Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” is better than ever in its dark, dauntless fourth chapter.
The strength of “Orange” has always been in its sweep. Though the series originally centered on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), an affluent white woman behind bars for her tangential involvement in an ex-girlfriend’s drug-smuggling ring, it became clear even before the first-season finale that Piper was the least intriguing inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary. And to their credit, creator Jenji Kohan and her writers changed course accordingly, expanding “Orange” into a more complex, colorful ensemble piece, one that — in a fourth season that streams Friday — challenges viewers to remain invested in a substantial, swelling cast of characters.
That it’s still easy for us to do this many seasons in (all 13 episodes were provided for review in full, and they fly by) is a testament to Kohan’s most flagrant talent as a showrunner: her ability to keep all of Litchfield’s narrative plates spinning at once while making such a balancing act look not just effortless but natural.
Even as the series continues to use flashbacks to deepen our understanding of inmates who’ve been at Litchfield since season one (back stories for Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne and Lori Petty’s Lolly prove especially devastating), it remains wonderfully adept at long-form storytelling, bringing new players into the prison and pairing its original protagonists in inventive, organic ways. More than ever, it’s clear that “Orange” is committed to meaningful thematic and narrative growth.
Last season, the show settled into a melancholic groove, wrestling primarily with the question of how personal identity can survive in a system designed to dehumanize. It took its strongest characters to very dark places — none more than Sophia (Laverne Cox), whose arc reflected the real-life mistreatment of transgender inmates, and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), whose rape at the hands of a prison guard (James McMenamin) constituted the most heartbreaking scene “Orange” has ever depicted.
The lasting impact of trauma, specifically that kind inflicted by individuals but enabled by institutions, is still front and center this season. Sophia remains in solitary, suffering out of sight after being moved there ostensibly for her own protection but in actuality as punishment for speaking out against the prison’s new corporate overlords. And Pennsatucky struggles to cope in the wake of her sexual assault, especially as her rapist begins to grasp the extent of the damage he’s dealt her. The former story line doesn’t feature as notably as the latter (a likely consequence of Cox’s busy schedule), but the show’s continued allegiance to both is evidence of Kohan’s admirable dedication to the long game.
That’s not to say that season four simply offers more of the same. New characters chew the scenery with aplomb, from celebrity chef Judy King (Blair Brown, channeling Paula Deen more than Martha Stewart – especially once one of her racist cooking videos surfaces at Litchfield) to a military-minded, top-dog guard willing to brutalize inmates into submission (Brad William Henke, as the most detestable character “Orange” has delivered to date). The series’ scope has never been broader, nor its ambition more apparent.
Litchfield is now for-profit, run from afar by painfully out-of-touch suits collectively known as MCC, and the show has shifted as a result from a thoughtful dissection of the American penal system to a rather damning (though at times hilarious) indictment of prison privatization. With new prisoners crowding every corner of the building, “Orange” is also taking steps to address mass incarceration and the harrowing impact that problem can have on every human being within a prison’s walls.
Even more thrillingly, the show leans hard into the racial and ethnic tensions that have always been bubbling beneath its surface. Without giving away any significant plot points (Netflix required all writers to sign an embargo that safeguarded against spoilers large and small),
Litchfield finds itself in the thick of a culture clash that at first seems amusing but escalates until it’s anything but. To its immense credit, this isn’t a network procedural-style, smash-and-grab stab at sociopolitical relevance; “Orange’s” conflict is deftly etched, starting small but expanding to address the failings of an entire system.
When Netflix first ushered this series into the world, it competed with comedies for the Emmys. Later, it was recategorized as a drama. Now, in season four, “Orange” soars higher than ever as many things. Chief among them: an ultimately tragic rallying cry against institutional oppression, a poignant exploration of women fighting to protect their every identity, and a passionate defense of their inalienable right to do so.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK
On Netflix, streaming Friday
Isaac Feldberg can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @i_feldberg.