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Orange Is The New Black fails to make a black life matter

Photo: Netflix
Photo: Netflix

This piece discusses major plot points of Orange Is The New Black’s fourth season.

This season of Orange Is The New Black has been the most divisive one yet. Some critics, like The A.V. Club’s own Joshua Alston, have praised season four as the show’s best—13 thrilling episodes that won back viewers after a meandering third season. It’s true that this year OITNB took on topics that went beyond the failures of the prison industrial complex, turning its attention to a system of racial injustice that exists in the for-profit prison Litchfield. While past seasons have been celebrated for their diversity and complex representation of minority characters, OITNB’s attempt to take on the topics of racism and police brutality has faced criticism. Accusations of exploitation and the use of black suffering as entertainment have been impossible to ignore after bingeing through the season.

These accusations aren’t unfounded or, as The A.V. Club’s Myles McNutt argued, the complaints of critics who don’t understand the complexity of TV. In fact, they highlight a crossroads in the show’s narrative. Past seasons pulled off a mix of humor, humanity, and tragedy as the writers explored the stories of individual women and the effect prison had on their lives. This season, however, glazes over the unique humanity of these women in an attempt to make a grander statement in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. This isn’t a topic that should be off-limits to the show; it’s just clear that a writers’ room without any black writers wasn’t sure how to handle such a topic. Fusion reported that “Of the 16 people who have writing credits on all four seasons of the show, one is Latino and one is Asian.” The vast majority are women. (Note: Fusion, like​ The A.V. Club, is owned by Univision Communications.) The result is a season that walks the line between offensive and misguided.

Photo: Netflix

The turning point of this season’s Orange Is The New Black came in episode 12, “The Animals.” After nonstop abuse at the hands of the new correctional officers, the inmates take a literal stand together on cafeteria tables. In a season that focuses on the racial divisions of prison, this is an exciting moment, as the prisoners’ factions finally joined together to face the larger threat. Unfortunately, that moment doesn’t last. As soon as the guards start to remove the prisoners from the tables, a scuffle breaks out. Poussey (Samira Wiley) is pinned under a guard’s knee, and the true motivations of the scene become clear. The murder of Eric Garner is evoked as Poussey struggles to breathe. Poussey’s body is left on the cafeteria floor for hours after her death, recalling the similar mistreatment of Mike Brown’s body by Ferguson police. The show knows its source material, and as a black viewer, it was impossible for me to view Poussey’s death outside of this context.

Photo: Netflix

OITNB was finally navigating heavier topics, but the show handled them in a way that highlights the show’s inability to face the reality surrounding the deaths of those killed at the hands of the police. The episode leading up to Poussey’s final moments focuses on the teenage years of Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), Poussey’s murderer. The viewer is painted into a corner that says, “Hey, good guys make mistakes!” When the show decided to humanize Bayley, it caused Poussey’s death to mirror those of Garner and Brown only in terms of visuals. This exploitative choice allows OITNB to position itself with the Black Lives Matter movement for entertainment, but stops short of assigning actual blame for Poussey’s death. The show removes the political circumstances of white privilege, supremacy, and police violence by making Poussey’s murderer one of the good guys in a sea of bad guys.

Photo: Netflix

For this reason, the show falls short of realizing the true demands of the Black Lives Matter movement. In a season that saw a newly formed white supremacist group shouting “All Lives Matter” while presenting its members as misunderstood racists who just think Hitler could’ve used better advice, the show holds tight to its “we’re all good people” narrative and ignores the danger behind that way of thinking. Piper (Taylor Schilling)’s discrimination against the Dominican girls when they threaten her mail-order panty business is more than just another case of Piper being the worst. She’s actively using her white privilege to put women of color in danger. The swastika that the Dominicans then brand on her is quickly turned into a “window” that she seems to like as much as her other prison tattoos. The show doesn’t paint Piper as a bad person for what she did, even though it should. White supremacy should be an easy thing for the show to stand against. White supremacy is not something that has shades of gray we should accept.

Poussey’s death was particularly disappointing because it came at the end of a season that made her character little more than a collection of optimistic dreams and hopes that would never come to fruition. All season, her character has little guidance. Her drinking problem and motivations are replaced by a relationship that seems to come straight from a Tumblr hashtag. As soon as Martha Stewart stand-in Judy King (a brilliant Blair Brown) offers Poussey the promise of a job after she’s released, it becomes obvious that Poussey would not be leaving prison. Writing off a character from a TV show isn’t easy, but the best of shows manage to keep those characters involved in the action so their deaths come as some short of shock. As Poussey spends the season honeymooning with annoying radical Soso (Kimiko Glenn), she’s minimized to the point where she becomes a mere plot device. Her death could have represented the realities of police brutality. Instead, it plays as a cheap way to write off a character with a wink toward current headlines.

OITNB doesn’t fully understand the stories beyond those headlines. Last week, videos of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile took over Facebook news feeds. Casually posted between cat videos and photos of Fourth Of July parties were videos that featured the bleeding bodies of murdered black men. Their deaths represent a reality that OITNB doesn’t even begin to unpack in the death of Poussey. It doesn’t matter if the cops who committed these injustices grew up in small towns and were just doing their best like Bayley. What matters is that their actions and a system that condones those actions caused these men to lose their lives. More importantly, it was a rare instance where the truth was caught on tape and immediately made available to the public.

Photo: Netflix

Bringing the truth to light has been a principal demand of those who fight against racism and police brutality. The demand isn’t for retribution or violence. It’s for us all to recognize that there’s an issue and it needs to be addressed. The non-violent protests that have taken place over the last week simply ask us to realize the truth. In the finale, OITNB missed a great opportunity to realize this demand. With media gathering outside the prison for Judy King’s release and the prisoners revolting, the show finally confronts an opportunity for the brutality of the prison—and the tragedy of Poussey’s death—to make it outside the Litchfield walls into the world. As Judy King walks down the halls to freedom, it seems as though the prisoners are rushing to the light with her.

Photo: Netflix

Instead of following through on this setup, OITNB chooses to give us the threat of more death as an entertaining cliffhanger. The prisoners surround Judy King and Officer Humphrey (Michael Torpey), one of the season’s main villains. After sitting on the bench for most of the season, Daya (Dascha Polanco) picks up Humphrey’s gun and points it at him. The women cheer for her to shoot. Inmates of every color demand his death. In that one moment, the show erases the humanity that four seasons had built to present these characters as more than just murderers and criminals. While the season ends with Daya frozen between two choices, reality again shows us what the actual consequences of her actions could look like. In Dallas, the gun went off. One man’s idea of retribution was served, and the aftermath isn’t a cliffhanger that has us sitting on the edge of our seats; it’s terror. The reality of the violence promised by OITNB’s finale is terrifying.

It’s difficult to describe the sense of dread and terror that looms over Dallas right now. I’m a fifth-generation Texan born in Dallas. My entire family lives there. I asked my mother if everyone was okay, if they had all made it home safely from the rally. While they had, she said it just felt like they had turned a corner toward some new, unknowable threat. Safety no longer felt guaranteed. This is the reality into which OITNB has placed its characters with its finale. If the gun goes off and a C.O. is killed while OITNB continues to make a case for gray areas and lighthearted white supremacy, it doesn’t seem likely that the show will be able to handle this new reality of increased racial tension.

In contrast to last season, the fourth season finale brings nothing but questions and anguish. Poussey was more than a fan favorite. She was one of the rare characters who was liked by nearly every group in Litchfield. She was easily the show’s most sympathetic character. Why, then, is the audience left with no resolution following her death? Why does warden Caputo (Nick Sandow), who was driven to try to take down the prison on behalf of condemned-to-solitary Sophia (Laverne Cox, whose diminished presence also hurt the season), suddenly disregard all of the inmates and support the very guards he threatened to fire? Caputo, above any other officer, has always seen the humanity of the women in his care. Why doesn’t Poussey’s death motivate him to finally use his spotlight to make the injustices happening at Litchfield known? Why isn’t the death of one of Litchfield’s most beloved inmates the last straw?

The show seems to believe Bayley’s nerdy “good guy” characterization is enough of a reason for Caputo to defend him. Justice for Poussey, however, is limited to a one-sided phone call between Caputo and her father and a press conference that leaves her a nameless victim. She deserved more than what the season’s final moments provide—Daya pointing a gun at Humphrey, all fates still uncertain while the inmates demand blood, their peaceful protest turned into violence. Given the country’s current situation, it’s hard to think of a worse narrative for this season of OITNB than a predominantly white writers’ room deciding to tackle the issue of racial injustice and coming to the conclusion that what women of color must really want is vicious retribution.