Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
There are nearly infinite reasons why Orange Is The New Black has resonated so loudly with so many people in such a short span of time. Its honest characters, juicy drama, and unashamedly blunt depiction of what life in a prison is like (as a woman, a black woman, a Dominican woman, etc) are bound to constitute a few of those. Others might appreciate Jenji Kohan’s masterfully laid-back tone that – after four years – still ebbs and flows into mouth-covering shockers with ease – which makes sense, given the woman essentially created the bedrock of the unforgettable season finale in Weeds.
I like its simple insights. Suzanne, aka Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), has slowly been getting more to do – and be – since her pie-throwing meme-ifying in season 1 and, as things go downhill for her in season 4, she reminisces about the speechless cues her parents could give one another after years of marriage, mostly signalling a readiness for sex. Scrubbing the floor of a bathroom, pausing, thinking it over, she admits, “I always wanted to know someone that well.” It’s a small moment, but not an inconsequential one, and it packs a devastating little sting if you allow it to.
Orange is the New Black is essentially a show created of scenes like that, a novella of stories and characters and moments in motion. After going full Big Bad in season 2 with Vee, Kohan has allowed things to cool down, simmering the show’s consistently 60-minute-long episodes with a chilled-out vibe that doesn’t belie its ability to shock. But the reason the show feels so vital – perhaps now more than ever, unfortunately – is that it does all of this with a rotating cast of old and new faces that repeatedly, aggressively vie for your attention with their collectively nuanced depiction of race, religion, class, and sexuality.
It’s that last point that made my six hours with Orange is the New Black season 4 particularly cathartic. And, as it should, it all starts in a lake. The miniature walkabout that served as the coda for last year is cut short, predictably, as the women are corralled back into Litchfield Penitentiary. Some, like Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore, lively as ever), are simply happy for the unexpected-but-welcome temporary escape from prison life. Others are hoping for a more permanent solution, forcing sort-of warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) to hunt down runaways while attempting to settle 100 new inmates into Litchfield.
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That sardine-can lifestyle is chaos erupting across much of season 4’s stories, and it’s an effective instigator of drama. Overcrowding forces Piper (Taylor Schilling) to rejigger her bustling used panty business (“Felonious Spunk”), eventually dealing with encroaching competition once a few of her trade secrets become public knowledge. But, don’t worry, she’s a self-proclaimed gangsta now, “like with an ‘a’ at the end.” She’s got this covered. Alex (Laura Prepon) is in far deeper waters, following a right-where-we-left-off cliffhanger resolution that leaves her in cahoots with endearingly batshit Lolly (Lori Petty), and more estranged from ex-girlfriend Piper than ever.
OGs rule the nest – as one of the newbies points out later on – but the new inmates still have their stories to tell. The big name here is Judith King (Blair Brown), Orange is the New Black‘s inevitable Martha Stewart dig that produces far more dramatic teeth than expected. She spends much of the early hours spritzing around the garden, teaching a prison cooking class, and becoming a humorous addition to a love triangle begun last year between prickly cook Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) and walking dictionary definition of the word “schmuck,” Sam Healy (Michael Harney). But give it time – her bad side will come out.
That’s a sentiment that blankets a lot of Orange is the New Black: patience. Characters that have been on the show for years, some who’ve never even met, you might come to realize with a sideswiped awe, are thrown together in satisfying, rewarding new groups. It’s not truly fruitful until they break each other down – and the show’s tidbit backstories sprinkle new information in – but you’re likely to be easily pulled along until that happens. They aren’t all happy, either, much to Orange is the New Black‘s benefit. It takes a few hours (again, patience) but eventually we see the status of Sophia (Laverne Cox) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) in the SHU and max, respectively.
Like the flashbacks, the settings – as confined as they are – open the show up to some deeply dark and unsettling dramatic storytelling, and Cox in particular appears nearly ravenous at the chance to see the rock bottom of a character who’s normally so buoyant. She’s just one feather in a cap of dozens; Schilling is still strong as Piper, and her shuffling into the wings – sometimes for an entire episode – is kept consistent with last year, but she makes an impact as the earnest gang leader in training.
Her inability to keep her crunchy granola upbringing a secret – “Go ahead, jump ship like the rats you are,” she menaces to a few traitorous turncoats. “And I’m not talking about the Disney/Pixar kind” – will resonate brilliantly for anyone still laughing at that TOMS Shoes joke in season 1. And this is all without mentioning Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) new desk job, Morello’s (Yael Stone) new beau, and a beautifully audacious dive into the after effects of Pennsatucky’s (Taryn Manning) rape last season.