The themes of power and control run rampant throughout the fourth season of Netflix’s sensation, Orange is the New Black. This is one of the bleakest seasons yet, but it’s also probably the most powerful and timely. Fans who felt slighted by last year’s lighter effort should all agree that Litchfield is the most dangerous it’s ever been.
The newest season picks up immediately where the third concluded, and I personally thought that might have been a mistake. As the season progressed, my nerves were quelled as it set the stage for some newfound conflict. After the guards walked out, the inmates were able to enjoy some freedom by swimming and frolicking in a lake near the compound, but the arrival of almost 100 new bodies into Litchfield promised to touch upon prison overcrowding and allowed new tension between some of the women.
At first, it appeared as if the writers were creating new adversaries for some of the more seasoned actors on the show. Cindy clashes with her new roommate, Alison, and Piper (Taylor Schilling) has her panty snatching business threatened when Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) opens up shop of her own. The Martha Stewart-like figure of Judy King (Blair Brown) is given the royal treatment due to her celebrity status, and it rubs everyone the wrong way. The most prominent villains, however, are the new guards that are brought in to police the women of Litchfield. Led by the imposing Desi Piscatella, the arrogant new guards test the limit of their punishments on the inmates. In one scene, Blanca and Piper are forced to stand on a cafeteria table while everyone eats lunch, and another guard comments, “It’s a bit Abu Ghraib.”
This is one of the darkest and saddest seasons yet, and it’s all connected with themes of control and consent. Pennsatucky (do we still call her that?) confronts her rapist, Donuts, and the arc is sure to open up conversation about forgiveness and moving forward. The storyline is eerily topical given the outcome of the recent Stanford rape case a few weeks ago. Mental illness is also brought to the forefront with new information regarding Healy’s mother’s affliction and an entire episode devoted to Lolly’s background that will break your heart. Judy King even uses her casual influence to get what she wants from Luschek. Whether they know it or not, the people of Litchfield are flaunting and asserting their power. The ending of this season is the most unforgettable yet. The events of the last two episodes will stay with me for a long time, and talking about the circumstances would only spoil the power it will have over each individual viewer.
As always, the performances are top-notch, and Orange Is the New Black remains one of the most well-acted shows on television. Samira Wiley’s Poussey and Kimiko Glenn’s Soso have an incredibly casual chemistry that is a beam of light through all of the darkness this time around. Uzo Aduba and Kate Mulgrew are always great as Suzanne and Red, but some of the best acting comes from Pimentel as Ruiz and Nick Sandow as Caputo. Ruiz assumes her position of power like a glove even though flashbacks show us how embarrassed she was by her father’s ambition. Orange has a knack for allowing supporting players to ebb and flow through major storylines, but Pimentel has never been given such a powerful lead like this.
Caputo is always stuck between a rock and a hard place, but he seems like he’s making headway as
Litchfield’s new warden. His heart is in the right place—usually. He begins a romance with Linda, the Director of Purchasing of MCC, and her attitude towards the system in general is very frustrating, especially when Caputo’s ambition is overshadowed by her guidance.
A lot of viewers weren’t thrilled with the third season, but I always defended it. This fourth season reminds us what Orange is the New Black is capable of, and some of the acting is truly breathtaking. Sure, there is lightness and humor (You want a threesome on Molly? Here ya go!). There is a lot going on this season, but it all feels important. There is usually a lot of levity packed into the yearly 13 episodes, but you want the darkness this time around. It’s fiction set in prison, but reality is has always been in the periphery. With any other show, episodes packed with race wars, officer abuse, mental illness and rape would feel saturated and even stilted. The writing and acting prevail and Orange is the New Black might have its best season on its hands.