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Josh Reviews Orange is the New Black Season Four

The fourth season of Orange is the New Black picks up right after the end of season three with the arrival of a large batch of new prisoners to Litchfield.  The new prisoners, along with a new cadre of COs led by the military Piscatella, added a variety of interesting new characters and stories to the series this season, though I was also pleased by the way season four continued to explore and deepen so many of the familiar characters who make up the Litchfield prison inmates and staff.

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I am pleased that I am enjoying Orange is the New Black as much as I am, this deep into the show’s run.  The show has wisely done what many felt it should have done from the beginning — pushed Piper somewhat to the background, shifting her from being the lead character to being just one member of the show’s vast ensemble.  Piper made sense as the audience surrogate character back in season one.  A key element of that first season was the way the show put the viewer into Piper’s shoes, exploring what it would be like for a relatively sheltered middle-class white person to suddenly be sent to prison.  That worked great in season one.  But the great discovery of that first season — and, I think, the main reason the show worked as well as it did — was the extraordinary richness of all the other (mostly non-white) characters in the prison.  As the show moved into seasons two and three, the Piper character began to feel far less interesting than so many of the other characters, and I started to resent a bit the time spent with her.  I like the new balance that season four has struck.  Piper is still an important character on the show, but she doesn’t feel dramatically more important than Red, or Taystee, or Crazy Eyes, or any of the other characters, and the time given to each of their story-lines felt more balanced to me.

The show has an embarrassment of riches, now, in terms of great characters.  There are so many wonderful characters, all of whom need to be serviced by the show, that this means that sometimes great characters have to be pushed into the background for a time — for instance, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) doesn’t have much to do this season until the final few episodes — which is a shame but understandable.  For the most part, I was very pleased with the way the show gave time and attention this season to so many of its characters.  OK, there wasn’t such a meaty story-line for Crazy Eyes, but on the other hand there was GREAT stuff for Taystee (I loved the idea of her being made Caputo’s assistant), Poussey (pairing her with Soso was an interesting choice), and I particularly enjoyed the rivalry between the newly-Jewish Black Cindy and the newly-arrived Muslim Alison Abdullah.

In terms of Piper, I’m glad the story of her panty-business was mostly pushed aside this year.  I was more taken by the new story of her involvement with the neo-Nazis — what began as a very funny twist turned scary when Piper gets branded, and I enjoyed both aspects of that story.  I also think they have made the correct decision to have taken Piper’s ex-husband (played by Jason Biggs) and best friend (played by Maria Dizzia) off the show (though I would not be adverse to seeing them pop up briefly in the future so we can see if those two stuck together as a couple).

I loved the way the story-line of the dead body brought together Red, Alex, Lolly, and Frieda, four very different characters.  Kate Mulgrew continues to be the best thing about this show, and her performance as Red is endlessly pleasurable.  I’m thrilled the show found a good story-line for Alex this didn’t focus on her together-or-not-together soap opera with Piper.  Lolly was a wonderful new character who I enjoyed seeing explored this season.  The end of her story-line was heartbreaking.  And Frieda is a great character who stepped to the forefront this season — I love her dry, deadpan delivery of every line!!

I enjoyed the development of the friendship between Boo and Pennsatucky.  I’m fascinated by the transformation of Pennsatucky from evil villain to one of the most normal, sympathetic characters on the show.  The exploration of her complicated feelings for Officer Coates after his rape of her was a particularly fascinating story-line this season.

I rolled my eyes at what I felt was the clumsy inclusion of the Judy King sub-plot back in season three, but here in season four I found that I loved the new Judy King character and the way she turned over a lot of applecarts for such a wide variety of characters on the show.  Blair Brown was terrific in the role, so funny!  I loved Judy’s love-hate relationship with Yoga Jones, I loved Poussey’s ridiculous nervousness around her, I loved her fake relationship with Black Cindy, and above all I loved her sexual torture of Luschek.  Brilliant.  It looks like Judy King will not continue to be on the show next season, which makes sense from a story perspective but is a bummer to me as a viewer since she was so much fun this year.

The new guards were also interesting, and presented some great new villains/obstacles for the inmates.  All of the guards were so interesting back in season one, but a great many of those characters have been written off (though I keep waiting for the one-legged John Bennett to return), so I enjoyed the introduction of these new prison-staff characters.  Piscatella, played by Brad William Henke (familiar to viewers of Lost) was a particularly interesting addition.  He was a great menacing new villain for the show.

It was a delight seeing Natasha Lyonne’s Nicky back on the show after she had been written off at the start of season three.  (I wonder what the reason was for that?  Did Ms. Lyonne have other commitments that interfered with the production of the show?)  Whatever the reason, it was great having her back, and seeing how her return jostled many of the other characters (especially the now-married Lorna Morello).  (Though I must admit to feeling that Nicky’s continuing struggle with drug addiction feels like ground that the show has already covered…)  I was also pleased to see Laverne Cox’s Sophia return at the end of the season.  As with Ms. Lyonne, I wonder why Ms. Cox’s character was written off the show for a stretch.  Still, even though she was little seen, the writers made Sophia’s story-line very painful and heartbreaking.  I hope that this character is focused on in season five, so we can explore the effects of her long stay in solitary confinement.

Now that Daya has given birth to her baby, she didn’t have much to do this season and faded into the background somewhat.  The idea at the end of the season that she was getting involved with the drug-dealing Dominicans could be an interesting story-line for next season; I’d love to see more of this character next year.  On the other hand, I enjoyed the attention given to Aleida Diaz (Daya’s mom) and Gloria Mendoza.  I didn’t expect to see Aleida get released from prison, that all happened very quickly, but seeing her struggle with life outside was poignant.  I wonder if we will see more of this character in the future or if that’s it.  As for Gloria, this season it seems that she and Red  have reached a detente; I enjoyed seeing Gloria’s attempts to keep the younger women like Daya on the straight-and-narrow — I hope this is explored further next season.

I enjoyed the way Maria, who’s been on the show for a while but on the sidelines, stepped into the spotlight this year as the head of a group of Dominicans who begin trying to rival Piper’s panty operation and soon become the main source of criminal activity in the prison.  I am curious to see where this character goes from here.  Is she going to become a full-on-villain or will the show (as it usually does) continue to find a way to keep her human and sympathetic?

Caputo, as always, is a hoot, and watching him pathetically try and fail to do the right thing while running the prison was just the right combination of funny and sad.  I loved the dynamic of his new relationship with fellow MCC employee Linda.  Boy, Caputo is attracted to tough, mean women, huh?  I was pleased that Mike Birbiglia’s Danny — such an important character in season three — popped up a few times towards the end of the season.

Sister Jane didn’t have too much to do this year, but the sequence of her trying to smuggle a cell-phone into maximum so as to get a photo of Sophia — and the hilarious way moment in which that phone was discovered — was great.  They leave her fate somewhat unclear at the end of the season, so I hope she’s not kept in limbo for too long next year.

One of the most tough-to-watch moments this season was when one of the cruel new COs forces Maritza to eat a baby mouse.  I was surprised that the repercussions of that weren’t really explored in the episodes that followed.  I hope this is followed up on next year.

I loved the season-long story-line given to Bianca (another mostly background character who got to step into the foreground this season), about her refusal to shower so the guards won’t grope her, that leads to her torturous days of passive resistance standing up on a table in the dining hall.  I’ve gotten a little tired of the flashbacks this deep into the show’s run (mostly I prefer to stick with the present-day, since there are so many interesting stories with so many different characters), but I really dug the flashbacks in “Turn Table Turn” to Bianca’s pre-prison life as an aide to an elderly woman.

The season wrapped up well.  I really like that most seasons of Orange is the New Black come to a satisfying conclusion in the final episode (while also of course always leaving some juicy dangling cliffhangers for the next year).  The death of one of the show’s main characters was very sad, but an appropriate way to bring so much of what has been in the news this past year front-and-center into the show’s story-telling.  That death cast a pall on the season’s final few episodes but felt like a smart place to take the show.  I loved the great cliffhanger with the gun in the final moments of the finale, “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” (a great title for an episode), and I can’t wait to see how that is resolved next year.

I’m not sure Orange is the New Black will ever feel as gripping as it did for me back during season one, but I’m very pleased with how the show has subtly adjusted to be able to sustain itself for what looks to be a long run.  I think season four might be the best season since that first year.  I blew through the thirteen episodes.  The show struck just the right balance of humor and drama this year for me.  I love this show’s enormous ensemble — this is the main reason the show is so watchable — and I can’t wait to see all of these great characters again next year in season five.

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