Previously on Orange is the New Black
A lot went down in the final episodes of Orange’s fourth season. Just as Aleida was getting out, Sophia was returning from solitary. The prison went on lockdown until Lolly admitted to murdering the “guard,” and was then taken away to psych. Alex and Piper are back together, and Nicky, with Pennsatucky’s help, is legitimately trying to get clean. Taystee’s movie night, featuring The Wiz, was distastefully interrupted and sabotaged. We learned the tragic reason for Suzanne’s prison sentence, and watched horrified as she was provoked and forced into beating up Maureen. The guards’ unchecked power got much worse; to the point where even the white supremacists were willing to work with everyone else to rebel against them. And they did. The women of Litchfield stood together on the cafeteria tables in an act of peaceful protest, calling for Piscatella’s resignation. It was a beautiful, hopeful moment. None of this really matters anymore, though, because of how the protest ended.
Poussey, the most optimistic and kind inmate, and one of the most lovable characters from Orange, was killed. Piscatella instructed his guards to get the women off the tables by any means necessary, and in the ensuing chaos C.O. Bayley held Poussey down until she couldn’t breathe. It hurts just to write those words. Not only is it heartbreaking from a fictional standpoint, it’s almost too much too handle for its real-world parallel to the death of Eric Garner. (Let’s also not forget that this is yet another lesbian character to be killed this year.) It’s not something new for this show to comment on current social states, but this time it feels too real and damn near exploitative. I’m not suggesting that Orange should shy away from using its platform to explore these kinds of issues – art will always reflect life, and TV is no exception – but I think they went about it in the wrong way.
From a storytelling perspective, I can absolutely understand the importance of properly building towards a climax. Sufficient time must be given to a plot so that its outcome feels earned and plausible. Poussey’s death would have been painful no matter how it happened, but the mounting tensions between the inmates and guards throughout the season certainly helped to amp up its narrative weight. The problem, or at least one aspect of it, was her death’s placement in the overall story. Having it take place in the second-to-last episode feels as though it was used for shock value, a hacky approach to keep us coming back for more. Ending a season without full resolution is pretty par for the course in TV, but to leave us hanging on this particular story just feels manipulative. Had Poussey’s death happened earlier in the season, leaving ample time for the show to explain why they decided to take this direction, the overall response to it may have been different. As it stands, I’m not certain I have a grasp on what exactly Orange was trying to accomplish. For that reason, I have to agree with many of the viewers and critics who have dubbed this season as “trauma porn.”
Of course, there’s always a chance that season five will do an excellent job of diving deeper into this story. If the finale is any indication of where the plot is moving, though, it doesn’t look hopeful. There just wasn’t enough focus on what really mattered, and much of the episode felt rather hollow.
Red’s gathering of her girls felt needless, Flaca and Maritza getting themselves camera-ready was silly and offensive, Nicky and Lorna’s squabbles felt childish, and the white supremacists’ comment about Poussey not getting any better was an unnecessary kick while we were down, no matter how in character it was. The most baffling choice of all came in the final moments of the present-day plot. The gun C.O. Humphrey brought to work ends up being pointed directly at him, with Daya at the trigger. Huh? Daya was barely a part of this season and then she’s just abruptly in the spotlight. Why not put the gun in Maria’s hand, or Blanca’s, or even Taystee’s? Hell, even Judy King would have been a more thematically pleasing choice. It feels as though they were unsure of how to end things, so they figured a lengthy shot of the camera panning around and around, and then fading to black was the best option. Sigh.
All in all, these final episodes were a big disappointment, especially when you consider how well the season was going. The one ray of hope that came from the finale was Poussey’s flashbacks. For the first time in the series, a character’s backstory was happy and full of promise. While it may have been a drastically different tone than what we’re used to from Orange, I think it was important for us to see a living, breathing, laughing Poussey. Seeing her near perfect night on the town was at least a bit of respite from the tragedy of the present day. Some have theorized that this isn’t actually what happened to Poussey, but that it’s some kind of second chance, that she’s re-writing her history from the after-life. While this supernatural theory doesn’t fit, at all, within a show like Orange, I’m inclined to believe it. I want these flashbacks to be true, but the final shot of Poussey smiling at the camera seems to support that this was something very different than all the other backstories. There’s something in the way she looks at us, as if to say, “I fixed it” that works much better when viewed through this theory. Otherwise, it feels highly tragic when you remember that she went to prison shortly after that, and it’s also an extremely clichéd breaking of the fourth-wall.
If Orange was trying to start a conversation, they succeeded. There’s part of me that wants to believe some people could have learned something from these episodes. If someone didn’t know about the inequalities of supposed justice in the real world, maybe this opened their eyes just a crack. Perhaps there are some folks who needed a bigger statement, because the subtle nods towards it– like the fact that Bayley was given a slap on the wrist for weed possession, while Poussey was given a six-year prison sentence – wouldn’t be enough. We can hope, right? I’m not sure if I’ll be back next year; the sour taste in my mouth is still too fresh to decide. Perhaps if Orange hires more writers who aren’t white – despite the diverse on-screen presence, people of color penned only two scripts in all four seasons – then maybe I’ll give it another shot. Part of me thinks I’ll just be wasting 13 hours of my life hoping for the kind of resolution that probably won’t happen, and wishing there was even less of Piper.