NOTE: This review may contain minor spoilers for the fourth season of, “Orange is the New Black.” That said, the review is written to accommodate those who haven’t yet watched the season, and as such, will avoid discussion of major plot developments.
Orange is the New Black remains one of Netflix’s strongest shows in 2016, but by the end of Season Three last year, it felt like it was stuck in a bit of a rut. There were still some interesting new storylines and character performances in the previous batch of episodes, but that season also felt like the show was getting too far lost in its established comfort zone, becoming increasingly reliant on canned story turns and gossip-flavoured pageantry.
Fortunately, those shortcomings were given a welcome, shocking upheaval in Season Four this year, a fresh and very engaging batch of thirteen episodes that took the show into darker territory, with largely superb results. Orange is the New Black is continuing to become more exaggerated and less realistic with every passing season, but at least the hyperbolic examination of our modern prison system was put to much better narrative use in Season Four, providing effectively enjoyable and fulfilling story material in every episode.
Some of this was due to more looks into various inmates’ backstories, whether it was a second look at characters like Crazy Eyes and Poussey, showing their final moments before their arrests, or a first look at the backstories of inmates like Lolly and Ramos. Speaking of Lolly, she was actually given an especially big role this season, after she hits the ground running with a very shocking character turn, creating a dark and tragic atmosphere around her formerly kooky, light-hearted character. Actually, the big twist of Crazy Eyes’ big crime is similarly dark, shockingly so, and it’s bold of Orange is the New Black to dare to go to places that it does with these characters, albeit very refreshing too.
Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the cast has seen lots of new additions, effectively piggybacking off of the end of Season Three, which saw MCC transferring a whole bunch of fresh inmates into the already crowded Litchfield Penitentiary. Additions like Piper’s new meek, obese Hawaiian cellmate, Hapakuka, white supremacist, Sankey and her Neo-Nazi buddies, Black Cindy’s new Muslim foil, Abdullah, and Hispanic shit disturber, Ouija add lots of great new personality to the Litchfield roster and their stories, especially since they fit right in with the established characters. It will actually have you excited for yet more inmates to come in next year’s fifth season, which MCC pretty much directly spills on more than one occasion.
Of course, none of the new cast additions shine quite as much as Judy King, the celebrity inmate that Caputo has to balance giving special treatment to, but not so much special treatment that the public is angry with him. Blair Brown does an excellent job portraying the abrasive, polyamourous and straight-shooting Judy, who ends up bunked in a hidden side room with Yoga Jones pretty early on, and as you can imagine, these two characters quickly clash, given their highly separate personalities. Beyond the cheeky spats between Judy and Yoga though, Judy’s character is one of the sharpest when it comes to barbed prison commentary, effectively examining the tricky politics of sending beloved celebrities to jail, and how they can often get off easy for their crimes, simply because of their raw power and influence in the public eye.
The administration at Litchfield was put under the microscope on a whole new level this season to boot, especially Caputo, who is beginning a rather tenuous relationship with MCC’s marketing head, Linda Ferguson. There’s some material with Healy too, who is now separated from his wife and thoroughly depressed, but outside of a few episodes, Healy does kind of feel like he’s pushed into the background for most of this season. Caputo, meanwhile, is used as an example of honest wardens who want to do right by the system and their inmates, but of course, MCC is constantly throwing obstacles in Caputo’s way, seemingly arbitrarily making his job harder. The sheer depth of prison-based capitalism might be tough to watch at certain points, especially since it seems like there’s such a sobering modern truth behind how the show portrays it, but it’s consistently smart and earnest, and you’ll likely root for Caputo’s character in this season more than you ever did in any of the previous seasons.
The only new plot device this season that sometimes works to more mixed effect are the new guards that MCC installs. Apparently, the guards walking out at the end of last season truly stuck, and now, we have an entirely new platoon of MCC-approved guards. A few of these guards are more interesting, such as the sympathetic McCullough and the youthful Bayley, but disappointingly, most of them are just one-note thugs, and they can often represent the handful of weaker moments in Season Four, where Orange is the New Black does slip from being effectively darker this season to just being obnoxiously heavy-handed. Some of the despicable, disrespectful inmate treatment by these new guards feels valid, especially when it comes to their brilliantly detestable leader, Piscatella, but some of it feels overdone and excessively unrealistic. There’s a few really troublesome scenes where Orange is the New Black tries too hard to strain for cheap drama with the new guards, who are sometimes so comically over-the-top evil that they might as well be twirling moustaches, and while these scenes are initially shocking and dramatic, they really fall apart when you actually roll them around in your noggin, and realize that they’re completely illogical.
Still, if you already love this show, Season Four of Orange is the New Black will keep you thoroughly hooked, and represents a pretty noticeable improvement over the good, but not amazing Season Three. The writing has gotten smarter and bolder this season, and the character arcs are almost entirely fresh and especially interesting. The infusion of new blood really works too, even if some of the guard scenes are a little bit much, and the way that the Litchfield community is both fractured and comes together by the drastic MCC cost-cutting measures is consistently engaging and on-point. Piper Chapman no longer feels like the true star of the show at this point, but that’s not really an issue, frankly, since Season Four of Orange is the New Black brilliantly proves why everyone at Litchfield has their own worthy and compelling stories to tell, especially when the show actually decides to stop pulling punches!
- Fresher, darker storytelling that works to outstanding effect
- Smart, witty commentary on capitalism-driven modern prison systems
- New character additions work incredibly well
- Some of the guard-driven scenes are too over-the-top