‘Orange is the New Black’ Season Four Netflix Original Review
There was a time when primetime TV dramas were advertised with the phrase “ripped from the headlines.” That usually meant ER was going to discuss an E. coli outbreak or Law and Order was about to spend an hour with a tabloid-fodder murderous celebrity. This was before the concept of a gritty reboot, so the most hard-hitting issues discussed on TV were pretty tame. The phrase was a good indicator the episode could be skipped; nothing important was going to happen to the central cast and the writing staff probably spent a day or so putting the script all together.
Orange is the New Black season four is what ’90s ‘ripped from the headlines’ shows wished they could have accomplished. This season tackles private prisons, mental health, Black Lives Matter, prison overcrowding, victimless crimes, and prisoner rights so naturally and so skillfully it puts other attempts at the practice to shame.
This season we see new inmates, new guards, new stories, new drama and the same old Piper. The season starts off like a kick to the face to wrap up that season three cliffhanger. Familiar characters drive the season, but the new additions to the cast add a tremendous amount of soap-opera goodness.
Story highlights include Caputo (Nick Sandow) weaving through the world of corporate prisons. Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) rising to lead what amounts to be a prison gang. Captain of the Guard Piscatella’s (Brad William Henke) poor decision making. The terror Alieda Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) experiences as her release date approaches. Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty) have seasons that will force real discussions about how the incarcerated mentally ill are or aren’t treated. The addition of Judy King (Blair Brown) is amusing and brings in the 1% discussion Orange is the New Black has always been trying to have, but now has a face to the problem.
There are so many tales and so many characters to balance that sometimes folks get lost along the way. Norma (Annie Golden) had a big third season but is relegated to the background now. CO Healy (Michael Harney) is not seen as often as he once was, and while Sophia Burset’s (Laverne Cox) story is central to the season, Cox is rarely seen. When she is onscreen the actress is haunting, and the viewer quickly makes an opinion of their own on the value of solitary confinement. The acting is again top-notch from all players. Uzo Aduba, Samira Wiley, Kate Mulgrew, Laura Gomez, Constance Shulman, Kimiko Glenn and Alan Aisenberg step into their characters and for 13 episodes to deliver performances that make the final moments of the season emotionally crushing in the best ways.
With the number of characters to balance, weaving every plot together is a formidable task. Season four brings stories together better than any previous year. Tiny details build on themselves and the actions of one character have grand meanings for others in future episodes. Stories connecting in unexpected ways has always been a motif for the show, but never quite like this. The storycrafting is intricate and carved out in such a way that minor decisions in episode one have a direct effect on what will likely be called “the moment” of episode 12.
The fourth season carries a darkness with it throughout its run. In reflecting real-world situations inside the fictionalized Litchfield community, there is more depth this time around than in season 3. It touches on important matters of today and tells those ‘ripped from the headlines’ stories that had an obvious impact on everyone involved, from the actors to the directors to the writers. The weight of that darkness is always balanced out by humor that makes the show endearing.
Season four is most certainly not a good entry point for new viewers, but for long-time viewers it is rewarding beyond compare. It is also a good selling point to get your friends to start watching the show. Start organizing those binge-watch parties now, and let us know which new guard is the worst when you’re done.