This latest season of Orange is the New Black was a punch to the chest, not least because of how uproariously absurd so much of the season was. Picking up right where the third season left off, I was quite literally in stitches watching Lolly come to Alex’s rescue and the not-so-ailing Frieda help them dismember and bury the body. The hilarity continued with Piper sauntering around the exit to the prison yard, assuming that everyone is running away from her and declaring her innate gangster status to the air and Chang (‘gangsta with an a’ - to be precise).
I should have seen the devastation coming, really, what with Lorna already lost again in her desperate attempts to escape the reality of her life mere hours after getting married. And on top of that, the new bride is sent on a downward spiral when a guard - Charlie Coates, who raped Pennsatucky last season - forces her to hand over her toilet paper veil. With Dayanara bleeding after giving birth, there is nothing else to use to soak up her menstrual blood while the prisoners are being held in the cafeteria.
The signs were all there that this was going to be a harrowing season. But did I pay attention? Not at all.
I laughed at Piper as she was one-upped, again and again, by her new bunkmate. I shook my head with a smile on my face as the debacle of covering up the murder of a hitman-drug-dealer became more and more hilariously ridiculous. The new edition of a celebrity to Litchfield Penitentiary had me actually doubled over as a snapshot was captured of her running down a hallway in terror with the now Jewish Cindy in hot pursuit, a manic grin on her face.
And most of all, I revelled in the heartwarming, piercing relationship between Poussey and Brook that had blossomed all at once like a marigold.
What I loved so much about this dynamic was that it wasn’t perfect or over-romanticised. Brook makes some far-too-hasty assumptions about Poussey’s past before the two have actually gotten to know one another, and Poussey is reluctant to forgive her afterwards, shielding her wounded pride and her memory of her mother. Brook also isn’t willing to jump headfirst (pardon the pun) into certain sexual acts, which could easily be seen by Poussey as a sign that she isn’t truly committed to the relationship or that she doesn’t care as much about Poussey as Poussey cares about her.
But the brilliant, well-read free spirit doesn’t even take a step down that path. She assures Brook from the very beginning that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to do, and that she wants to spend time with her no matter what.
It was a relationship grounded in comfort and curiosity, care and joy. And it was beautiful.
Then, like a frypan to the back of the head out of nowhere, everything changed and became very, very dark.
Judy King, the Martha Stweart-esque celebrity doing time simply to avoid backlash from the media, goes from being comically forthright to suddenly revealing everything despicable about the human race. Not just about wealth and privilege, but the deep-down selfishness and apathy that can so easily take over, if we let it.
We finally see Nicky again and it’s like witnessing the sun poke through the clouds after months and months of incessant rain. She’s managed to stay sober for three years, and even does everything she can to help keep Sofia sane while she’s in the slot. But the magazine Nicky leaves with this woman she barely knows in an attempt to save her ends up being used by Sofia against herself. Whether it was to finally get the attention of the prison’s administration or simply to end her suffering, I have no idea. But it is enough to break Nicky, and literally days - maybe even hours - before she’s taken back to minimum security, reunited with her family and freed from the hell that is max, she decides to sell herself in order to get high again.
Watching the inimitable Natasha Lyonne’s face as she’s pushed down to her knees by the vile guard who traffics the drugs is nothing short of excruciating, and I honestly cannot believe that the season only grows more horrifying from there.
The fact that Piper inadvertently rallies a white power group in the prison is almost - almost - outrageously funny, in a Tom Stoppard kind of way. That is, until the true horrendousness of that mode of thinking is encapsulated in the physical act of Maria Ruiz and her followers branding Piper’s forearm with a swastika.
The pain and utter desolation we see Piper go through after this violation could almost be a reflection of the abuse and lack of control so many oppressed minorities experience in their lives, but I’m not sure the show was trying to be quite that analytical. Nonetheless, there is a plethora of anguish to feel for Piper, and for what she comes to realise she’s set in motion in this toxic, claustrophobic, seditious environment.
We also have to witness the adorable Maritza go from being an inmate who seems to be capable of making any situation completely blithe to someone who is completely broken by the sudden awareness of how little autonomy she has. What the new CO Humphrey forces her do to is its own disgusted, twisted breed of abuse, and even with Maritza’s instantaneous shift back to her old, seemingly superficial self, I cannot help but wonder what kind of lasting damage this will have on her mentality and her life.
And why oh why did CO McCullough not step in and do something about this abuse of power that she clearly knew was afoot? I was actually really starting to like her, and now she’s lying face-down on the linoleum floor of the prison with her hands on her head. Well, there’s always next season.
The show also continued its trenchant exploration of mental illness when it gave us a backstory for both Lolly Whitehall and Sam Healy’s mother. It is yet another shock to the system to see Lolly go from being solely a source of pure comedic relief to the protagonist of an episode that showcased just how easily the lives of those who are homeless or who suffer from a mental illness (or both) can be toppled to the ground. And while Lolly pushes through being abandoned by everyone around her after the collapse of her grasp on reality, she manages to forge her own community and find a coping mechanism for the overwhelming weight of the voices she hears.
What truly cut me to the core, though, was how Lolly’s attempt to overcome these twisted voices and invasive thoughts led to her being arrested, after two policemen who stopped her on the street assumed that the bells she used to dispel the confusion in her head were a weapon.
In Lolly’s mind, travelling back in time is a possibility, along with evading every government agency in the United States. But perhaps the terror and sense of loss this incredible woman experiences on a daily basis is so harrowing and so destructive that her body has no choice but to create this reality, and accept it as truth.
Lori Petty’s embodiment of Lolly is extraordinary - so mesmerising that even during the most excruciating moments of her performance, you cannot look away - and I cannot help but grieve over Lolly’s fate, being sent down to the psych ward and left there to fracture. The same goes for Healy’s mother, subjected to what I can only assume is electric shock therapy. She has no choice, either, but to shrink away into the night, unable to survive in a world that will not accept or help her until it can beat her into a suitable shape.
We are given hope for a minute that Healy has stumbled across his mother on the streets of New York, decades after she disappears from their family home. But the revelation that the woman Healy embraces and tries to comfort is not in fact his mother is just another knife through the heart, stealing even more of our faith in the world.
And yet, the fact that Lolly truly does believe in the chance to go back and refuse to let go of happiness, to find forgiveness, and forgive others restores some of my confidence in the world, and in the resilience of the human spirit.
If anyone is going to be the second person in the history of Litchfield to survive psych, it’ll be Lolly.
Now, the next couple of tragedies that the show imposed on us this season were both unbelievably and heartrendingly executed and shattering, so forgive me if I don’t dwell on them. The monstrous CO Humphrey, on top of torturing Maritza by forcing her to eat either a baby mouse or a handful of dead flies, instigates a fight between Suzanne and the inmate who is seemingly infatuated with her, Maureen. The latter is unstable enough, and hurt enough by Suzanne’s apparent rejection, to volunteer to fight, even when Suzanne insists that she does not want to inflict pain on anyone.
And juxtaposed together so gut-wrenchingly that it’s almost impossible to watch, we see Suzanne lose herself, becoming just as unhinged as Maureen as she pummels her into oblivion, interspersed with the younger Suzanne’s desperate attempts to hold on to a connection with another human being who needs her just as much as she needs them.
Watching her heartbreak as the boy she thought was her friend runs away from her towards the window of her sister’s apartment, high above the street, I was already broken. And that was before this fragile woman with so much love reached out for this child she cared so much about (or, at least, truly believed, with all her heart, that she did) and failed to grasp hold of him before he fell backwards off of the fire-escape.
Without the devastation of realising that she’d nearly destroyed another human being, back in the present, Suzanne wouldn’t have garnered the determined concern of Poussey, who, in trying to stop her vulnerable friend from being hurt by a guard, is inadvertently, horrendously killed.
I say ‘inadvertently’ because the suffering the guard in question, probably no more than twenty years old, experiences in the aftermath is truly heartbreaking in its own right. However, the calculated way in which different guards abuse their power throughout this whole season and the fact that none of them are willing to come forward to confront this sickening callousness and sadism both contribute to the horrific events that bring this fourth season of Orange is the New Black to a close.
The last moments of the final episode show us the faces of countless inmates gathered together with Dayanara at the centre, pointing a gun at Humphrey, who is finally being held accountable for and experiencing the consequences of his actions. With these shots, we finally get a sense, if a bitter one, of justice. The prisoners rise up and decide (or perhaps they feel that they have no other choice) to demand more, to be seen as the human beings that they are, and always have been.
But Joe Caputo has already given us words of warning about the symbiosis of this prison, and, we can only assume, every other prison in the Western world. ‘Even if you’re the city now, one day you’ll be the monster,’ the Director of Human Activity warns the young CO Bayley, hours before he ends Poussey’s life. And so the twisted exchanges of power that sustain this suffocating environment keep going, pain being heaped on top of pain and empathy and despair being pushed aside, all in the name of survival.
Kristen is an aspiring playwright and undeniable fangirl. In her spare time, you might catch her at an Ingrid Michaelson concert or finding her zen on a yoga mat. She’s currently living in Chicago and studying playwriting and screenwriting at Northwestern University.