Watch Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black along with us: leave your comments below for Episodes 11 to 13, all spoilers welcome. Not caught up with Season 4? Read our spoiler-free review of the first four episodes here – or our spoiler-filled thoughts on Episodes 5 and 6, and Episodes 7 to 10.
(Warning: The below contains spoilers.)
Halfway through the finale of Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season, we watch as time machine in the Litchfield laundry is destroyed. It’s a bizarrely sad sight, seeing some cardboard boxes and sticky tape being torn up, but it’s an important symbol for the whole season – a sanctuary for vulnerable people being removed, and a reminder that it’s impossible for these ladies to go back in time. Prison changes everyone, possibly irreversibly.
“The animals, the animals…” sings the theme tune, which gives Episode 12 its title, but what turned the women trapped in these cells into animals? We wonder whether Morello (Yael Stone), who has descended into familiar rambling, possessive attacks at her husband by the close of Season 4, has always been like this. We look on as Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) has been pushed down from a strong, fiery woman to a broken, quiet prisoner.
We’ve seen the effect upon guards, as well as the inmates, as the show has refused to simplify or easily explain the nasty abuse of Doggett by Coates, who still seems as shocked by his behaviour as she is. Even Kubra’s henchman, who posed as a guard to infiltrate and kill Alex, was a likeable person before becoming plant food, with Vause (Laura Prepon) revealing that they’d had drinks together, that he has a family, just like everyone else. Should they come clean about his identity, so that his relatives and friends know what happened?
The biggest change that can’t be reversed, though, is the event that hangs over all three of these final episodes: the death of Poussey (Samira Wiley). It’s a horrible, gut-wrenching climax, one that deserves to be watched, as with the rest of the show, without rushing – if Episode 5 and 6 of Season 4 were a perfect, powerful double-bill to watch in a single sitting, this moving trilogy of chapters is even more so.
After crushing her to death in the chaos of a prison protest, young guard Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) has a heart-to-heart with Coates in the chapel. Has Coates been changed by his time as a guard? Coates says no, he’s never been tempted or changed. We know, of course, that it’s a lie.
Caputo, who tries to take control back of his prison, is all too aware of the corrupting effect prison has, effectively ordering Bayley to resign. If not, he warns he’ll become a Godzilla-like monster “stumbling around crushing cities”. Is Caputo the monster or the city, asks Bayley? Both, comes the grimacing reply.
But the scary thing about these final instalments is that some of these guards were already not very nice people. Humphrey and his mouse-related torture warned us of that. Piscatella, who once seemed amusing, with his brash, no-nonsense attitude (brilliantly played by Brad William Henke), goes into overdrive in response to the dead “guard” found in the garden. Caputo tells the boys (and girls) in blue to wait for the FBI to arrive and investigate, but they go ahead with their own investigations.
Season 3, which, again, feels more pointed now than it ever has, despite people at the time criticising its lack of direction, sowed the seeds for the series’ big question of reform versus retribution, of compassion versus cruelty. The dichotomy has been there since Episode 1, in characters such as Caputo and Healy, in creator Jenji Kohan’s concerted effort to show us prison from everyone’s perspective, but Season 4 has crystallised it into an urgent, pertinent and gripping question: why has the criminal justice system gone so wrong?
Poussey’s death is, perhaps, even more shocking because the guards hired by MCC (as a tax break) are already traumatised by war – one system feeding into another system and twisting them both out of shape. The officers, therefore, use horrible tactics learned in warfare, such as sleep deprivation (poor Red) or making them stand in a fixed position. Humphrey then goes another step further by forcing Suzanne and Kukudio to have a gladiator-like match. (Go to Google and type in any of these things and you’ll find incidents where such things have actually happened in recent years.)
Never one to shy away from adding emotional depth to brutal acts, Orange also takes us back into Crazy Eyes’ history, as we see her childlike enthusiasm for playing with toys and connecting with people (she’s overjoyed to be Employee of the Month at her local supermarket) lead to a tragic death of a young boy – and an equally tragic arrest for the misunderstood woman. Similarly, we also follow Lolly’s continuing story, as Alex convinces her that what happened in the shed wasn’t a hallucination and that she was responsible for the death of Kubra’s henchman – survival, after all, is survival, Piper reassures her. Healy, as a result, walks Lolly down to the psych ward, in one of the most moving (almost silent) montages of the show to date. Suzanne and Lolly are not just placed in this system; they’re exploited by it. Both performances would have anyone in tears.
Episode 12 is when Orange really hits your heartstrings, as the prison enters full-on lockdown. Caputo, after Bayley tells him of Suzanne’s fight – again, a reminder that Bayley is one of the good ones – stands up for what’s right, demanding no more cowboy stuff, but the guards stand right back up to him and revolt. Even with his promotion, Nick Sandow has been beaten by the system too – one brief confessional with Figueroa gives us a retrospective appreciation of the position she was in during the show’s early seasons.
Healy has, as well, and Michael Harney’s performance has been getting better and better through Season 4, gradually moving from the calm (if not all that likeable) counsellor to a complete wreck. He begins a dejected walk into the sea in the middle of the Litchfield crisis, only to be dragged back to the prison by his urge to help the women there – the same sense of duty felt by Caputo. It doesn’t do either of them any favours, though, let alone the inmates; Healy winds up committing himself into a psychiatric institute, a dark parallel to Lolly’s muted farewell.
(Luschek, on the other hand, is the only guard who seems largely unaffected by his job, as a drug-induced threesome with Yoga Jones and Judy shows. “For your ages, you’re both beautiful women,” he declares, blearily – a much-needed moment of light relief amid the gloom.)
Hope hobblers on the horizon, as the prison begins to unite against both Humps and Piscatella; a hushed meeting in the library sees Hapakuka, Red, Ruiz and more plan a ceasefire and protest. But should it be peaceful or should they just poison the guards in the cafeteria?
“If you were gonna rank our hate, you guys are here, and Humps is here,” says Leanne, making peace and seeming to find her views changing as a result. “Some of them seemed pretty nice,” she later tells her clan of racists over lunch, before adding hastily, after seeing their expressions: “For a bunch of mud bunnies and spics.”
That renewed sense of Them and Us is reinforced by Piscatella’s blinkered view. He sees all of the inmates as the same, but not in an empowering way; he sees them as equally worthless. “Everyone around here forgot the only thing that mattered. You’re criminals. You deserve nothing,” he spits. Linda, who, we learn, has never stepped foot in a prison, no doubt agrees with him. (Compare that to Bayley, who, in flashback, throws an egg at Frieda, as the inmates are on litter-picking duty in public – only for her to rebuke him for not viewing them as people. You can bet he thinks of them that way now.)
The strengthening bonds between the women are evident, too, in Gloria helping Sophia to become herself again, kicking out Daya and the others from the salon, so they can get her wig back in place. Taystee gets to drop in some laughs, as tensions escalate. (“Why all of a sudden do you bitches wanna murder folk? It’s like it’s a new fall trend.”)
There is even hope in the corridors of power, as we see MCC begin to investigate the mysterious “guard”, who, it turns out, has a dodgy collection of social security numbers, but still wasn’t picked up by Caputo and co. for being a paid-up assassin.
But all that hope, all that inspiring group strength demonstrated in the way all the women stand up on the canteen tables, is crushed, literally, with the death of Poussey.
It’s the most shattering thing to happen in a consistently shattering season. After all, Poussey was only locked up for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. That was it. She’s far from the worst convict in there – and her death isn’t even intentional.
Directed by Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner, the close-up of her face as she can’t breathe is traumatic to witness, the show cutting between that and brief glimpses of her body pinned to the ground from the other side of the room, through the thriving crowd. The result seems meaningless, unexpected and unfair – as both a character and a showcase for Samira Wiley, Poussey is taken from the programme far too soon.
The sheer weight of that moment is evident in the way that Orange Is the New Black takes a leaf from Game of Thrones’ book – delivering its big blow in the penultimate episode, so that we have an hour to process what’s just happened.
MCC certainly take their time, as the corporate suits try to figure out how to spin it for the media and who to pin as their scapegoat (in short: blame Bayley and paint him as an unbalanced psycho). All the while, they just leave Poussey’s body there in the canteen, the very epitome of viewing her as an object, not a human being. It’s credit to Caputo that he balks at this and goes off-script when the press conference does happen, pointing a finger at MCC, rather than join in their tactics.
The inmates, meanwhile, are doing their own mourning in typically diverse ways. Suzanne is piling herself under books like a child, trying to understand what it’s like not to be able to breathe – a subtle nod, too, to the fact that Poussey was so well-read. Taystee, on the other hand, is trying to stay active and useful. There are moments of happiness, such as when Abdullah reveals the bright red hair under her veil (“Little red riding head!” cries Cindy), but those moments feel genuine, rather than uneven; OITNB has always understood that you need the light to contrast with the dark. The most tender scene of all sees Norma break her silence to sing to the devastated Soso – an act of quiet beauty and sadness.
Poussey’s death ripples across all the circles of the prison population, with even the drinking of her hooch by the meth-heads coming across as a weird kind of memorial tribute.
Most of all, though, we, the audience, are grieving – and, in a strange act of meta-compassion, the show gives us time for it, devoting most of Episode 13 to a flashback entirely about Poussey. It’s the first flashback they’ve given to a dead person, something that makes it all the more effective, as we see her on a night out, relaxed, happy, enjoying herself. One interaction with a bunch of improv monks is pure joy. Joy that, we know all too well, will soon end abruptly – the gorgeous, vibrant visuals are shot through with that melancholic knowledge.
Part of the way through, she passes Bayley on the street, gently reminding us that these two were, before Litchfield, a couple of happy, innocent kids. But the odds are stacked against Poussey – when Bayley gets busted for pot, he’s let out by the police officers on the basis of it being a harmless misdemeanour. She gets six years.
At a time when the divides in our society are laid particularly bare, especially in our institutions and systems, it’s no mistake that Orange Is the New Black is touching upon such issues, and it should be commended for bringing them into living rooms – and for doing so with such gripping, engaging quality.
“Some people who love Orange Is the New Black don’t know what “Black Lives Matter” is,” Wiley pointed out to Vulture in a recent interview. “They don’t have a black friend and they don’t have a gay friend, but they know Poussey from TV.”
It’s even in the comedic asides that lace the drama, as the prison rises up against the guards during the final minutes: Angie (Julie Lake) and Leanne (Emma Myles) start to scream “Attica’ in the corridors, without knowing what it means. “Maybe it’s the dad from that bird book,” says one. “To Kill a Mockingjay?” says the other. “Yeah! Hungry Games!”
The word refers to the 1971 riot at Attica prison in New York, which saw prisoners take guards hostage and demand improved conditions and rights. That’s a decent indication at what to expect from Season 5, but another reminder of how important Season 3 and Season 4’s over-arching narrative has been, as Jenji Kohan and her team turn their attentions to bigger questions.
The season has a daring cliffhanger that sees Daya end up with a gun pointed at Humphrey’s head – a surprise, after so much time spent with the distinctly non-violent mother.
“Fucking C.O.s, y’all are pieces of shit,” growls Dascha Polanco, in a voice we’ve never heard her use – it could almost be another character speaking. It’s a another reminder that these situations can happen to anyone, just like Bayley and Poussey’s transformations from naive youngsters to killer and victim.
For Daya, the dilemma is, as per the show’s MO, writ large with intimate consequence: if Daya does pull the trigger, it means her baby and mother on the outside will be even further away from her. If she doesn’t, will justice ever be served? What’s the answer: retribution or reform? Cruelty or compassion?
It’s a big step up for Netflix’s series, which has gone from villains, such as Vee, to have a Big Bad that is the prison system itself – a system that’s corrupt and flawed on both sides.
“If you could go back and do it all again, would you?” Piper asks Alex, as they kiss and make up. It’s telling that Alex says no, believing that fate is fate and that they would still end up in the same place regardless of their actions – when you’re in prison, the show perhaps suggests, it’s not possible (or maybe it seems there’s no point) in visualising any other alternative. Time travel doesn’t exist. And time is how these inmates are all defined, how they measure their existence. They’ve all got time, but that time is changing them, for better or for worse. As the finale’s title puts it, Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again. But has anyone benefited from being in Litchfield? Poussey, breaking the wall for the first time in the show, leaves the question hanging in the air – a smiling, unflinching stare right at the real world.
Orange Is the New Black Season 4 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
What did you make of Season 4’s finale?