Year by year, things keep getting worse and worse for the Litchfield Federal Penitentiary inmates, who have become the one fucked-up TV family we always look forward to visiting. It’s as much a testament to Netflix and creator Jenji Kohan, for showcasing the show’s diverse cast of incredible actors, as it is the power of television, which lets our relationships with characters, as technically one-sided as they might be, bloom and grow.
Like any relationship allowed to blossom, the potential for heartbreak is real. This year, that’s more true than ever.
Season 4 begins moments after the transcendent beauty of the Season 3 finale, picking up with the creation of bunk beds in the dorms. “Orange” thus immediately takes on the issue of prison overcrowding by immediately doubling the occupancy of the prison without additionally addressing the major infrastructure issues that occur. (Any scenario where tampons become a luxury item brings with it its own set of horrors.)
Kohan and her staff do what they do every year, and continue to escalate the problems facing these characters, while also allowing the ensemble cast to grow larger and deeper. One of the show’s biggest struggles is finding ways to make new characters feel as richly developed as the established ensemble, which is understandable when you have at least 15 characters we’ve come to know intimately, and new folks often get judged on the most superficial of criteria until the show finds time to dig in deeper.
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Martha Stewart pastiche Judy King (Blair Brown) stands out thanks to her celebrity inmate status, but there are a number of new players this year, only a few of whom truly move beyond basic tropes in these 13 episodes. But remembering the way that the arrival of Judy King was planted back in Season 3 serves as a reminder that “Orange” likes playing the long game, and Season 4 chooses to spotlight secondary and tertiary characters that have waited quite some time for their moment.
That said, episode lengths remain a problem — in the age of Netflix, when creators are allowed to stretch runtimes to their hearts’ delight, “Orange” regularly pushes beyond the 55 minute range, and there’s occasionally some level of drag. There are also some aspects of the season that prove a little jarring, especially the escalation of racial clashes that somehow sucks in Piper (Taylor Schilling).
Season 3 cemented the idea that “Orange” is an ensemble show, not the white-lady-in-prison story, but in Season 4 Schilling does get much more interesting material, while also serving as a reminder for viewers of just how far we’ve come since her arrival at the prison gates.
In seasons past, characters have seemed to vacillate between the realms of comedy and drama — compare the presence of Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) as a tragicomic foil in Season 1, to a violent force in Season 2, to almost entirely comic relief in Season 3. This season, though, the writers aim her right down the middle, with some subplots that help her lighten the mood, and others which prove heartbreaking. In general, “Orange” seems to have truly landed on its tonal balance, especially in early episodes of this season — which proves crucial, when the narrative grows darker and darker.
One of the show’s most impressive evolutions is that as it’s progressed, it’s relied less on the elements that made it stand out from other shows. Season 4 features at least one episode devoid of flashbacks, and in general it’s chosen to avoid clinging to the formulas that lesser series might have stuck with. From jettisoning Piper’s one-time fiancee Larry, to framing episodes around themes as opposed to characters, “Orange” may have pacing issues, but is never boring.
It’s always interesting to come back to the flashbacks, because close examination of them says an awful lot. For example — a few well-established characters get their first-ever backstories, but while we get some rich insight into who these people are, these scenes don’t reliably reveal exactly what made these women into inmates. And by not making these stories exclusively about the crimes, we remember that we are not defined by our worst days, our worst decisions — especially because the system is as fallible as the humans within it.
Season 4, especially at its close, is fiercely focused on this idea, even as it invokes much bigger problems that exist outside the microcosm of a fictional prison. Some of the most important aspects of this season are impossible to discuss without drifting into spoiler territory, and believe me, we’ll want to talk about them in the weeks to come. But while the last two episodes of Season 4 represent some of the toughest TV viewing of the year to date, they also represent some of the richest.
There’s been a sense of stakes-raising over the course of the show’s run, and with Season 4 that growing pressure builds to a place where perhaps the greatest tragedy in the show’s run, to date, feels truly earned.
The message that has built with each episode, each year, is that while a functioning society will never be free of crime, and thus requires some degree of punishment, there are aspects of our current system that are deeply dysfunctional. And you can dig into policy issues, explore the drawbacks of privatization and the injustices of mandatory minimums. But the fact is that when we create scenarios where the basic humanity of people is stripped away, there’s a ripple effect that ruins so many lives.
There are so few shows on television that really examine humanity in such a direct way. “Orange” doesn’t hide behind metaphors or high-concept premises. It simply asks that you look these women in the eye, and remember that they’re looking back.