The theme song of Orange Is the New Black, “You’ve Got Time” by Regina Spektor, remains one of the catchiest opening themes in recent memory, helping to define the series as unique and singularly important. Played as the faces of real former inmates flash across the screen, the viewer is called to “Remember all their faces / Remember all their voices” as they strap in for yet another dive into the dark heart of the prison industrial complex. But where that call to remember might have once seemed abstract, the show’s fourth season turns it into a demand. The women in this series may be fictional, but their plight is painfully real. Don’t you dare forget that.
It’s the insistence that every woman’s story in this context is valuable that undergirds Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season — its strongest and most gut-wrenching to date. More characters and more stories are being added to the already sprawling narrative. (Remember back in 2013 when this show was just about one white woman’s stint in jail? Yeah that’s nowhere near the case anymore.) But showrunner Jenji Kohan has done an impressive job at balancing each arc with grace, levity, and her signature capacity for nuance. And the way all these parallel stories collide for both an explosive finale and a stunning statement against America’s prison problem cements the show as one of the best on television today.
Season four of OITNB picks up where season three left off, as an administrative walk-out results in the prisoners of Litchfield bursting through the gates to go swimming in a nearby lake. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is still trying to be the prison kingpin. Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) is fighting for her life. Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) and Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) are slowly but surely falling in love, while Suzanne Warren (Uzo Aduba) and Maureen Kukudio (Emily Althaus) are off in the woods on a romantic walkabout. And offscreen, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) is still in solitary confinement. Right off the bat, there’s a lot going on, and it takes an episode or three before things settle into alignment. (Given how much happened last year, it behooves any fan to take a few minutes and read a recap of season three before charging ahead.)
It’s when everyone returns to everyday prison life that the fourth season finds its rhythm. Last season saw Litchfield become a privatized prison under the unabashedly corrupt Management & Correction Corporation. Since then, a massive influx of inmates have been forced to join the current cast of characters, causing overcrowding and inevitable tensions between not only the new crop of guards and prisoners, but also between newly forged racial factions. It’s here that Kohan and her team show how well they’ve learned to handle their characters’ stories. This year features more inmates competing for attention, each with backstories and complex motivations. While the show is less reliant on flashbacks, the ones we see — like Soso’s canvassing days or Maritza’s time as a glamorous con artist — provide lenses into who these women are and how desperate their situations have become.
And make no mistake: things have gotten desperate. By midseason, it’s clear that Kohan is railing harder against the prison industrial complex than ever before. Where previous seasons might have painted the overall prison experience as deplorable, there was sufficient humor to make things feel like being stuck in a really awful summer camp. This year, mass incarceration is unquestionably evil, and the status quo is aided and abetted by authority figures either too conflicted to change anything meaningfully, like newly installed warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), or actively invested in its upkeep, like MCC employee Linda Ferguson (Beth Dover).
The new corrections officers, led by tyrannical captain of the guard Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke) are utterly unconcerned with the inmates as human beings with names and identities, and the new regime only reinforces that viewpoint. That’s evident in the treatment of Sophia, wrongfully confined to solitary "for her protection" with no means of communicating with her family or receiving the hormones she needs for her transition. It’s evident in Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) being forced to coexist with the guard who raped her last season.
Nowhere is it clearer than in the shocking death of a beloved character by one of the new guards. Killed in a chokehold, her death recalls the wrongful death of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by police in Staten Island after being arrested. Like Mike Brown, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, her body was left on the ground for hours. And as the prison scrambles to spin her death in order to absolve the guard of any responsibility, the viewer is reminded of Freddie Gray, who fell into a coma and died after his arrest in Baltimore though officers denied using unnecessary force. In tackling the very same issues faced by Black Lives Matter so viscerally, Orange Is the New Black makes its ongoing story timely and essential, and the fallout of this season’s events will be felt in seasons to come.
Jenji Kohan is pulling off the kind of incendiary social commentary few shows attempt
If Orange Is the New Black drew comparisons to The Wire for needing a white character to guide audiences into a world filled with complex people of color, this season deepens the parallel. Kohan is now fully and self-assuredly committing to the kind of incendiary social commentary few other shows even attempt, let alone pull off. While at times uneven, the show continues to be the finest in Netflix’s stable, bursting with quirky humor, sadness, and righteous indignation on behalf of the imprisoned women it depicts. And it’s a reminder that these women’s stories reflect the lived reality of prisoners everywhere, and that there’s time to do something about it.