For most of us, pretending racial tension doesn’t exist is key to our continued happy existence on this planet. It’s awkward, uncomfortable, alien and most importantly, we really don’t want to make fools of ourselves. In the context of daily life, that’s more or less manageable, depending on where you live, what news sources you engage with and how many idiots you count among your friends on Facebook.
In a fictional US penitentiary like say, Litchfield, less so.
With three seasons under its baggy prison issue jumpsuit, Jenji Kohan’s comedy drama Orange Is The New Black had received plaudits for its portrayal of diversity in a female prison environment, but critics had also noted that while many ethnic groups were represented, some of the storylines were underdeveloped while others pandered to stereotypes and tropes.
In essence, the writers were caught between a rock and a hard place for this, the most eagerly anticipated drop on Netflix since, well, the last one. In its three years of existence, OITNB has developed an absurdly huge following, drawn in by the humour, the emotional journeys and (in no small part) the “will they, won’t they” narrative arc of Alex and Piper. For aficionados of women’s prison drama, OITNB’s power couple have kept us interested for four seasons, while the suit burning, nurse costumed smouldering exchanges between Nicky and Helen from Bad Girls was self-sustaining for a season and a half at best.
That is an achievement worthy of recognition.
But the perpetuation of a love story between two white middle class women was never going to fly unencumbered through another round of episodes, and while the show’s writing team could be dismissed as reactionary for responding to their critics by addressing issues of racial tension, prison officer conduct, abuse and depersonalisation in Season 4’s storylines, the fact they did it so effectively should absolve them of any blame.
Not that the volte-face was evident from the start. Arriving for our fourth stint in Litchfield, all is normal. Warden Caputo has lost control and the inmates have wandered through a hole in the fence to a nearby lake and are bathing. Apart from Alex Vause, whose spent the last nine months being strangled in the greenhouse. That’s a long time to wait for rescue, but arrive it eventually does, in the form of Lolly. Lolly, played with scenery chewing glee by a wildly on-form Lori Petty, rescues Alex, kills her tormentor (neatly tying up the motivation for all Alex’s paranoia from S3) and preparing the ground for a body disposal that was never destined to be successful.
We watch as new guards are brought in to solve the staffing crisis. Veterans who set about proving that three years in a theatre of conflict doesn’t qualify one to ensure the safety and wellbeing of female prisoners, no matter what the cost/benefit analysis PowerPoint demonstrates. We see Poussay and Soso fall in love, cheer as Susanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren finds a woman slightly further up he unhinged scale than she, and snort in faint amusement as Piper inadvertently starts a White Power group while trying to seek revenge on Maria Ruiz’ gang for breaking up her soiled pantie export monopoly.
OITNB is generally baggy in its midsection, so we can be forgiven for ignoring the scenery being rearranged stage right while our eyes were fixed on Sophia’s plight in Segregation. Blanca Flores’ tabletop protest, Ramos’ abuse at the hands of Humphrey (one of the new guards whose psychopathy dial has been turned up to eleven) and Red’s sleep deprivation all unfold across our screens and yet only when Suzanne and on/off love interest Maureen Kukudio are forced to fight each other for the amusement of the guards does the mechanism of depersonalisation and torture reveal itself in its full glory.
Having retreated into sharply defined ethnic groups during the series, the inmates realise they have a common enemy and in a moment of what appears to be triumph against Desi Piscatella and his band of war ravaged torture artists, everyone climbs aboard the tables instead of obeying an order.
I won’t spoil what happens next, because I want to give you a last chance to feel the full effect of the last two episodes of Series 4, ‘The Animals’ and ‘Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again’. In the latter, flashback sequences describe a life in lurid detail, a life of experience and sensation, a sense of optimism and hope. Without hammering the point home, OITNB takes one of its finest characters and reminds us that while we’re busy grouping people by skin colour, ethnic background, sexuality or whatever other arbitrary lines we see fit to draw between ourselves and them, we have more in common than what sets us apart.
Television is the most powerful medium in the world and when it’s made like this, I feel hopeful.
In these troubled times, that’s all we can ask for.