There is something beautifully sad and rewarding about the final moments of Orange Is the New Black Season 3, in which inmates experience a brief moment of freedom, thanks to a perfect storm of inattentive construction workers and a complete breakdown of management at Litchfield. As they frolic in the lake, it’s the rare instance of unadulterated bliss in an environment where dreams—and sometimes, people—go to die, the rare instance in which all of the inmates forget about their cultural differences and conflicting allegiances within the walls of Litchfield, and are just able to be. That scene is rendered all the more potent by the final, ominous image of busloads of entirely new inmates descending upon the prison, unbeknownst to everyone else.
And yet, despite its powerful ending, Season 3 overall felt less than satisfying than previous seasons. The flashbacks, once an intriguing and ingenious storytelling mode used to flesh out the backgrounds of major characters, now read as rote and, at times, unnecessary exposition for lesser characters. (I find the silent, skittish Norma endearing as much as the next viewer, but I’m not sure I needed an entire episode of flashbacks linking her ascendant cult leader status in Litchfield to her ties with a cult before she entered.) The various will-they-or-won’t-they storylines—most notably, Piper and Alex—and the cyclical subplots involving dastardly officers taking sinister advantage of their authoritative roles came to feel repetitive, without most of the characters truly evolving in the process. (The big exception was Pennsatucky, whose reaction to her rape both in the past and at the hands of a corrections officer at Litchfield set a new standard for how television shows should deal with sexual assault.) Throw in the now unwieldy amount of new characters, and OITNB had lost the luster it once had—we’d come to know and love (or, in the case of Piper, love to hate) these characters, but after two seasons of deft and painstaking attention to detail in character development, where could these inmates—who, as Regina Spektor’s apt, if still grating, theme song pummels home, have nothing but time on their hands—go from here?
Season 4’s answer is to have all of the characters choose sides and turn against one another (again)—though this time, conflict takes the form of a full-on culture war. The first episode picks up right where the previous one left off. As most of the women frolic in the lake, Piper is too high on her new status as a panty-smuggling “gansta with an ‘a’,” to even notice. Alex realizes that her fears were valid, and her old mob boss has indeed sent someone to kill her. (She’s saved at the last minute by the mentally unstable Lolly—an action that has reverberating consequences for the rest of the season.) And it’s not long before the news of the women’s lake rendezvous reaches Caputo, and they’re put back in their place … alongside dozens of new inmates in an already crowded prison.
The influx of newbies leads to Latinos becoming the majority at Litchfield—a fact that, unsurprisingly, doesn’t sit well with unabashed racists like Leanne and Angie. In the second episode, the divide between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans is laid bare, through racist slurs (“cocolos”) and casual slinging of stereotypes. Elsewhere, Black Cindy, newly converted to Judaism, exchanges some harsh words with a Black Muslim in relation to each others’ chosen spiritual paths; and Poussey and Soso continue to explore their mutual attraction—though not without projecting some unsubstantiated notions onto each other. (Staunch social activist Soso wrongly assumes that Poussey grew up with a drug-addicted mother in the ghetto, an image she credits to having watched The Wire.)
Almost none of these exchanges is handled subtly—one episode ends with “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from Cabaret, and the dialogue often unravels in the form of uninformed opinions spewed out in ALL CAPS as though they were plucked from an online comments section. It can veer too closely to the didactic territory of Law & Order in its ripped-from-the-headlines execution, while sacrificing opportunities for more imaginative storytelling arcs. (This is particularly acute in the dramatic, devastating turn of events in the season’s penultimate episode, which feels, at once, inevitable, but also so derivative.) Yet even a slightly hollow OITNB is more enjoyable than many dramatizations that have tried to capture the circus that is currently American politics. Per usual, it’s rich with incredible performers who infuse those hokey moments with emotional heft—these are actors who can elevate even the loopiest of plotlines and dialogue. (Last season, it was the panty-smuggling, this season, it’s Taystee, Poussey, Black Cindy, and Janae plotting to sell photos of celebrity chef and new fellow inmate Judy King to tabloids from the inside.)
And there is some delight in witnessing Piper’s lame attempt to be the aggressive, bullying blowhard hell-bent on achieving power through any ridiculous tactic necessary, like another certain someone who is currently running for president. (She even inadvertently contributes to the resurgence of a white power mantra that hasn’t really thrived since Pennsatucky became a more learned and thoughtful character.)
By far the most fascinating character at the center of this season is Judy King, the sharp-tongued pseudo-progressive played with extraordinary complexity and a saucy Southern drawl by Blair Brown. Clearly modeled as a Martha Stewart–meets–Paula Deen type, Judy is a captivating conundrum: an “anything goes” free spirit who views herself as open-minded and caring to a fault—while also reveling in opportunism and manipulation to get what she wants. Among the new characters, she is the most fully fleshed out—Captain Piscatella, this season’s uber-villain, the Pornstache/Vee of the moment, is pretty terrible from beginning to end—and her underlying motives or prejudices sometimes creep up unexpectedly. She’s not all bad—she engages with the inmates cheerfully (if somewhat condescendingly) and her heart often really is in the right place, though first and foremost, it’s herself she cares about. Basically, she encapsulates perfectly so many white liberals who remain willfully oblivious as to any social issues that don’t directly affect them. She represents the blind spot in the country’s social progress.
This season is so focused on going deep on sociopolitical issues that a heavy pall hangs over the action, making the show feel even heftier than before—the consequences are greater, the fallout more dramatic. But one inherent risk with a series like OITNB is that eventually, the stakes will plateau—there are only so many situations in which the same characters, beloved as they are, can be seen as having nothing to lose before they fully lose our attention.