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orange is the new black, season 4: crime, punishment, and the duty of care

This article contains spoilers for Season 4 of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, along with discussions of potentially upsetting content, including rape, torture and violence. 

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Our favourite Litchfield inmates are back, with June 17 heralding the season four premiere of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black. Season four is arguably the most enthralling, witty, and intense chapter of the critically acclaimed television series yet – and perhaps the darkest.

When season three wrapped, Piper (Taylor Schilling) had cemented herself as Litchfield’s newest (wannabe) prison-thug-slash-entrepreneur, trying desperately to live up to her fresh “trust no bitch” tattoo. Alex (Laura Prepon) – who had been steadily slipping into paranoia throughout season three – met with Kubra’s hired killer in the prison greenhouse, proving her suspicions that her previous employer would try to end her life correct. Meanwhile, the Litchfield administration was facing crises of its own: the finale showed a guard-walk out catastrophically coinciding with the inmates escaping Litchfield en masse to frolic in a nearby lake.

There is a stark contrast between the final episodes of season three and four. The closing scenes of season three are saturated in the type of care-free ebullience that is often (understandably) lacking from a prison dramedy like OITNB. Nonetheless, these scenes of temporary freedom – swimming, sun-bathing, and tranquil shots of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) and Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) languidly floating in the lake, holding hands – are juxtaposed with ominous images of vans dropping off scores of new inmates and industrious prison maintenance changes; such changes could only portend significant upheaval for Litchfield’s inmates.

Season four successfully builds upon season three’s ominous conclusion, bringing the show’s trademark intensity to an unprecedented new level. Season four’s final episode, ‘Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again,’ finds the inmates reeling from a recent loss and frustrated by the growing tensions between the guards and prisoners. The power struggles that break out throughout the season culminate in one of the most engrossing season finales of the series so far: it is the ultimate cliff-hanger and could not be further from the idyllic lakeside scenes of season three.

The episodes of season four are linked by the bubbling undercurrent of growing tensions between the inmates, Litchfield administration, and the guards. The authorities are undeniably corrupt: guards punish prisoners by making them stand upon tables for days at a time, racially profile the Latina inmates, and induce unwilling physical fights between prisoners.

The strong point of the show has always been its willingness to present three-dimensional characters. Nonetheless, the reality driven home season four is that society – including those responsible for their care – generally views inmates as nothing more than dangerous criminals. However, in perhaps excessively dramatising the corruption of Litchfield’s administration, Orange is the New Black raises competing considerations: the criminality of these inmates and the duty of care owed to them. Ultimately, the show weighs the argument decisively in the prisoners’ favour: they may be inmates, but they are still people.

In considering said duty of care, season four explores the aftermath of the distressing season three rape scene between Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett (Taryn Manning) and Corrections Officer Coates (James McMenamin). In the season four episode ‘Doctor Psycho,’ Coates seems genuinely confused when Pennsatucky refers to the incident and states that he raped her; ultimately he confuses matters of love and consent, with the show subtly underscoring power relations between guards and inmates, and the fact that rape can be perpetrated against someone you purportedly love. ‘You think I raped you?’ Coates says. ‘But … I love you.’ Pennsatucky responds: ‘But that didn’t feel any different.’

In subsequent interactions between Pennsatucky and Coates, OITNB plays with the nuances of the situation, raising difficult and rarely broached questions: can a woman can ever forgive her rapist? Do her female friends have a right to resent such forgiveness? And what happens if and when forgiveness does occur? OITNB highlights the only requisite relationship that must exist between prisoners and guards is one of a duty of care, something that is often conspicuously lacking at Litchfield.

In the context of mental health, Lolly (Lori Petty), Sam Healy (Michael Harney), and Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren (Uzo Aduba) have what are arguably the most powerful storylines of season four. While past seasons have touched on mental health within the prison system, this season provocatively observes that the inmates’ mental health is at best poorly managed, and at worst exploited by a corrupt administration.

Suzanne’s violent tendencies have not been overlooked in past seasons, but season four examines them in excruciating, unflinching detail. In an extraordinarily tense episode (‘People Persons’), Suzanne is forced by the prison’s guards into a violent altercation with another inmate, as she begs to be left alone, crying ‘I don’t want to do this!’ The brutal violence is sickening, but even more so for the fact that Suzanne is manipulated for the sadistic amusement of the guards. Interestingly, although Suzanne’s actions are frenzied, ferocious, even intimidating, so effective is the storytelling that the viewer is unexpectedly sympathetic not only towards the victim, but towards Suzanne as the perpetrator. Such exploitation of a mentally-ill character galvanises the inmates against the Litchfield administrators, underscoring the ‘us and them’ mentally that runs throughout season four.

This season is perhaps the most powerful season of Orange is the New Black. It sensitively deals with a range of nuanced topics, such as mental health and sexual assault, within the broader focus of the duty of care owed to inmates. While OITNB has always been a show that has embraced diversity, providing a welcome change from pervasive homogeneity in film and acting as a strong platform for voicing female stories, it has gone from strength to strength with each season. The show’s extremely talented ensemble cast, and the dark, but ever-witty plot lines in season four elevate Orange is the New Black to new, intense heights.

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