Wow, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK has become one of the darkest show on television. There are still bits of humor, but it’s more of a biting, bitter indictment of our society rather than light-hearted, laugh out loud moments. In other words, we laugh because if we didn’t, we’d cry. In these five episodes alone, Piper inadvertently starts a Nazi gang, resulting in a brutal, tragic comeuppance, a fan favorite returns only to spiral downwards into drug addiction, Blanca Flores is subjected to a punishment a CO acknowledges as a “bit Abu Ghraib-y”, and CO Humphrey reveals himself to be pure, psychotic evil.
But let’s start with one of my favorite storylines this show has done: in episode 5, “We’ll Always Have Baltimore”, Caputo and his new girlfriend Linda from Purchasing go to CorrectiCon, a tradeshow catering to privately owned prisons. This is the type of place that gives out fake handcuffs in swag bags for attendees, and has a panel titled “Shanks for the Memories: A History of Prison Weapons.” It’s funny in its absurdity, but tragic in the sense that it confirms that we already know. These for-profit prisons don’t see inmates as people, merely as numbers or problems to be solved. Caputo is inspired by a talk from a legendary warden who waxes poetic on making the inmates lives full, but Linda points out that he’s interpreting it wrong. It isn’t about making their lives full, it’s about making them feel full. It’s about meaningless short term solutions instead of productive long term change.
Linda is a great character. She’s the embodiment of soulless corporate greed, packaged in a perky, glossy-haired body. Danny (Mike Birbiglia) interrupts her keynote speech to draw attention to the plight of Sophia Burset—he apparently runs a website called dannytalkstruth.com now—but it’s clear that Linda doesn’t care about the individual prisoners. This is made even clearer when Crystal Burset shows up at Caputo’s doorstep to demand answers, only for Linda to pull a gun on her.
It’s been difficult for the show so far to include Sophia in its stories when she’s been isolated in the SHU, but in these episodes the writers find a way to make her plight feel real and immediate. We’re reacquainted with Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), who’s in max after Luschek blamed her for the heroin in his desk. Prisoners in max are assigned to clean the floors of SHU, so she sees Sophia, slipping her a magazine to help her stay sane. However, the next time she goes down there, the magazine is strewn across the floor and the cell is covered in blood.
Nicky gets out of max and back to minimum security with the others because Luschek developed a conscience. He feels bad for sending her away, which worries Judy King. Luschek is her only friend, and she doesn’t want him to get himself fired, so she pulls some strings and has her lawyer arrange for Nicky’s transfer…in exchange for some sexual favors from Luschek. However, it’s too late to save Nicky completely. When we first see her this season, she’s accepting a three-year sobriety chip, but she quickly turns back to drugs, as after meeting with Luschek, she realized just how horrible her life was.
It’s easy to get drugs in minimum security now, as the Dominican girls have switched from selling panties to selling the hard stuff. This is Piper’s fault—desperate to keep her business afloat, she arranges with Piscatella to stay a “Community Carers” anti-gang task force. This quickly morphs into a White Power group, as the only inmates who join are the Caucasians sick of other ethnicities being in the majority. Piper even goes so far as to frame Maria Ruiz and turn her in, resulting in her getting more time on her sentence.
Piper has alienated everyone. The budding Nazis don’t believe she’s sufficiently proud of her white heritage, her friends like Boo are disgusted by her associating with them, and the Dominicans now absolutely hate her. In a tragic scene, Maria and her cronies isolate her, then forcibly brand a swastika on her forearm. She later breaks down and shows Nicky and Alex, admitting that she probably deserved it. She then smokes crack after Alex admits they’re sitting on top of the body of the hitman she chopped up. Like I said, this show got really dark really quickly. Red eventually rebrands Piper, turning the swastika into a window, telling her that “When God gives you a swastika, he opens a window. And then you remember there is no God.”
And it gets darker from there. Maritza has been roped into helping with the panties/drug scheme, as she drives the van. Maria’s cousin meets her while she’s by the veteran guards’ living quarters—they all go inside to day drink and play Call of Duty: Guantanamo Bay. However, CO Humphrey realizes that she’s up to something, which freaks her out, so she draws attention to Maria’s cousin, who quits the business after being confronted by the guards. This doesn’t matter to Humphrey, who after overhearing Maritza and Flaca playing a game of “Would You Rather?”, decides to make one of their questions a gruesome reality. He actually forces Maritza at gunpoint to choose between eating ten dead flies or a baby mouse. It’s absolutely horrifying.
Humphrey is really the only character who’s been painted as pure evil in this show. Healey has been given a nuanced backstory. The writerts have humanized Doggett’s rapist Coates, as he truly did not understand what consent was and apologizes to her. He’s a bad person, but at least he’s trying to understand his flaws and improve. Even hard-ass Piscatella has a bit of good in him—he actually tried to get someone on the phone about the maxi-pad shortage.
Caputo’s education initiative does through, but in a completely bastardized form. Linda and MCC have turned into a way to get free labor out of the inmates, forcing them to do construction, but calling it a class so they don’t have to pay them their 11 cents an hour salary. They begin digging a new dorm, awfully close to the garden. It seems like Frieda may not have chosen the safest hiding place after all.
In the ninth episode, “Turn Table Turn”, Blanca Flores is forced to stand on a table indefinitely, in a creative bit of punishment the guards are now forced to employ as the SHU is full. She realized that she could get out of being frisked by simply not showering, but the guards wouldn’t let this piece of disobedience fly. She turns into a bit of martyr, which goes to show how little hope these ladies have, an idea that is also hammered home in Aleida’s story. She’s being released early due to over-crowding, but has nowhere to go, no job, and no hope for the future except for an idealistic plan about opening a nail salon.
There’s also a fairly light-hearted subplot about the black girl’s plan to take a photo of Judy King and sell it to the tabloids, as Allison has been hiding a phone under her hijab. Judy at first thinks they’re targeting her for a beat down, as news of a racist puppet show she hosted in the 80’s has spread throughout the prison. Once Poussey explains what they’re up to, Judy becomes a willing participant, kissing Black Cindy, as she predicts that a behind-bars interracial love story would sell a lot of issues.
All in all, Orange is the New Black continues to surprise, by not shying away from depicting the bleak reality of this women’s lives, but grounding the stories in real, fully developed characters we’ve come to actually care about. It’s hard to touch on all subplots in these combined reviews, as the show does an admirable job of servicing all of its extended cast of characters, but this is shaping up to be the best, most daring season yet.
Season 4, Episodes 5-9 (S04E05-E09)
Orange is the New Black aired Friday, June 17 on Netflix
Jennifer Trofa lives for two things: spreading the “Superstore” gospel and themed “Law & Order: SVU” marathons on USA.
Jennifer Trofa | Contributor