Orange Is The New Black season 4 still

The inmates aren’t in control in the 4th season of Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black as Litchfield continues to evolve.

As the story goes, in 1971, Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo conducted a research project in which he replicated the environment of a prison using a group of college students. Certain young men were prisoners, the rest were guards. Within less than one week, the prisoners’ mental capacities began to crumble, and the guards adopted sadistic, dehumanizing means of asserting their power over their counterparts, to the point where Zimbardo was forced to dismantle the project early. The Stanford Prison Experiment, and its massive implications and statements on the nature of control, power, and our capacity to strip individuals of their humanity, has become one of the most well-known psychological studies in history, for its relevance to our study of the human condition, and specifically, the moral bankruptcy of the prison industrial complex.

While it only took Zimbardo’s subjects six days, after four seasons, Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black is at last ready to stare into the abyss of its own setting and delve into the necessary political depths it has thus far only pondered, never fully confronted. Last season’s events, which saw a near-nervous-breakdown for Piper (Taylor Schilling), the needless solitary confinement of Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), and the shift from Litchfield being a federally run to privately owned, overcrowded prison laid the groundwork for a major tonal shift, portending the darkness and uneasy moral questions that begin almost immediately in Season 4.

Picking up right where we left off, a massive influx of new inmates arrive at Litchfield in the midst of a changing of the guard. Fed up with unfair job policies, the CO’s we have come to know and ultimately find benevolent have walked out of the prison, and a new crop of untrained, un-vetted men and women arrive, helmed by the mountainous Officer Piscatella (Brad William Henke). We quickly realize that he and his colleagues are perhaps the sadistic, power-hungry individuals of whom Zimbardo’s study warned. “Prison wasn’t built on humanity,” Piscatella remarks off-handedly to an inmate he is depriving of sleep.

Season 4 is without question the strongest of the series, which has only ever improved from season to season, building slowly and surely to the discussions it is now engaging with head-on. The bravest and most pointed of these discussions being the treatment of race. Plenty of critics and scholars have (rightfully) questioned the use of race in the show’s narratives, believing it is treated too microcosmically without any genuine consequences. As Morello (Yael Stone) says early on in Season 1, “it’s not racist, it’s tribal,” which seemed to allow for an environment in which racism was part of daily life, yet never actually referred to as racism. Of course, even a topic as charged as this still finds its way into Orange’s razor-sharp sense of humor as Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) bemoans at lunch, “I’m bored! Can’t we start a race war? It’ll be fun!” Well, with the arrival of neo-Nazis among the new inmates, it doesn’t take long for Cindy to get her wish, and by the time a lead character is held down and branded with a swastika, the message is clear: we are not in Season 1 Litchfield anymore.

Orange Is The New Black season 4 still

I have long believed it is the writer’s primary duty to empathize with every character they put to paper. Few shows accomplish this with more intensity and fearlessness than Orange is the New Black, with performances to match from the entire cast (standouts this season include Natasha Lyonne and Michael Harney, among countless others). Whether they be a misogynist, homophobe, racist, rapist or sadist, Kohan and her staff never make any character or story so simple as right versus wrong. Now, they have thrown down the gauntlet to remind us that this show is and has always been an investigation and interrogation of the societal sickness that is the privatized prison industry, a sickness that harms people of color more violently than it does any other group in America.

In portraying characters as complicated, richly developed and damaged individuals, Orange is the New Black firmly declares that the system itself is and has been the villain all along. Kohan and her writers’ skill and bravery in this effort has never been more deeply felt than in the enormous narrative decisions made by season 4’s end, decisions that will surely polarize plenty of viewers, but that have ushered the show into exhilarating, deeply challenging, and brutally real territory. We’re off the edge of the map now – beyond this point there be monsters.