This spoiler-free review is based on Episodes 1 to 4 of Orange Is the New Black Season 4.
Gangsta with an “a” is how Piper describes herself at the start of Orange Is the New Black Season 4. It’s exactly the kind of thing you expect to come out of her white, middle-class mouth, especially as she tries to play Litchfield alpha lady, following her surprisingly successful business selling prison panties to the outside world online. But Chapman, as we all know, is no kingpin. As the busload of prisoners we glimpsed at the end of Season 3 pile into the prison, Piper sees the chance to big herself up. All the other inmates see, though, is someone to take down.
It’s a scenario rife for dramatic (and violent) conflict – and for comedy too. Orange Is the New Black’s strength has always been that it doesn’t try to deliver serious drama or seriously funny laughs. It does both, constantly – and often at the same time.
After three years in that jumpsuit, Taylor Schilling has rarely been more annoyingly privileged or amusingly naive, which makes her the perfect opponent for the hard-nosed Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), whom Piper ends up clashing with over her booming undue empire. Their stand-off is genuinely thrilling and tense, as well as darkly funny – Piper’s hiring of a heavy is both pathetic and hilarious. It’s a treat, then, that sweaty briefs become one of the season’s central driving narratives in these opening four episodes, fuelling a divide that threatens to escalate to Season 2 levels of warfare – and beyond.
A real war, though, is being fought in the garden shed, where we left Alex (Laura Prepon) facing a henchman sent by Kubra. Things take a turn for the traumatic, as Season 4 begins, turning Laura Prepon’s once intimidating, seductive drug trader into an increasingly nervous wreck. Lolly, of course, is swiftly intertwined with the whole thing, which ramps up the paranoia from Season 3 even higher. At one point, we even see a drone hovering suspiciously over the prison yard – a sight so mind-boggling that we’re reminded just how isolated the world these people are.
Over the years, incarceration has changed these people, a transformation that creator Jenji Kojan and her writing team have nailed to an astonishingly subtle degree; after fleshing them out from the potential sidekicks they might have been in Season 1, the writers now have one of television’s largest ensembles, and they clearly take pleasure in catching back up with each one of them, charting their evolution.
Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), for example, has become so much more than the show’s crazy-eyed comic relief. Red, meanwhile, having clawed her way back to some form of respect through her elite cooking club, finds her precious veg patch encroached upon by Judy King (Blair Brown), after the Martha Stewart-a-like turned up on Litchfield’s doorstep during Season 3’s finale. Kate Mulgrew’s once formidable prison mama has become more vulnerable – and sympathetic – since we first met her. The arrival of Judy also causes Poussey (Samira Wiley) to flip from reformed alcoholic to rabid fangirl, which brings some of Season 4’s biggest giggles. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), meanwhile, brings tragedy, as she continues to live with the aftermath of officer Coates’ horrifying rape of her in Season 3; the inevitable confrontation between them is a dizzying blend of affection and anger that leaves your head spinning.
Orange Is the New Black’s ability to treat complex situations as complex is part of what makes the show so unique. Season 3’s seemingly directionless story becomes more pointed, when we see what it was building to – less a story about Piper and Ruiz and more a study of culture clashes and over-crowding.
Indeed, the third run’s focus on privatisation and the cuts imposed by new management company MCC plays right into the show’s knack of showing events from inside and outside the fence: our regulars now include guards as well as inmates, with both sides able to win our support and lose it; there are no good guys and bad guys here. Just people muddling through, screwing up one week and helping someone the next.
Nick Sandow is in his element as Caputo, still swinging brilliantly between cowardly, cruel and compassionate. Mostly, he’s the last one, especially as he develops a crush on fellow MCC employee Linda. One conversation between Caputo and one of the old guards, which could have threatened that potential romance, manages the impressive feat of revisiting the chaos of the prison escape from even more perspectives. Even Healy gets more flashbacks to investigate his back-story and what made him such a confused, lonely individual. The cells may be full, but there’s always room for more sympathy in Litchfield.
Tell that to Sophia, who does make a return, albeit in heartbreaking fashion that indicates some gloomy nights ahead in SHU. But there are light moments peppered everywhere you least expect in Season 4’s ever-diverse scripts, most notably in the form of Litchfield’s newest head guard, Piscatella (Brad William Henke), whose intensely butch brand of authority makes Caputo seem even more harmless by comparison. One scene in which Piscatella conducts an “icebreaker event” to help the new staff relax on campus will have you howling with laughter.
Piscatella’s got competition for Litchfield’s funniest, though, in the form of the ever-delightful Taystee. Trailers for Season 4 gave us a glimpse of Danielle Brooks’ feisty inmate working at a desk as Caputo’s secretary and the reality doesn’t disappoint, from her overly polite phone voice to her informative questioning of the public library. Just seeing her wield a clipboard is an instant season highlight, if only because she’s visibly enjoying it so much.
Just as Taystee embodies the show’s straddling of the divide between inmates and prison employees, she also channels its ability to jump from happy to sad in a second. Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black is its darkest season yet, but it’s the brightest season yet too. That hopping between tones might be uneven in other hands, but with such an eclectic cast, it stems naturally from each character, as they change from serious to silly, from upbeat to downbeat, from brutal to bumbling. (One arousing moment involving Morello would be overblown or out of place in any other show, but here, it fits right in.)
The arrival of new inmates, of course, means even more stories to follow – and fascinating new combinations of existing characters. It’s a cycle that you can imagine the show continuing for years to come (it’s already been renewed for three more seasons). Even now, the writers are subtly positioning a new generation of familiar types to carry the can down the hall: Soso and Poussey’s relationship beautifully explores the projection of stereotypes onto others, a la Piper in Season 1, while Judy King’s culinary exploits (and Healy’s soft spot for her) see the chef begin to assume Red’s old role, and the ranting Lolly (Lori Petty) is arguably the new Crazy Eyes.
With all that going on, by the end of Episode 4, Chapman almost feels irrelevant – a testament to just how far Netflix’s series has come over the years. Four seasons in and you’d think it might get old. But there’s no sign of the show stopping any time soon. Back, bigger and possibly better than ever, Orange Is the New Black Season 4 is awesome. With an a.
Orange Is the New Black Season 4 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.