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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In OITNB’s finale, the system wants to ignore what the inmates can never forget

Illustration for article titled In OITNB’s finale, the system wants to ignore what the inmates can never forget
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When I sat down to rewatch the ending of “The Animals” after a few weeks, it was no easier to watch. Knowing what happens doesn’t make Poussey’s fate less tragic, nor does it change the fact that whether or not one sees this as a tragedy is a matter of perspective—Taystee tells Caputo here that she is tired of people treating this like Poussey was either a woman near the end of her life or the victim of some type of accident, and it’s a challenging scene to watch in the way it forces us to reconsider our reactions to the previous episode. The show has spent four seasons teaching us how to see the world through the eyes of these women, these prisoners, but “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” tests this by embracing the complex relationship between ethics, law, and humanity in the context of situations like this one.

Right after rewatching this scene, I went on Facebook and saw that friends in Madison, Wisconsin were sharing a video of a young black woman being arrested and assaulted by police. The video took place in a location where I’d been dozens of times, and it showed a woman visibly resisting arrest, but also being manhandled and assaulted in the midst of the officers’ efforts to restrain her. The video was being shared in an effort to bring light to police brutality, and within the context of Madison’s ongoing struggle with racial discrimination, and it’s incredibly difficult to watch. The video was shared with a note that they had sent it to the local ABC affiliate, but when I visited the affiliate’s website the next morning there was no video—instead, there was a news story about resulting protests, which included the note that “WKOW is not showing the video yet until we can confirm the timeline and context of the video.”

I would imagine that those who shot the video, and those who have felt first-hand the impacts of police brutality and/or discrimination, were frustrated by this. They have every right to be frustrated by the way “confirming the timeline and context” reads as an erasure of this event’s relationship to ongoing struggles. But the video tells a very different story than what police are suggesting, and the resulting competing narratives place a news organization in a difficult position. While it’s incredibly difficult to watch the video and not make some type of determination based on how it makes you feel, context is crucial to understanding how the event should be objectively evaluated, which—for better or worse—becomes the job of news outlets in the wake of all-too-common attacks like this one.

I offer this context because “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” is almost more difficult to watch for me than the end of “The Animals,” as I hate the way I’m unable to feel the same way as the inmates do thanks to the context I have. I hate that I am interpreting what happened to Poussey as part of a larger symptomatic failure of the privatization of the prison, which failed to train incoming guards properly and then created the volatile environment that results in the “riot” in which Poussey meets her tragic end. I hate that I consider this to be a tragic accident, and that I feel in some way encouraged by Caputo’s defense of Bayley in the wake of MCC’s intention to scapegoat the young guard for their own failings when the inmates see this as the ultimate betrayal. In the final moment of “The Animals,” I was with Taystee, emotionally wrecked by seeing an innocent—and we confirm here she really was more or less innocent, given the nature of her low-level drug offense—life lost; in “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again,” I feel guilt over how the episode forces me to rationalize those emotions in ways the inmates won’t, and shouldn’t, and the result is the show’s moral ambiguity come to life in unparalleled fashion.

Illustration for article titled In OITNB’s finale, the system wants to ignore what the inmates can never forget

The foregrounding of Caputo in this finale is crucial to drawing out the role of context and morality in the aftermath of Poussey’s death, and pays off a season-long arc focused around Caputo’s soul. The episode quickly removes Piscatella—the architect of this particular tragedy—from the picture in favor of focusing on the man whose decisions, or his unwillingness to question the decisions of others, created the circumstances that allowed Piscatella to act in this fashion. Caputo spends the season grappling with MCC’s failures, eventually waking up enough to help Sophia get released—that decision still comes far too late, and only after Sister Ingalls gives him a strategy to work with, but he finally acts against MCC’s mistreatment of these prisoners. But there is a difference between being late to release Sophia and being late to realize that Litchfield was hurtling toward the inevitability of tragedy, because you can’t walk back Poussey’s death. You can’t make toast bread again with a dead body on the floor of the cafeteria, and Caputo has to grapple with that.


I don’t agree with every decision that Caputo makes in the aftermath of Poussey’s death. It’s frustrating to watch him capitulate to MCC’s refusal to contact police, falling asleep on the job instead of pushing them to move faster in their “crisis management” lawyering. And he remains unable to acknowledge the racial dimensions of this scenario—while it’s true that we know that Bayley was untrained and unlikely to have been specifically targeting Suzanne or Poussey, it seems unimaginable that he would have reacted the same way if Piper had attacked him, and the way the guards treat Suzanne as a feral animal reminds us of how specific law enforcement actions are informed by histories of racial profiling even if the guard in question does not necessarily believe those ideas. Caputo’s statement says nothing to these questions, and he therefore misses a crucial dynamic that speaks to the larger cancer created by MCC.

Caputo is not wrong to defend Bayley from MCC’s attack on his character, but it is a hollow victory. It is a victory in that he is resisting the narrative MCC is presenting, but it is a failure in that it fails to acknowledge the full complexity of what really happened in that cafeteria. It creates a new narrative, yes, but it is a narrative that erases Poussey’s identity, and a narrative that fails to fully acknowledge his own culpability in bringing Litchfield to this point. It is a narrative that rightfully acknowledges Bayley’s actions as accidental, but risks—in its blanket support of the guard, without acknowledging the systemic failures that led to his absence of training—ignoring the deeper problems facing Litchfield. Bayley doesn’t deserve to be turned into a scapegoat, but he also doesn’t deserve to be turned into an innocent actor, regardless of how much of a puppy he might have been before he found himself in that moment, or how guilty he feels when he realizes what he’s done.


The fourth season of Orange Is The New Black was all building to the moment of Poussey’s death, but I was struck by how the moral complexity of the finale unsettles the idea that it functions as a typical climax. There is no catharsis to be found in Litchfield after Poussey’s death: there is no denouement when the body still sits in the cafeteria, and when the black women hold an informal wake in the yard they are constantly on edge knowing that the meaning of her death will shift depending on how the prison reacts to it. “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” is the story of Caputo and MCC wanting to treat Poussey’s death as a climax, and their reaction as the denouement, and the inmates (out of anger and grief and justice) and the guards responsible for them (out of hardened prejudice) insisting that the rising action will only continue from here.

Illustration for article titled In OITNB’s finale, the system wants to ignore what the inmates can never forget

The cliffhanger here is visually arresting: as the camera spins around Daya holding that gun brought in by Humphrey, we see the different communities, each with their stories and motivations, rioting in a way they were not the night before. I don’t know if I entirely buy the idea that it’s Daya who picks up the gun (I presume to create a stronger tie between the plot and Aleida, who is a rare glimpse outside of Litchfield in the episode), but otherwise the scenario embodies the season’s interest in the volatile nature of Litchfield or any prison that is being mismanaged in this way. Caputo rightly points out in his speech that people have a misconception of the dangers present in minimum security prisons, especially those with women, and the show has at times—particularly when it leans on comedy—embodied those misconceptions. But it punctures them here, showing how Taystee’s grief and anger activates a larger disruptive force: it is the death of the innocence of Litchfield, as further emphasized by the privileged Judy King—so often separated from her fellow inmates and the reality of the prison—being our point-of-view as the inmates converge on her position from all directions.

As a Litchfield story, “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” is the logical byproduct of the end of last season’s finale, where the arrival of new inmates promises to disrupt the lake’s exaggeration of the idea of Litchfield as a space capable of bringing these inmates moments of peace, love, and understanding. But as much as the season introduced some overly one-dimensional villain figures like Piscatella and Humphrey, and as much as it never wavered in its belief that they and others are a product of MCC and the privatization of the prison, the image of the inmates rioting around Humphrey raises only concern for me. I am Red, standing in the back of the crowd realizing that Litchfield has reached a breaking point, and knowing that there’s no way out. I am terrified for Taystee, who ultimately incites the riot, and I have concern for Daya as the woman who—albeit for reasons I don’t quite understand—puts the gun to his head (even if he deserves it for doing the same to Maritza). The series’ most consistent achievement has been its ability to see these women as more than criminals, and so seeing them as a collective group build to this scenario challenges all of that, and becomes the series’ most effective finale by a country mile as a result.

Illustration for article titled In OITNB’s finale, the system wants to ignore what the inmates can never forget

But this finale is not only a Litchfield story. It would have worked as one, I think—previous finales have foregone flashbacks, and the combination of Caputo’s moral dilemma and the inmates’ boiling frustration provides a dynamic and complex space on its own. But this finale works as well as it does because it uses the flashbacks as a way of reaffirming the series’ primary belief in the humanity of its inmates, and as a way of underlining how wrong everything is. It is the simple love story of a young woman and a city, teeming with life and meaning and purpose. It is Poussey imagining a different future for herself through witnessing it first hand, being asked to experience life—dance, kiss, feed—and discovering in embracing it a greater sense of who she was. It is a story that reinforces the tragedy of her death but in ways that move beyond stoking anger or sadness: it becomes a celebration of life, the eulogy that the inmates aren’t able to give because they’re too busy dealing with the mess that led to her death in the first place.


It is not necessarily a safe space for the audience to work through their grief: the flashbacks are often disrupted by dialogue from Litchfield, as though the two cannot entirely be separated, and if you watched the two episodes back-to-back you likely would have gone directly from the fade-to-black in “The Animals” to Poussey’s haunting opening line, “Is this the bus to the underworld?” That line plays without any visuals, as though what we’re about to experience is her afterlife, and that’s not entirely untrue. The flashbacks mean that our last image of Poussey is not the image of her death, but rather of her life—her body is covered throughout this finale, and the breaking of the fourth wall is an arresting act of imprinting between audience and subject in what was, perhaps, her last pure moment. I wrote earlier this season that the flashbacks, even when revealing dark truths, offer us a glimpse at a world before these women were criminals that functions as a sort of escape: here, that quality becomes a way of keeping Poussey alive, and gives audiences a clear image of what was lost, yes, but also what will last.

Suzanne spends “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” trying to feel what Poussey felt, piling books on top of herself and then eventually toppling over the shelves in the library. For Orange Is The New Black to work, it needs us to be able to tap into the way these inmates feel, and that can be incredibly challenging: as someone who enjoys tremendous privilege as compared to these inmates for a wide variety of reasons, I don’t know what it’s like to be profiled based on my race, gender, or sexuality. This season has demonstrated the show’s ability to embed us—as a larger audience, each with our own relationship or lack thereof with the experiences depicted—in the culture of Litchfield, showing us the systemic failings of the prison system and connecting us to its victims. But the humanism the show has developed with regards to the inmates is not absolute (as demonstrated by the introduction of a strong contingent of white supremacists), and the situation that brings this season to an end is so effective because it doesn’t let us feel comfortable. The inmates are right to be angry that Poussey is dead, Caputo is right to feel wrong about turning Bayley into a martyr for the system that led to his actions, but the only certainty I have at the end of this season is that I wish none of this would have happened.


Every real-life story of police brutality has a backstory. Every victim is a person, who lived a complex life, and every law enforcement official was a product of individually-held beliefs filtered through a system of training. Not every backstory features a young officer who is trained poorly and acts purely out of panic, and not every victim is a low-level drug offender who had shown zero inclination toward violence. But in crafting this perfect storm of tragedy, Orange Is The New Black turns its attention toward the way forces—here represented by MCC—try to find a narrative to explain moments like this away. In trying to find the angle, MCC is flattening a situation that is always incredibly complex, and that we know is complex because we saw it unfold. We saw every step that led to this moment, and we can go back and start to undo certain decisions—Humphrey’s hiring, Piscatella’s hiring that led to Humphrey’s approach being supported, the influx of new inmates that led to the overcrowding of the prison and justified Piscatella’s hiring, all the way back to the privatization of the prison itself—in the hopes of saving Poussey’s life. But even with that knowledge, I was struck by how little it helped when trying to “solve” the subsequent aftermath. I know who to be angry at, but what can I do about it? How does one undo so much systemic failure?

In the context of reality, this becomes a challenge to all of us to take action to address issues of racial discrimination, racial profiling, and police brutality. In the context of Orange Is The New Black, this is the question the show has posed for itself. It has shown us the tragic consequences of a broken system, and asked us to consider how it should be fixed, and in doing so captured the sense of futility at the heart of modern incarceration. And so while there are still elements of the season that I feel could have been negotiated more successfully (the articulation of the “villains” [Piscatella, Humphrey, and to a lesser extent Maria]), this feels like the first season where the show has asked a global question on this scale, moving beyond localized threats (Vee) or sitcom-style plotting (MCC’s privatization gradually impacting the inmates more and more) to unite all characters around a common conflict. The show now turns its attention to try to find a common solution, but the finale troubles that project in ways that highlights the season’s strengths and provides a cliffhanger that can only be resolved in the type of morally complex ways the show embraced so successfully this year.


Stray observations

  • I’ve read the critiques of Poussey’s death from black viewers posted in the comments yesterday (which I had not seen published while traveling), but unfortunately I’m out of the country at a conference and unable to explore in the way I would like. What I’ll say for now is that while this discussion is vital to be having with any series, especially one with no black writers, I think reading the show through the lens of “lessons” oversimplifies it to an unnecessary degree, and at times in this criticism the writers slip into some limiting understandings of how audiences engage with what they watch—critiquing what the show chooses to present is warranted and valid, but reading into intent (through the text, not through interviews, etc.) or result flattens the complexity of how television is written and viewed. But this is something we can discuss more in the comments.
  • Given the heaviness of the episode as a whole, the episode clearly embraces the show’s two comic duos—Leanne and Angie and Maritza and Flaca—in order to provide some levity. (Shoutout to Evil Lincoln’s “Duos” ranking, which it’s clear is also a framing the writers think about a lot in pivotal episodes like this one).
  • That said, notable that it’s Maritza who knocks Humphrey down when he goes for the gun, so she’s not entirely separated from the more serious dimensions of the climax (unlike Flaca, who gets a punchline in the midst of chaos with “I use liquid liner”).
  • Focusing on the black women’s mourning for Poussey was the right choice, but it was also important to show Soso’s reaction, and the glimpse of Norma singing to her hit just the right note.
  • This episode is not about Piper and Alex, who once again play no role in the finale’s “group activity”: they run in the opposite direction, but I thought Alex reacting to death by thinking about the hitman’s humanity rang true to her arc, and Piper playing a supporting role was a nice note on her evolution post-branding.
  • While the black women remembered specific things about Poussey—her voice, her greetings, etc.—I liked seeing how her other roles in the prison were reflected. Red’s tribute in the garden with the book recommended by Poussey was a nice note of community, and it was important the hooch was properly memorialized (and that the SheWe was appropriately excoriated, if lovingly).
  • Procedurally, I’m not sure the show found a particularly organic way to get Suzanne and Kukudio into medical together, but I understand the instinct, and it worked fine.
  • Before Piscatella is moved off-screen, Caputo gives some exposition that starts to speak to my concerns regarding his motivations—he suggests some type of scandal at a men’s maximum security facility, which I read on second viewing as perhaps related to his sexuality, and so I’ll be intrigued to see if we ever follow up on that in a flashback should the character be sticking around.
  • Speaking of follow up: they’re going to tell us what was in Maureen’s file next season, right? It was truly this season’s fireworks factory—I wondered aloud about it in my first review, and got to the end realizing it had never materialized.
  • I remain extremely compelled by the show’s approach to Pennsatucky and Coates—on the one hand, they’re trying to move on from the rape in ways that trouble me deeply, but neither are in any particular denial, and Coates seems to be making a clear effort to resist the instincts that resulted in the rape in the first place. He’s not becoming a saint, but she knows this and still wants to move forward, and it’s just so open to interpretation/analysis that I still don’t entirely know how to react to it.
  • I think I used the “Chekhov’s gun” joke formation more than a few times this season, but here we see a literal Chekhov’s gun: introduced in act one, and while it doesn’t go off in Act Three, it might as well have.
  • My least favorite part of this finale: Poussey walking by Bayley in New York City. For an episode that embraces clear causality in exploring the aftermath of Poussey’s death, for them to suggest this was fated in some way rung false.
  • The decreased role of the prison van meant that the show’s bad green screen work in its driving sequences was less of a problem this year, but it was still a bit of a mess during Dixon and Bayley’s (terrifying, given what Dixon reveals about his time serving overseas) drive.
  • “All we’ve got is time”: Janae didn’t quite quote the theme song directly, but she might as well have.
  • I really loved the observational quality of Poussey’s trip on the subway—I mean, she could have just as easily gone onto the Subway and seen a dude masturbating, so maybe it’s a little overly romantic, but the little vignettes had a real charm to them.
  • Important, I think, that the episode notes that Sophia’s return comes with a new set of challenges as the new inmates drop right into transphobic language and likely behaviors—it didn’t really make sense when the prison so suddenly turned on her last year to start this story, but this tracks better, and creates room for more conflict. I’ll be curious about Laverne Cox’s availability, and how much they want to work with Suzanne as a central storyline.
  • While Healy institutionalized himself in the wake of the discovery of the body in the garden, I didn’t necessarily expect that the only glimpse we’d have of him in the finale would be him in full “arts and crafts while seemingly catatonic” mode. I admittedly wasn’t convinced that he was actually mentally ill, and so I’ll be intrigued to see how they choose to negotiate his institutionalization in the coming season. I stand by my frustration with the character, but here we see the show asking questions about at what point we understand character weaknesses as mental illness (which might dovetail with Morello, who is going through something similar).
  • The season ends on LP’s “Muddy Waters,” and—yeah, the waters are plenty muddy right now, so that’s a solid choice.
  • I honestly didn’t even realize until I went back to edit my early reviews that Chang just flat out disappears after her brief scene with Piper in the premiere. I realize this is in character, but it’s still so bizarre to me—the show can obviously only provide so much of any one character, and has to choose from within the ensemble, but I’ll be curious if/how they choose to revisit her.
  • Thanks again for coming along on this fast-paced journey from the season—it’s still not entirely natural to see a show go by this quickly, but there’s been some fantastic conversation, and I do think this season’s arc pays off in ways that made moving through the season quickly that much more impactful. Have fun waiting out the cliffhanger—I’ll see you next year.