This review contains spoilers from episodes one and two of Orange is the New Black, Season Four.
“You are absolutely unique. Just like everybody else. Margaret Mead.”—Piper Chapman
In the cellblock tangle of Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season, Piper Chapman’s a half-hearted chief. As MCC’s profit-taking leaves Litchfield overcrowded and understaffed, she tries to assert her power, staring into the middle distance and sniping at her new bunkmate—tactics learned at the Mean Girls School of Leadership, apparently—but she lacks Red’s stiff spine. Her arc, at least for now, seems clear: Either she’ll learn to rule with an iron fist, develop a more democratic approach (“You have to think globally,” the bunkmate advises), or suffer the consequences of a coup.
That Piper’s is (still) among the series’ least dramatic plotlines should come as no surprise. As her self-satisfied citation of the anthropologist Margaret Mead suggests, she was once our entree into the world of a women’s prison, but she is no longer Orange Is the New Black’s central subject—with her family and friends more or less absent from the picture, she’s become just another member of the sprawling cast. Her sense of control, like Caputo’s, is an illusion, thwarted by top bunks and damp towels, and compared with the most formidable inmates of seasons past (Red, Vee, even Gloria), she doesn’t exactly have her finger on the prison’s pulse. Of all the shit going down within Litchfield’s walls, she’s blissfully unaware.
To wit: Alex and Lolly kill Kubra’s hitman-turned-guard, dismember his body, and bury it in the garden, with Piper none the wiser. This has the unfortunate side effect of giving Lolly, the most contrived and endlessly annoying character to appear on the show since Larry left, additional screen time, and her incessant rambling rings hollow in the context of Alex’s ambivalence. Far more effective is the quiet, tearful moment in which Alex, after the startling sight of the man’s eyes flickering open, decides to end his life. Her remorse—for this choice, and for all the choices that led to it—is palpable, even if his death amounts to self-defense.
The real problem, of course, is that “Work That Body For Me” is as messy as Frieda’s “murder math”; without the focus of its ingenious flashbacks, Orange Is the New Black becomes so loose, so slack, that it struggles to sustain momentum. There are, as always, brilliant bits of comic invention—Black Cindy’s description of America as the “land of the free, home of the racist”—and political wit—the sharp visual contrast between the amateurish Litchfield regulars and the bruising, black-clad S.W.A.T. team brought in to usher the inmates back from the lake—but the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts. To “think globally,” as it were, demands more minute detail, more concentration, not less.
Returning to the series’ regular structure, “Powersuit” illustrates this point, working through the realignment of Litchfield’s racial/ethnic alliances by turning its attention to Maria. Her adolescent battle against her father’s obsessive Dominican nationalism (“Homeland forever!”) clarifies the episode’s main thrust, which is to reconsider the broad categories (“white,” “black,” “Latina”) that largely define prison life. It does this with admirable nuance, as unwilling as ever to lean on the concepts of colorblindness or the post-racial society, and yet clear-eyed about the fact that our identities derive from other factors, too.
On the one hand, Black Cindy, or Tovah, recently converted to Judaism, spars with her Muslim cube-mate—”Like you was born in Karachi”—while Yoga Jones bristles at TV star Judy King’s special treatment, such that their (religious, ethical, political, interpersonal) differences outweigh their similarities. On the other, Maria finds her long-held resistance to such clannishness tested by two white inmates’ unprovoked attack on Flores; the evolution from, “If this is what it means to be Dominican, then I ain’t gonna be Dominican no more,” which she screams at her father (in English) in one flashback, to “Let’s see how we do together,” which she says (in Spanish) to conclude the episode, is swift and decisive.
In the end, though, “Powersuit” is full-throated in its conviction that the real culprit behind all the infighting and backbiting is the prison system itself. It’s not just that MCC (which receives $30,000 per inmate through its government contract, not to mention the free labor that allows it to operate Litchfield on a shoestring) is avaricious in the extreme, or that Caputo is now callous enough to see earplugs and port-a-potties as solutions to the lack of space. It’s that incarceration, by design, attempts to strip away the self, replacing it, at most, with a stereotype. Caputo removes Judy King from her assigned bunk in the “ghetto” because, to him, she does not “belong” there; the ever-repulsive Healy, Burdened White Man, remarks on the relative merits of Haitians and “blacks” as if he were Rudyard Kipling, reporting from the wilds of the wards. The inmates’ most heroic endeavor is to fight this awful logic, though Orange Is the New Black is not so sentimental to suggest that the outcome is ever better than a draw. They are indeed absolutely unique, just like everybody else.
Other thoughts and quotes from “Work That Body for Me” and Powersuit>
Kukudio’s infatuation with Suzanne’s erotic fiction might once have been sweet, but it’s starting to creep me out, quite frankly.
Daya is irate at Aleida for screwing with the plan for Pornstache’s mother, Delia, to adopt the baby: “Kids that go into the system is like flushing a goldfish down the toilet. They don’t swim back up.”
Black Cindy is the clear MVP of the season’s first two episodes; every word that comes out of her mouth is gold. For example: “From the Latin, fair: go suck a fart.” (She’s also reading Budd Schulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run?—a nice touch.)
Matt Brennan is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Indiewire, Paste, Slant, The Week, Flavorwire, Deadspin, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.