[Be warned: detailed spoilers through the end of Season 4 follow.]
It’s no secret that this year, TV character deaths have become a hotly-contested topic, especially given the high percentage of female, people of color and LGBTQ characters who have been killed off. And the fourth season of “Orange is the New Black” just added another character to that list, in a finale that proved to be some of the most brutal television of the year so far.
“Prison wasn’t built on humanity,” C.O. Piscatella (Brad William Henke) declares just at the climax of Episode 12, “The Animals,” in which an attempt at peaceful protest backfires in the worst way. Tensions have been building all season long, thanks to overcrowding, racial divisions, the discovery of a guard’s body in the garden and increased guard brutality. So when Piscatella orders his men to get the prisoners under control, the confrontation between officers and inmates gets violent, and ends with Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) dead from suffocation.
Only three inmates have died before on “OITNB,” and not like this. Poussey, who worked in the library, made prison hooch, spoke fluent German and ached so desperately for love, had been a beloved character since Season 1. And the scene makes clear that her death was the definition of senseless.
Poussey, with her last breaths, says it that hurts. She tells Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), the panicking and inexperienced guard holding her down, to get off her. The exact words “I can’t breathe” are never uttered — but nothing exists in a vacuum, and not just the death of Eric Garner, but the entire Black Lives Matter movement, blend into the scene as we watch a woman die for no good reason.
And then we watch as representatives of MCC, the private corporation now running Litchfield, go on a journey to find “the right story” about what happened. They begin by looking for ways to say that the incident was Poussey’s fault, searching her record for any evidence that she could be considered violent; soon, they try to shift the blame to Bailey, the guard. The comparisons to be made, to similar attempts at spin following other unnecessary and tragic deaths, are blatant… Especially when “Director of Human Activities” Caputo takes his own angle, attempting to categorize what happened as a situation that erupted because Bayley was “set up to fail” — and thus Bayley will not even be fired.
Mercy for Bayley means no justice for Poussey, and violence erupts, Poussey’s best friend Taystee leading the riot that ensues. In distinct contrast to Season 3’s joyful chaos, the second-to-last scene of the season leaves us on the verge of more bloodshed, fueled by the most understandable sort of rage.
Poussey’s death in Episode 12 proves emotionally devastating on a level beyond so many other character deaths this year. And one reason why is found in Episode 13’s interwoven flashbacks to pre-prison life, which focus on Poussey (only the second time she’s had a full episode dedicated to her past).
Oftentimes, “OITNB” flashbacks serve the basic purpose of revealing just how an individual prisoner found themselves in federal custody, and Poussey’s storyline does seem to chronicle the night she was arrested. But we only find out exactly what landed her in jail — trespassing and marijuana possession with intent to sell — the day after her death, as a MCC employee looks through her file for any evidence that she could be categorized as “thuggish.” Poussey is never arrested on screen — instead, we just follow her on what might have been her last night of freedom. And it’s beautiful.
Poussey is two weeks away from moving to Amsterdam for a whole new adventure, and comes to New York City for a concert. Separated from her friends and without a cell phone, she finds herself on a random, almost Fellini-esque journey through the city, going to strange clubs with drag queens and accepting bicycle rides from fake monks. It’s the sort of magical night that you might only experience once in a lifetime, and the last shot of the season is Poussey gazing out at the lights of the city, laughing at the wonder of it all, so very alive.
It’s extremely unfortunate that Poussey’s death comes on the heels of equally beloved LGBTQ characters like Lexa (“The 100”). But she was also far from being a token representation of her minority, and the impact of her loss is, in the end, truly seismic, on both a narrative and thematic level.
With Poussey, pairing the beauty of this one night with the tragedy of the life lost leaves an real impact. It’s both political and emotional, paying tribute to the character and taking the death seriously. It hurts to think about, because it matters. The way death should.
“Orange is the New Black” Season 4 is streaming now on Netflix.