Overcrowding gives the Dominicans a demographic advantage, and they become the presiding power, breaking the Latina group into two parts: the Dominicans and everyone else. Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), who has long been an OITNB utility player, becomes a major character this season, just the latest demonstration of the show’s depth: every woman has a story, she’s just waiting for a chance to tell it.
Meanwhile, Piper, on a massive ego trip, imagines herself to be a kind of top dog, a delusion she hubristically and a little accidentally parlays into becoming head of the prison’s white supremacist clique, revitalized by new inmates after the prison’s former white supremacists—Doggett, formerly Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and her protégés—mellowed out. This leaves the not-white-supremacist white women and the black women more or less intact, but the former is dealing with a loose-lipped Lolly (Lori Petty), while the latter have to welcome Poussey’s (Samira Wiley) Asian girlfriend So-So (Kimiko Glenn) to their cafeteria table, as well as a Muslim woman, who immediately rankles the newly Jewish Cindy, until the two bond over the depravities of Scientology. Also new to prison: OITNB’s Martha Stewart doppelganger, Judy King (Blair Brown), who shows up to serve her time and is immediately given special treatment.
Orange Is the New Black tends to lead with comedy and build to tragedy. A joviality, an impish good spirit, is part of the series’ DNA. In its early episodes, particularly, the show is always fun to watch—sometimes too fun, given its setting, which is prison, not summer camp. Last season, the series’ weakest, led to a series of smaller-scale gut punches, but the good vibes were too abundant: The season ended with a euphoric group swim. The new season is better at mixing the comic, the tragic, and the tragicomic from the start. The first episode begins with an outsized, almost comedic death that is paired, at the end of the episode, with a quiet and devastating one, establishing a rhythm that will be repeated.
Take Piper’s opportunistic racism, which is played, at the start, in a grotesquely comic register. After starting a black-market lingerie ring last season, Piper thinks she’s a boss. Wanting to hang on to that power, she casts her lot with unapologetic racists. But Piper has made a mistake. She, incorrectly, believes that there is some distinction to be made between being a racist and behaving like a racist. (She is not the only American of voting age currently suffering from this delusion.) She’s wrong, and she is punished accordingly, in a bit of justice that instantly changes the storyline’s gonzo tone to drama. (There is a meta component to all of this: Piper was always OITNB’s “Trojan Horse,” the skinny, blonde, white girl who usually headlines a TV show and who eased audiences into a world full of women of all colors, sizes, shapes, and sexualities. Four seasons in, OITNB reveals both how little it needs to keep such a character “relatable,” while suggesting, with hindsight, that there have always been more “likable” women on the show.)
All the characters are allowed to contain multitudes, to be vile and well-meaning, self-involved and charming, understandable and alienating. Caputo, for example, has good intentions, but he has so much to do, and so many odious determinations to make, that his priorities eventually betray his ethics: Faced with unlimited bad choices, he makes some. Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez), Daya’s manipulative, irresponsible mother, is a cold and harsh woman, who, this season, is humanized by the fear and vulnerability she feels when she learns she might be released. And then there is Piper’s mirror image, Doggett, who began the show as a meth-addicted, Bible-thumping racist and, through a friendship with Litchfield’s butch lesbian Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), has become a much better person.
Last season, Doggett was repeatedly raped by Donuts (James McMenamin), a prison guard with whom she had struck up a friendship. She and Big Boo concocted a plan to drug and sodomize him with a broom, getting through the drugging part before deciding to put the broom down. Doggett begins this season traumatized, worrying that other women around Donuts are in danger. But slowly, she and Donuts come to a kind of rapprochement. He is a rapist and abuser. She really was raped and abused. And yet, despite these truths, they become friendly, drawn to each other, much to the chagrin of Big Boo, who remains righteously aggrieved. This is a situation that, on paper, is completely black and white, but Orange Is the New Black turns it gray, interested in the authenticity of its characters more than in political correctness.
Even more complicated is the season’s devastating climax, an eruption of tension between the prisoners and the guards. All season, the guards’ behavior toward the inmates escalates. One guard in particular reveals himself to be a creepy psychotic, degrading inmates in uniquely disturbing ways, unimpeded by his colleagues. But it is not this guard who commits the climactic tragedy, easily the most awful thing that has ever happened on this show. That moment arrives soon after the prisoners unite against the guards, in a feel-good plot point that turns horribly wrong, underscoring just how deeply Orange Is the New Black understands the stakes of its setting. This storyline speaks directly to so many of today’s most pressing issues: violence in prisons, violence against women, violence against black people, and the lack of consequence in all cases. Orange Is the New Black makes almost everyone involved in this incident, the perpetrator and the victim, and the people defending both, comprehensible. The show drafts our sympathies for characters it would be easier not to sympathize with at all. In the aftermath, what is right remains clear, but not simple.