Orange is the New Black Season 4 Review: Time Slows Down

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Orange is the New Black is an all-time great. With arguably the best ensemble on TV, all the social progress it promotes, and that flawless second season, there’s no question of the legacy this show will carry with it after it’s over, whenever that is. That said, a lot of great shows eventually level off and hit a ceiling as to how great they can keep being (that said, a few shows saw the ceiling coming and busted through it and just kept getting better, like Mad Men and Breaking Bad). Season four of the series doesn’t have much to add to the formula that made the series great to start with, but Litchfield remains a place worth coming back to even for just an average day. So even as Orange hits that ceiling, it’s staying there, not racing back down.

The season is slow to start, with the first half really only have two stand-out episodes, one of which delightfully focuses on Brook (Kimiko Glenn) as she and Poussey (Samira Wiley) embark on a romance that acts as the emotional core to the season. But the early entries mostly focus on the over-crowding and a new set of guard staff that keep tensions high with their new, stricter policies. Then there’s also the arrival of TV personality Judy King (Blair Brown), a Martha Stewart type that some inmates adore, despite her all too casual racism.

Race, naturally, continues to play a huge role in Orange. There are the usual families, but shifts in power put hotter heads in charge. For most of the season, it feels like the show is just treading over covered ground, just with more yelling and broken up fights. Piper (Taylor Schilling), much to her own horror, ends up accidentally starting a white supremacist movement that obviously loses every battle on logic alone. But with all these new faces, too many old favorites are sidelined. Sophia (Laverne Cox), Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Mendoza (Selenis Leyva), and many others all have significant reduced roles this year. That would be fine if the new players were up to snuff, and while many of them are watchable, these are the characters that made this show as great as it was. With its premise alone, Orange can sort of have a revolving door of new characters and, potentially, go on forever. But the awkward phasing out of old favorites, or actors who outgrew the series, isn’t lending the narrative rewards it could. It’s actually a relief when Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) returns mid-season to charm the pants off everyone with her hardened wit. Her storyline may be repetitive here, but it’s still emotional.

As the season trucks along, we finally get to a point where either the impending race war or the tension with the new guards is going to boil over. For much of the last three episodes, Orange is as good as it was at its best back in season two. The narrative pieces of the season click into place suddenly. Can the inmates overcome their differences in color to fight an increasingly abusive, inhumane guard staff? The show answers that in about as emotional a way as they could have possibly conjured, proving that when it wants to, Orange has absolutely still got it.

Still, as a whole, season four is likely the show’s weakest season. But Orange at its worst is still better than a whole lot of other shows. Hell, it’s really not even bad, just sort of stagnant. But the season still manages to pull itself together by the end. With the show renewed through season seven(!), to improve the quality of the show, Netflix could do fewer episodes a season. The show still knows what it wants to say and do, but it has too much time to do so. An eight- or a 10-episode season could fix this problem if the writers are short on narrative come season five. If not, Orange could be the first Netflix show to significantly fall from grace. The show’s wide breadth of voices still make it important television, but how great would it be if an important show also remained a great one? Grade: B+

Some More Spoiler-y Points:

  • The big twist at the end here is obviously the guard killing Poussey as she merely tries to calm Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) down when a peaceful protest goes south. I do wonder what the wider response will be to another lesbian character getting killed on a major show. Frankly, I’m of the opinion that Orange should be excused from that swell of anger simply because not allowing them to kill lesbian characters pretty much means no one can ever die ever, which would just rip a lot of tension and significance out of the series. Also, Poussey’s death is handled wonderfully. Not only is it highly emotional, but the moment itself and the aftermath lead to perhaps the show’s sharpest commentary on the prison system at large, race, and even police brutality yet. Her death serves a larger purpose, but damn, her smile to the camera that closed the season just proves how much she’ll be missed. The tears were flowing on this writer’s end.
  • Healy’s (Michael Harney) season took him places I did not expect. I buy him attempting suicide, but I’m not sold on him being in a mental hospital.
  • Looking back on the premiere, it’s pretty impressive how Alex (Laura Prepon) killing her would-be assassin ended up being the inciting incident for so much of the rest of the season.
  • For a show very much centered on women, Orange does a great job playing with the masculinity of its male characters. You’ve got Caputo (Nick Sandow) who walks the walk mostly well, but falters when it counts, while Healy is portrayed as pathetic in parts of the season. Then you’ve got Piscatella (Brad William Henke), the season’s tough new antagonist who also happens to be gay. Yet his brand of masculinity is very much what society expects masculinity to be, to a point where he’s blatantly power hungry and cruel. He makes for a fascinating villain.

By Matt Dougherty

 

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