Sunday, June 26, 2016

Orange is the New Black returns to form with a masterful 4th season

The critical narrative behind last year's third season of Netflix's popular prison dramedy Orange is the New Black is that it was a misstep, an exaggerated opinion as all internet opinions tend to be.  Season three was good, but the problem is that it clearly wasn't as good as the two that preceded it.  Some of that can be attributed to the fact that it's simply difficult to follow up on television that was as inventive and compelling as the first two seasons were.  But there are also concrete reasons to point to when it comes to the show's slight dip in quality last year: the increasing "summer camp" vibe sucked out the sense of danger and conflict, the rhythm of the show got too lackadaisical, and the flashbacks started to feel a little stale.

Needless to say, season four had alot at stake, and it does not disappoint.  Fittingly, the fourth season course corrects nearly every single problem that plagued the third.  Picking up right where they left off last year, the story tackles the influx of new inmates from the maximum security prison, which leads to an array of problems that create a beautiful, furious season about privilege, power, abuse, and institutional failures.

The show is overcrowded, but that's not a bad thing.
One of the biggest selling points of Orange is the New Black since its inception is the large cast of colorful characters it possesses.  And with each year, its rich bouquet of inmates keeps expanding, to the point of bumping against the limits of being able to keep track of it all.  So it's a pretty bold move for the show to shove an entirely new set of characters onto the audience right from the start of this season.

The massive size of Orange is the New Black is what makes it unique, but it also can be one of its weaknesses.  At this point, everybody has their own list of favorite characters, and it can be difficult for the writers to serve so many masters.  There are times in season four, especially in the beginning stretch, where the show runs into what I like to call "The Game of Thrones Problem," where we just cycle through snippets of each character's story before moving on to the next one and never returning for the rest of the episode.  It's just as likely that a character who stood out in previous seasons gets completely lost in the story.  (If you're Vicky Jeudy, who plays Watson, you have to be a little annoyed that you haven't gotten any meaty material in the last two years, right?)  It's impossible to get enough of the characters you love, simply because there are so many to love.

However, this isn't the worst problem in the world to have.  At a certain point, it's important to take a step back and be in awe of the sprawl that creator Jenji Kohan and her crew of writers are able to achieve.  I'd much rather have a show that's too immense than too narrow.  If anything, season four of Orange is the New Black suggests that we adjust the way we absorb these stories.  Maybe not every character needs to have a complete arc, especially when this season is full of such lovely and interesting little bends.

This is one of the most elegantly plotted series on television.
Part of the reason why the sprawl of the show goes down so easily is because it has the storytelling chops to match its size.  Audiences tend to associate good plotting with shows that do it in flashier ways, like Breaking Bad.  What Orange is the New Black has done for the last four years is more subtle, but just as rewarding.  Time and time again, I found myself surprised by how organic some of the plot turns of season four were.  You think a thread exists to serve its own purpose, but it also ends up tumbling into some larger story avenue.

Season four loads itself with so many recurring themes and motifs, these small stories that run parallel and add up to one larger story.  This is a strategy the show has been scratching at since day one, but it really crystallizes this year.  For structure nerds, it's one of the most purely satisfying seasons of televisions in a long time.

Season four tweaks its approach to flashbacks.
When Orange is the New Black began, its Lost-esque flashbacks of the inmates lives before they arrived at Litchfield were a vital part of the show's makeup.  Not only did it give an episodic backbone, but it served as an easy way to flesh out the characters and provide a break from the Litchfield setting.  However, by the time the third season rolled around, the show ran into the same problem that Lost had -- the flashback gimmick was getting a little creaky.  Lost found a way to revitalize its structure by incorporating flash-forwards, but Orange is the New Black arrived at a simpler solution this year: completely abandoning flashbacks in certain episodes.

Four of the 13 episodes this season don't feature any flashbacks, and those episodes end up working just fine.  They still employ scenes that serve as a breather from the usual Litchfield material, like chronicling Nicky's weeks at maximum security in "Piece of Shit," which allows the writers to only use flashbacks when the story calls for it.  And indeed, we do get some great first-time flashbacks for characters like Lolly and Maritza (for whom it's hard to believe there hadn't been one yet), as well as fascinating returns to characters like Healy and Soso.

That's not to say that there still aren't duds.  The Blanca flashbacks in "Turn Table Turn" fall particularly flat.  She's exactly the kind of character who has the mystique that would warrant a flashback, but what we were given just wasn't enlightening enough to match the power of her prison story, which lays ground for some of the most essential moments of season four.  Still, one miss is a much better ratio than last year, where it seemed like at least half of the flashbacks were unsatisfying.

Infrastructural changes abound at Litchfield.
The show is often at its most interesting when it's exploring the infrastructural and institutional issues occuring at Litchfield.  And with the massive increase of inmates, season four has no choice but to dive deeply into what it does so well.  In fact, so much of the major conflicts are borne out of the general frustrations that come from these people's spheres bumping up against each other more often than they usually would.  But I also love all of the small ways that overcrowding effects the day-to-day life at Litchfield, like the tampon shortage that arises.  It's stuff like that that add to the color and texture of the show, making the prison feel like a living, breathing place that functions even outside of what we are seeing.

The mass migration from maximum security, along with the walkout by many of the guards last season, leads to the prison incorporating a program to hire veterans as guards.  We quickly see all of the problems that arise when ex-military are guards of a prison.  They still treat everything like it's a war and they're an occupying force.  Throughout the season, we see them subjecting the inmates to stuff straight out of Guantanamo Bay, like making Blanca stand on a table for multiple days straight, or forcing two inmates to fight each other.

More so than ever before, Orange is the New Black is interested in the dynamic between guard and prisoner.  There's a deep power imbalance at work, and season four seems to be making a point of how those who are the most likely to exploit that imbalance are the ones who seek out such a position.  We see it in Captain Piscatella and the facility with which he strips away prisoners of their rights.  We see it in the contuining story of Coates and Pennsatucky.  And we see it in the psychotic guard who forces Maritza to swallow a baby rat.  These separate storylines all come together to paint a pretty clear picture.

Privilege, power, and race are examined more thoroughly than ever before.
If there's one main theme of season four, it's privilege and how people wield it.  And the show comes at that idea from a myriad of angles, but most notably via the arrival of celebrity chef Judy King (played by Blair Brown).  Every season, Orange is the New Black has a character that mirrors Piper in some sort of way -- think of how season two used Soso as a way to reflect on how Piper had progressed since she arrived at Litchfield -- and season four uses Judy King's outsized celebrity persona to further underline the points it has made about privilege since we were first introduced to Piper years ago.  In Judy King, we see a person who didn't ask for her privilege, but is well aware of it and will milk it for all it's worth.  And the privilege she manipulates makes life difficult for almost everyone else, as all the resources being devoted to her could've been distributed equally amongst all the inmates.

But this season also explores the ways in which privilege can be less conscious and deliberate through Yoga Jones.  She just stands to the side and soaks up all of the perks that come with being roommates with Judy, self-aware about it all but not truly self-aware.  It's an excellent observation -- even the most self-righteous can be intoxicated by power and privilege.

And of course, there's Piper, the show's original icon of privilege.  The panty smuggling business almost seems like a game to her -- emphasized by the way she does all that goofy posturing about being a "gangsta" early in the season -- because she has that luxury.  Nobody's really going to suspect her because she's a pretty white woman, and even if she was caught, the consequences wouldn't be that severe.  That's why she feels comfortable shifting the blame on to Ruiz, because she doesn't truly understand the gravity of what that means.  It's funny, then, that she inadvertently falls in with a group of neo Nazis -- that's a metaphor for the ways in which being problematic on a small scale can be just as harmful as overt racism.

Perhaps the most damning statement the season makes about privilege is how the people who have the power to enact change never do.  Caputo and Linda go to a prison convention in "We'll Always Have Baltimore," and we see them stumble upon multiple solutions to the feminine hygiene product problem at Litchfield, each of which they completely bypass and ignore.  Then there's Judy King again, who has an opportunity towards the end of the season to use her influence to make the world aware of the injustices happening in the prison, but chooses not to.  Over and over, we see people in power this season neglecting to help, simply because they can afford not to.

Orange is the New Black displays a sense of community not seen since Deadwood.
One of my favorite scenes in the classic HBO drama Deadwood, one of my favorite shows of all time, occurs in the third and final season, which finds the denizens of the titular town banding together when a man named George Hearst arrives with plans of taking over.  Hearst has men shoot at prominent citizen Alma Garrett in the middle of the town's thoroughfare, hoping that this will provoke a retaliation that will give him justification to crush those who stand in his way.  Seeing this, saloon owner Al Swearengen leaps to Alma's rescue and escorts her to safety.  Al doesn't even particularly like Alma that much.  But in a way, she's his people and when it comes down to it, he must stand with his people against injustice.

Orange is the New Black shares alot of DNA with Deadwood, but never more so than when it depicts characters seeing injustice and feeling compelled to act.  It happens in all the best moments of season four, like Red being moved to help Piper when she sees that Ruiz's crew have branded a swastika on her arm, or when Piper chooses to stand in solidarity on top of a table with Blanca, or when the conflicting races try to get on the same page to bring down Piscatella.

Like Deadwood, Orange is the New Black is fundamentally about broken, disparate people coming together to build their own community.  Season four solidifies the idea that these characters are small parts of a much larger body, constantly framing as many characters as possible in the same shot (particularly in penultimate episode "The Animals," brilliantly directed by Mad Men creator Matt Weiner).  Sometimes that body is at war with itself, but when a great pain strikes one part of the body, it's felt everywhere else.  The season builds to a tragedy that's almost Shakespearean in its chaos and inevitability, and its reverberations throughout the prison are some of the most gut-wrenching moments of the year.

Season four of Orange is the New Black is an exhausting experience.  It's so dense with themes and ideas that another 2,000 words still wouldn't sufficiently cover its depths.  And after a third season that left a few people worried, it's good to know that this show is still capable of telling vital, thoughtful stories.

1 comment:

  1. Agree; so much of this season was a return to form, with plenty of flashbacks that weren't nearly as pointless as last year and that killer ending.