In 2014 the Onion ran a headline that describes watching Orange Is the New Black all too well: “Woman Takes Short Half-Hour Break From Being Feminist To Enjoy TV Show.” With its vivid discussions of race, gender, and sexuality, Orange Is the New Black might not seem like it requires this kind of cognitive dissonance from feminists, but the fourth season had me in a pickle. This kind of TV should be hard to watch, but the outlandish pacing of season four seems to value trauma for the sake of drama and comes at the experiences of abused women from a gossipy, sensationalistic angle.
This time around, overcrowding at Litchfield Penitentiary is a problem in more ways than one. While the now-privatized facility doubles in population and becomes an even more inhumane environment for the women held there, the show itself ham-fistedly explores allusions to real-life occurrences of police brutality like the murder of Eric Garner and speedily packs the rest of the script with social issues du jour. Anti-trans violence, schizophrenia, Islamophobia, white pride, fascism, aging sexuality, and “How do you solve a problem like Martha?” are just a few of season four’s quagmires.
The program hits a particularly sour note when it comes to Sophia Burset, played by trans actress Laverne Cox. The admin at the Litchfield prison holds Burset in the solitary holding unit (“the SHU”) without cause for most of the fourth season. Her estranged wife, Crystal, makes a personal visit to Warden Caputo’s home to demand Sophia’s release, only to be waved off at gunpoint by the warden’s girlfriend. “That was so hot,” Caputo says as he shuts the door on Crystal, ending the moment with a punch line instead of showing the slight humanity audiences expect from him. OITNB‘s theme song is called “You’ve Got Time,” but as the show hops quickly from one form of oppression to the next, it becomes clear there’s not enough of it in a given episode.
Of course, the lives of incarcerated women are complicated and the pathways to prison are sordid, two dynamics OITNB‘s writers appear to grapple with as they put the show together. By rushing through these plotlines, however, the series is no longer about starting necessary conversations among viewers but about shocking them into watching what happens next. When it comes to manipulating the experiences of minority communities in the name of entertainment, this season’s cage is full.
Currently streaming on Netflix