This post contains spoilers for season four of Orange is the New Black. Continue at your peril.
When Orange is the New Black first became a Netflix series in 2013, it was Piper's story to tell. The show was originally taken from the book of the same name, written by and about Piper Kerman's real-life experiences in prison. It made sense that where Kerman blurred into Chapman for the sake of poetic licence, she remained the central point of the TV adaptation.
As season one rolled into the second though, it became clear that as a middle-class white woman, Piper was merely the classically accessible starting point. Her placement as an unfamiliar minority gave rise to the stories of a large collection of otherwise marginalised women. Behind bars, social status achieved in the outside world was flattened out. Through some masterful storytelling and as each inmate’s background was fleshed out, the level playing field allowed everyone to have a voice, regardless of ethnicity or social class. Season three came in for some criticism for its uncharacteristically tempered aggression, but really it was just sprinkling extra flavour on the stories that make the fourth instalment all the more powerful.
With some distance from Kerman’s original recollections, something was able to shift within season four. All of a sudden, OITNB wasn’t a look backwards but slap-bang in 2016. Litchfield Penitentiary became a metaphor for society on the outside too, with the new ability to feed todays news straight into it. While it seems trite to ask if all women feel bound by a set of rules and shackles they cannot shake off, it’s hard to ignore the very pointed social commentary loaded into the series. Nor should we brush it aside. It’s there deliberately.
The most devastating blow came in the form of Poussey Washington's death. Following a peaceful protest, attempts to break up the women’s disobedience ended in her being accidentally crushed by Officer Bayley. The show’s creators and Samira Wiley - the actress responsible for the stunning portrayal of Poussey - want people to be upset. Not down to the loss of a fictional character, but because they wrote the storyline to link directly to the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s no accident that the system makes culprits of even the apparent good guys. That happens in real life too. They broke down the us-and-them mentality by making the victim a character we truly cared about. Someone everyone wanted to be friends with. The person determined to lead a good life on heading back into society. While not everyone watching might need such a jolt of conscience, there’s no doubt that its impact stuck to us all.
Some of the commentary was less blatant but still packed a punch. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, Suzanne’s flashback shows her approving the sale of a machine gun at her supermarket job. The brief Maxi-Pad crisis that left inmates without menstrual products unless they had cash to shell out for tampons, brought to the fore the ludicrous real-world debate on whether they’re luxury items or necessities. It also asks us to think about our insatiable obsession with celebrity double-standards. Judy King, a Martha Stewart and Paula Deen hybrid, lives in relative luxury while increasing overcrowding makes even being able to take a shower an impossible task for everyone else. Privilege rears its head repeatedly. Not to mention the constant references to celebrity gossip and manipulation of the press in order to cash in.
The show replicates conversations on outdated racial and religious stereotypes; for the first time making a Muslim inmate a primary character, while also forcing us to look at the ugliness of the white supremacy movement and how gang culture isn't everything we think it is. It continued to highlight Trans rights. It refused to allow the injustice of rape culture to fade into the background. It shone a light on how the dark methods we still use to deal with mental health are failing, and it showed time and again how easy it is to cope with what makes us uncomfortable about modern society if we just pretend bad things aren’t happening.
What makes Orange is the New Black so special above all its laudable work in making us think harder, is that it’s probably the only place on TV you’ll see women physically and emotionally unfiltered. In huge numbers, too. Some wear no make-up at all, some need their red lipliner to make it through the day. Women are seen in different shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities without apology. The diversity is extraordinary. They refuse to be shouted down when the system tells them to shut up and keep quiet. They’re tough, but they cry when they need to. They fall apart and then they pull each other back together again. They build friendships that shelter them from the bad things that happen. They have intense ambition and desires. They know they deserve better than to be humiliated for the amusement of others.
Yes, these are prisoners. And just as we’re getting a touch too cosy with the idea that we want to be their friends, something usually kicks in to remind us why they’re in prison in the first place. There’s often a stomach-punch to remind us to back off just around the corner. But all the characteristics they embody make up real women outside bars too. They're human beings at a time where humanity comes into question on a daily basis. In season four, Orange is the New Black managed to make a microcosm of the real world. In thirteen episodes of television, without compromising emotional clout or heart-thumping drama, it delivered powerful voices that demanded to be listened to. This easily makes it the best single season of TV we’ve seen this year so far. It's heartbreaking, but it's supposed to hurt.