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A new season of OITNB begins with “delusions of gangsta”

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Welcome to TV Club’s coverage of season four of Orange Is The New Black. Reviews will be posting daily at 2:oo pm EST, leading to the review of the season finale on June 29. These reviews are written from the perspective of having only seen the episode in question, and so we ask that you respect the pace of other viewers and avoid spoiling details from future episodes in your comments.

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“Why?”

“Because we’re prisoners.”

“But why?”

Throughout its first three seasons, Orange Is The New Black foregrounded the question of why these women were in prison. Through its flashback structure, it welcomed the audience’s speculation over how each of these women came to be a prisoner, pushing against the dehumanizing qualities of incarceration. Its richness as a character study came through its desire to understand the past of these women, subsequently giving us a better understanding of both their present and their future.

But as the series goes on, the distant past seems less relevant. The show has now created its own past, which has given us plenty of textual evidence to consider with regards to who these women are. It is becoming rarer that a character does something that we require additional context in order to understand: outside of a few small exceptions of major recurring characters without flashback episodes (Yoga Jones is the first that comes to mind), the show has made the flashback structure largely obsolete, as evidenced by the fact that “Work That Body For Me” is the first non-finale to feature no flashbacks of any kind, and the first episode without flashbacks period since the season two finale, “We Have Manners, We’re Polite.”

There’s no sense of whether the flashbacks are gone forever—and yes, if you’re reading this you can just go and watch the second episode to see, but I’m writing as someone who has not yet done this, so let’s stay in the moment here—but this decision echoes an episode where the show’s past is being challenged. New inmates are arriving, new identities are being tested, and a new sense of order is being introduced. And yet despite everything that’s new, the central question has not necessarily changed—as Maureen expresses to Suzanne as they extend their stay in the woods surrounding the prison, the question of why these women are in prison doesn’t go away once we know the factual answer regarding how they came to be behind bars. There will always be a basic, philosophical question of what it means to be a prisoner, and each of the women involved have their own insecurities as it relates to this question.

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“Work That Body For Me” doesn’t outright become an essay collection on each inmate’s views on what it means to be a prisoner, but it uses the aftermath of last season’s fantastical flight from the prison intelligently. The vast majority of the inmates gladly return to the prison following their swim in the lake: they never understood it as a form of freedom, and instead used it as a break from their everyday reality. Maureen feels differently, dragging Suzanne deeper into the woods to an abandoned cabin—when she eventually gets brought back, the show plants the seeds for a mystery, as Caputo is surprised by her file and what context it gives him for her behavior. But by comparison, there is no mystery why Suzanne has no desire to live free in their imaginary lead paint-covered cabin: not only does she crave the stability of her prison meals and predictable days, but she also knows she hurt someone. Suzanne perceives herself as a prisoner, and while this is linked to her self-doubt and diminished sense of self-worth, it is also a significant source of stability.

Stability is crucial, and in short supply. “Work That Body For Me” does that thing season premieres do where it pours water on the fire but doesn’t stir the embers to make sure the fire is out like Smokey the Bear taught us, meaning that the fire could restart at any given moment. Yes, as expected, Alex does not die at the hands of her would-be hitman, and she and Lolly eventually work with Frida to bury the dead body, but there’s still a dead body hiding in the garden waiting to be discovered, and a drug lord who will eventually discover his target isn’t as dead as he was promised. There’s also the lingering feeling of guilt you have when you kill someone—the episode risked giving Alex another fairly thin source of paranoia and martyrdom when it was Lolly who “killed” her attacker, but forcing Alex to suffocate him after discovering him still alive makes it more visceral, and creates an internalized event to frame her understanding of her status as a “criminal” in the season to follow.

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Alex was among the characters who was notably absent from last season’s “happy ending,” and the premiere uses those who sat out the trip to the lake to its advantage. Those who went into the lake got a sense of release: they’re tense about what’s happening with the incoming inmates, and jarred by the maximum security guards sent in to restore order, but they lack any sort of existential struggle. Black Cindy was able to complete her conversion; Red and Norma were able to reconcile; Poussey brought Brook into their community; as Leanne says, they feel like they all married the lake while Morello was marrying her new husband. If there are new story arcs to be found for these characters, they are not apparent here, and the same goes for sit-outs like Morello or Chang, who sought the pleasure of a long and luxurious private shower (and avoided the post-swim itchiness in the process).

But much as things are different for Alex, they are also different for Piper. Of all the characters on the show, Piper Chapman has the most warped sense of what it means to be an inmate. When the show started, she didn’t think she deserved to be in prison, and acted superior to the women around her. But over time, she embraced her inner felon, and took up her place in the community and gained empathy for her fellow inmates. Prison became part of Piper’s identity, which was crucial to her character development and also enormously toxic. Piper Chapman was not made to be a criminal, and yet she’s in a system that fuels her hunger for power and authority. She got her taste with the lingerie business, but orchestrating Stella’s trip to Max was the tipping point of Piper Chapman’s “delusions of gangsta,” and she spends all of “Work That Body For Me” waiting for someone, anyone, to live in fear of her as she sits reading her Nick Hornby book.

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It is absurd watching Piper posture in this way, but also dangerous, for her and those around her. Her perspective on what it means to be an inmate has gone wildly off the rails, as one might expect of someone who has marked themselves with “infinity” despite being presumably closer to the end of her sentence than the beginning. When Marisol identifies her as the “alpha” of the prison, and the new inmates treat Piper in ways that only feed her delusions, it signals that everything is about to go downhill: those teardrop tattoos are “real,” and the influx of inmates creates uncertainty that will disrupt any type of stability that Piper believes she has at this point in her sentence. Because she wasn’t at the lake, Piper has not yet had her moment of zen, and so she’s living in a fantasy of her own making that will come crumbling down faster than you can even imagine.

As always, Orange Is The New Black is primarily concerned with giving the women of Litchfield their own voice, and showing us their lives from their own point of view. But “Work That Body For Me” has its outsider perspectives: we get Coates detailing his relationship struggles with Pennsatucky to Bayley, so we can see how his inability to understand the gravity of his sexual assault will continue to cause Pennsatucky emotional distress (as shown here by their brief interaction, and Boo’s embrace of Pennsatucky’s hand to steady her); we see Caputo, too busy reveling in saying he’s the warden to have anything approaching clear perspective on what the hell is happening around him; and we get the one new inmate that we know for certain is going to be important, as Judy King’s first glimpses of Litchfield come at its most dysfunctional.

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There is an easy charm to Blair Brown’s Judy King, which is fitting given her claim to fame, and her hanging out socializing with Luschek after catching him farting in a Tupperware container of cookies is among the episode’s lighter storylines—this continues as King enters Litchfield proper, whether she’s startling a starstruck Poussey (who is left crushed when Caputo rushes King out of “the Ghetto”) or startling a bewildered Healy after Caputo fails to inform him that she’s been moved into his office. On the surface, King’s special treatment reveals the privilege attached to white collar criminals, particularly famous ones, and offers a stark contrast between the way the private prison system treats its nameless inmates (as numbers, effectively) and how it treats those who the outside world is paying attention to.

But King is compelling for another reason: we know exactly why she’s in prison. Through the nested foreshadowing of King’s arrival last season, the central question we typically ask of the inmates has been stripped away, leaving instead a different question: who is Judy King, prisoner? We know what kind of person she was when she was in the outside world, at least as far as her media persona was concerned, and so the question turns to who she becomes as a prisoner. While the weirdness of alluding heavily to Blair’s arrival was a bit odd last season, it has created the first instance since Piper that we will have seen an inmate follow a linear narrative from the outside to the inside, and a compelling case study for the psychology of being part of the Litchfield community.

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While “Work That Body For Me” lacks the care-free storytelling of last season’s “Mother’s Day” premiere, burdened as it is by the immediate aftermath of last season, that burden proves quite useful in articulating the rough transition ahead. While some viewers dismissed the finale’s lake escape as a fantasy, this premiere does important work by acknowledging the escapism of that moment and ending it almost immediately. We see Maureen and Suzanne’s untenable attempt to live in the idyll, and we contrast that idyll with Alex’s nightmare, and everyone wakes up the next morning to no toast, new bunkmates, and an uncertain path forward. And while the good vibes of the lake mean that “Work That Body For Me” is as interested in the comic stakes of the new normal at Litchfield as it is the harsh realities to come, it does not hide the fact that the meaning of being a prisoner at Litchfield is about to change, and the show along with it.

Stray observations

  • The arrival of Maximum Security as a real force at Litchfield raises the question of whether we will be returning to Nicky at any point in the future. Max is a clean way to write somebody out of the show, but it’s also an easy way to only do so temporarily. (And yes, I know whether or not Nicky returns at any point this season because I’ve finished it, but I wrote this after watching the first episode.)
  • Less effective, at least for now: Whatever they’re doing to Sophia. Laverne Cox has now booked a series regular gig on CBS’ Doubt, which could make her future involvement with the show more challenging, but it’s weird that we’ve not checked back in with Sophia, who last we saw was in solitary confinement. The show’s biggest misstep last year was the sloppy way they swept that character offscreen, so I’m hopeful they don’t just forget about her.
  • Notable that Blair Brown has not been added as a series regular. Oh, the wonders of contract vagaries.
  • Fun with Music Supervision: I’m not convinced anyone would use Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day” as their ringtone, but I chuckled anyway, and the choice to soundtrack the cutting up of a dead body to Papa Roach’s “Last Resort” is similarly so bad it almost becomes genius. (It’s a little too on-the-nose, with the “cut my life into pieces” and the “suffocation” theme, but I still laughed).
  • Of course Healy calls it “Jamba’s.”
  • “I’m bored. Can’t we have a race war? It’ll be fun!”—I like the idea of “boredom” (it’s evoked by Frida before agreeing to help Alex and Lolly dispose of the body) as a motivator, and Black Cindy’s reaction says so much about her.
  • As with most Jenji Kohan scripts, there’s a few non sequitors that stand out as particularly Jenji-esque—this is most true of Bayley’s anecdote about her father’s dog dyeing business. (Fun fact: I originally had “Barkley” written here, a Freudian slip if ever there was one.)
  • Interesting that departing writer-producer Sian Heder got a “Special thanks” credit, but in a somewhat atypically prominent spot in the end credits. I imagine it was related to story contributions that carried over from last season, given the clear seeding of these developments in last year’s storytelling.
  • “Smoking is disgusting. I was just going to go take a nap.”—Luschek, hero.
  • “I think it looks like an angry eight, what can I tell you?”—I’ll be curious to see how Red’s character plays out, given her relentless yet benevolent trolling of Piper. Will Red be the primary source of rebellion against prison leadership? After the weirdness with Healy last year, I just hope we’re not setting up some kind of love triangle with her and Judy King. Thanks, but no thanks.
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Notes on our Season Four Coverage of Orange Is The New Black

  • Welcome back! It’s great to be back writing about the show, and I’m excited to hear all your thoughts on the season—there’s always been some great dialogue about the show here on the site, and I look forward to that continuing. Some notes on that coverage follow.
  • If you’re interested in some spoiler-light perspective on the entire season, Joshua Alston has a review of season four here.
  • As with before, and as noted above and below, we want to be able to have these reviews and the comments serve as a safe space for readers moving at slower paces (whether weeks or months later than when the reviews are posted), and so I implore you to resist discussing or alluding to future story developments in your comments. For example, do not comment below with something like “There’s flashbacks in the second episode” or “I loved it when Piper was sent to the moon in episode nine.” Let people discover the lunar twist on their own time.
  • Because Netflix made screeners for the entire season available, I have seen the entire season, and written reviews as I went along for all but the finale (which I’ll be writing early next week). This means that there will be slightly less dialogue with the comment sections within the reviews themselves this year—while I have always liked reacting to the ongoing and evolving conversations, logistics of my travel schedule would have made that challenging. I will still do my best to participate in the comments when I have time, and I will continue to be policing for spoilers (and will know if they are spoilers, so don’t try to put something past me), but it will be a slightly different dynamic. Thanks as always for reading and commenting, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the season as we move forward over the next 13 days.
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