Orange Is the New Black has become a slowly molding piece of bread. It’s unpleasant to chew and swallow. And what’s the point?
Once upon a time, we were hooked on the super binge-worthy Netflix show, based on the memoir by Piper Kerman about her year in a women’s prison. Season 4 lands in our queue today, and who knew a show about an upstate New York women’s prison would hook Americans?
The prison dramedy setup created a fun formula. Everything has to take place either in the prison, is part of an attempt to get out of prison, or exists in a flashback of the past. Any possible stories about the future can be only fantasies—here the women are cut off from the outside “real” world.
It’s been a perfect structure for creating conflicts, because the most interesting things happen between diverse women who would not normally mix. Hence, viewers are thrust into a world full of candid though at times surface-level dialogues about race and class, as well as unforeseen friendships, surprise romances, and prison-specific hierarchical conflicts.
That used to be enough.
In season 4, Piper (Taylor Schilling) is meaner and more of a badass at the prison because of her “prison fame,” panty-laundering business, and the fact that she’s been burned by friends and lovers alike. She becomes a lone wolf. Alex (Lauren Prepon), whom we last saw in a harrowing cliffhanger, gets into other types of trouble. The guards and new warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) deal with ramifications of the new corporate prison system. And there are of course some key lines about systemic racism from quite a few of the characters. There’s more narrative backstory for other peripheral characters, but there are so many people that it’s hard to keep track of everyone, let alone care. In terms of narrative structure, it feels like a lot of the dramatic conflicts have already been resolved. So, what else is there to do at Litchfield?
A celebrity named Judy King (Blair Brown), a curious combo of Martha Stewart and Paula Deen, rolls into Litchfield. We get more backstories, and there are new romances in the prison. A Bill Cosby one-liner even finds its way into the pop culture-obsessed dialogue. But what’s keeping us hooked that hasn’t already been resolved? If Orange Is the New Black is to continue its must-stream vitality, it needs to make us care again. We’ve become the Litchfield prisoners, complacent with the system, robotically binging until it’s over—or hoping for some drama that will also shift the show’s trajectory.
In season 3, the romance died down between Piper and Alex. Piper became very involved in her prison-specific business. That’s when audiences began to drown in origin stories, because the writer’s room couldn’t count as much on that high-stakes romance. At the end of season 3, we saw a dramatic finale with an attempt at breaking out but not really—the women escape through a hole in the fence, and merely go for a swim.
Season 2 ended in a similar way, with Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), a cancer sufferer, driving away in a stolen prison van, hitting and killing the manipulative Yvonne “Vee” Parker (Lorraine Toussaint) on the way. We are somehow satisfied by these end-of-season breakouts; wanting the prisoners to have some sort of future in the real world. But we also accept that if they do they will no longer be a part of the show. This is where the possibilities inherent in this type of prison narrative start to feel more limiting. People get out or stay in; there is no in-between.
This limited structure can be linked to the prison film genre, as described by David Wilson and Sean O’Sullivan in their book Images of Incarceration: Representations of Prison in Film and Television Drama. They note that movies about prison “encourage us to identify with the prisoners and in our hearts we want them to win. But with our head, when they lose, we perhaps accept that this is the way it must be.”
And so it is with OITNB. Except that in this show, we end up identifying with practically every character —prisoner or guard— and also accept that winning doesn’t necessarily mean getting out of prison or beating the system. Winning could be overcoming a drug addiction, which happened with Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne). It could be getting proper mental healthcare, which is what we hope for Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. Either way, winning takes place within the context of the prison.
More contrived is the queer romantic intrigue in this show, which seems to be aligned within strict film tropes like Catholic girls’ boarding schools. Think 1931’s Girls in Uniform (1931). In it, a young woman named Manuela is sent to a strict all-girls boarding school, and falls in love with her teacher. We see the dynamics and consequences of queer love in an all-women environment, and the ways it is reprimanded, punished, and seen as immoral. These types of dynamics transfer even to the present-day OITNB. The lesbian sex may be more porn-like and less punishable for being queer in and of itself, but it’s still punishable because, behind bars, prisoners shouldn’t be touching.
Look, the show has done a lot for rising stars. Uzo Aduba (Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren) won an Emmy for her performance. Actors like Samira Wiley (Poussey), Danielle Brooks (Taystee), and Adrienne C. Moore (“Black Cindy”) bring vital person-of-color narratives into the mainstream. There is a believable and beautiful trans narrative in Laverne Cox, the very smart and complex character of Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), and serious butch bad-assery with Boo (Lea DeLaria). But despite all of the great things that have come out of OITNB, the plots have gotten weirdly repetitive, character reveals less engaging, and romantic intrigue gets blasé. Season 4 fails because it is less about the show’s intrinsically interesting characters and their situations, and viewers are left with the glaring limitations of setting the series in prison.