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 up to 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.
We’ve seen someone be released from Litchfield before. When Taystee was given parole, she had her chance to be on the outside, but she became a cautionary tale: when you have nowhere to live, and can’t get a job, you might end up feeling like returning to prison is the best way to live your life.
There are moments where you wonder if Aleida is going to repeat this pattern. Throughout the season, she has expressed her uncertainty over how she is going to survive on the outside, and the length of time her release linger began to feel like very dark foreshadowing. And so when “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull” begins with Aleida being woken up to be released, it’s both a relief and its own sort of horror: she isn’t ready, and she might never be. When her drug dealer boyfriend Cesar’s baby mama picks her up in a borrowed car, Aleida is off on a journey that seems more likely to end up with her back in prison than being reunited with her kids, now scattered through the foster system.
Aleida’s journey is absolutely bumpy, as she discovers her cousin squandered her nest egg and she’s forced back with the baby mama, who she judges for moving on from Cesar after his sentencing. But she avoids the pitfalls of falling back into illegal activity, despite the opportunity, and unlike Taystee she isn’t on parole: she has been released, her sentence fully served, and so she is positioned for a “fresh start” that we very much hope she’s able to take advantage of. However, she can’t start completely fresh: she will always be an inmate, and she will always feel the way she felt when she was in that restaurant and thought everyone was starting at her. It might have been her clothes and their proximity to Litchfield that gave her away, but she will always have Litchfield in her past, and moving beyond that is a challenge far too large to scale in a single episode. She is fortunate, ultimately, that she has kept it at bay for a single day.
But it won’t stay buried forever. That’s an obvious lesson in an episode that ends with the construction crew digging up the corpse rotting in the garden, I realize, but it’s an important sentiment as it relates to the show’s approach to narrative. With a few exceptions, nothing stays buried on Orange Is The New Black: all characters will try to put things in their past and move beyond them, but there’s no reasonable way for something to just disappear. Someone will remember, whether it’s the person who was victim to it, the people who observed it, or the person who perpetrated it. The idea that anything can truly be suppressed or hidden is the greatest fiction that these characters tell themselves, but how else are you supposed to live your life? Just as Aleida can’t move on if she keeps looking over her shoulder wondering if the people around her expect her to steal their waffles, Alex could have never moved on if she didn’t trick herself into believing that body she helped bury was never going to resurface.
But we knew it was going to, right? I joke about overusing the “Chekhov’s ______” joke construction, because I absolutely do, but it’s an especially easy narrative format in a prison series. Burying a body in the garden in Act One guarantees that the body will be unearthed in Act Three, because that’s just the way stories are told: conflict is temporarily resolved, but in a way that can clearly generate future conflict when necessary, and in prison it’s incredibly easy for the proverbial gun to go off. Here, all it takes for the dead body to be unearthed is the combination of MCC’s construction project, Piscatella’s disinterest in the humanity of his inmates, and Caputo being distracted finally getting his conscience in order with regards to Sophia. One moment, the body is safely buried: the next, the construction crew is digging up the garden—and not even, like, trying to save the plants or anything—instead of destroying some bedrock with dynamite, and Lolly’s ramblings might suddenly start to make more sense to those exposed to them.
We can start playing the game of wondering what would have happened if they had gotten ahold of Caputo—would he have been able to justify the expense of the dynamite? Would he have seen the greenhouse and the garden as important enough to start a fight with MCC? It’s possible that even if he hadn’t been taking over Sister Ingalls’ plan to get a photo of Sophia to Crystal (with Danny’s help), he would have decided that the plan to take the sewers through the greenhouse was the logical one. And even if he hadn’t, it was only a matter of time before someone unearthed the body anyway. The situation here creates a productive narrative convergence, fitting as we enter the final episodes of the season, but it wasn’t as though it was possible that the body would stay buried forever. That’s just not how prison works, and Orange Is The New Black has committed to that.
That having been said, though, things can still stay buried in prison as people band together. The guards of Litchfield have never been the source of support and stability we might want them to be: they have always been corrupt, and at least one of them has always been sexually harassing inmates in one way or another at any given time, and the few nice guards there have been have either been unable to handle other parts of the job or forced out for one reason or another. But this current group of guards is dangerous because they are both more corrupt and more loyal to one another, a so-called “brotherhood” that is banding together around fundamentally terrible decisions. The guard who put Blanca on that table never wanted it to go this far, but Piscatella won’t let him appear weak, and instead says that everyone will rally around and support him. But will everyone rally around Humphrey after he forced Maritza to swallow a newborn mouse at gunpoint? The answer appears to be yes: although they don’t know what exactly happened, they know there isn’t definitive proof, and so they ultimately protect their own.
So who, then, is protecting the inmates of Litchfield? Bayley and Coates ultimately shut down movie night when they see a race riot about to form, but they’re too chickenshit to try to say anything about the underlying issues stoking that racial conflict, and the way the guards are creating racial tension through their profiling. And while Piper is well-meaning, trying to assuage her guilt by showing solidarity with Blanca, no one inmate is going to make any significant difference, especially someone who doesn’t actually have the stomach for real protest. Judy King is the same way: she says she’s an ally, but she’s unwilling to enter the movie room during The Wiz to come to the aid of the African American prisoners who she has been spending time with. Judy King will not be using her influence on Caputo to solve any of the systemic issues facing Litchfield, because that’s just not the type of person she is—she is a prisoner, out for her own self-interest, and despite being the only inmate who could help the common cause she has no incentive to do so. Unlike many of her fellow inmates, she’s only there for a short time, and so in times of outright conflict it only makes sense that she’d hightail and run.
Judy King is ultimately only responsible for herself, but those who have been around longer, and seen more, have taken on additional responsibilities. In “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull,” we see the way both Red and Gloria have taken on the role of surrogate mother, working to protect their adopted daughters from going down the wrong path. In Nicky’s case, Red has power to wield: she is the one who can sweep problems under the rug, and who knows how to handle situations when they reemerge, and so she successfully stops the flow of hard drugs to Nicky (with only Luschek’s guilt leading to some marijuana getting into her possession). With Gloria, though, all she can do is try to reason with Daya, who thinks she can hang with the cool crowd without falling into their drug ring, and risks giving herself more time in the process. But can Red really keep Nicky away from any type of drugs? And can Gloria reasonably stop a teenager—or a virtual teenager, if we want to be technical—from wanting to hang out with people her own age? Is this type of frustration not just a natural byproduct of taking responsibility for anyone in an environment this unstable, where dead bodies can be unearthed at any moment?
We know at this point that there will be at least three more seasons of Orange Is The New Black. There will continue to be bodies buried and unburied, and transgressions hidden and revealed, and there will no way for us to wholly exit this cycle: inmates might be released or die, but for most this will just be their life, and that runs the risk of becoming repetitive over time. Accordingly, this strikes me as a crucial test of whether the show knows how to take yet another cycle of violence, chaos, and complication and keep the story fresh. The season thus far has had plenty to say, and explored the new wrinkles of MCC’s ownership from multiple different angles, but the climax will be crucial—and unlike Maureen, I don’t think the show can reasonably withhold climax in this case.
- The return of Maureen reminds me that we’ve never come back to whatever was in her file—she gets revenge on Suzanne for abandoning her in the woods here, but is there more? Was that just a weird hanging story they’re not going to return to?
- Speaking of Suzanne, this was the first time all season it felt like Uzo Aduba had much to do, and I thought it worked well—it’s still a small story, isolated from anything else (compared with, say, her relationship with Vee), but there’s an earnestness to Suzanne’s desire for physical contact that resonates.
- I’m starting to learn more of the guards’ names as they become more awful, but Blake so far feels like the most reasonable out of the new male guards: he’s the one who delivers Daya’s drawing to Aleida, and my memory can’t recall him ever being a driving force behind the harassment or profiling. But, he’s probably also an asshole, just less of a leader of them.
- It does appear like we’re going to hear from the chorus of white supremacists—here suggesting a “white power film festival” after Taystee gets Caputo to show The Wiz—on a regular basis, but we also get a name for the blonde-haired ringleader, Sankey. If we’ve heard this name before, I have no recollection.
- I love how poorly Sister Ingalls had thought through her plan with the phone, and the way the earlier scenes in the SHU had set up the messaging system that would become crucial to it actually almost working. Nice build, there.
- Another episode without flashbacks, here using Aleida’s time on the outside similar to how the show used Nicky’s time in Max. That makes it four on the season as a whole—I’ll be curious to see how that ratio plays out next season.
- I had noted Luschek’s somewhat strange absence, so it was nice the writers thought the same, and both reinforced his sex deal with Judy King and had him finally run into Nicky. Even while binge-watching these episodes, both felt like they just sort of disappeared for a while, so it was good to get a check-in.
- Suzanne should definitely not be going to Morello for a gut check on whether or not Maureen was too crazy to hook up with. She is not the best judge on that particular question.
- I enjoyed that Gloria specifically told Aleida to get a good pair of shoes, and shoes were the only thing Aleida’s cousin didn’t sell.
- Similarly: Piscatella telling Piper she can talk to him while standing, and then Piper ending up on the table with Blanca.
- “Everything I know about plumbing I know from Mario Bros.”—same, Hapakuka.
- The TimeHump Chronicles: “The emotions were fictional, but the science was real.”
- The speed at which Angie’s attempt at a power play with Red died made me smile—I love that crazy meth head, at the end of the day.