Welcome back to Litchfield Prison, where we start this fourth season of Orange Is the New Black. The premiere begins right where we left off: Most of the inmates are no longer in the prison, having escaped through a hole in the fence and charged out into the nearby lake for a few moments of relative freedom.
In a lot of ways, it feels appropriate for the season to begin with a big sequence that ushers everyone back onto the prison grounds. It's like a show about high school starting once again on the first day of school: new beginnings and reentrances for us all. And like every show about high school, there is always a straggler who just can't seem to get on the same page as everyone else. In this case, it's Litchfield's very own "Gangsta-With-An-A" Piper Chapman.
However, the smooth transition from season three to season four, which deliberately overwrites the narrative gap between seasons, could signal a similar lack of momentum that plagued OITNB last year. It mimics the way many people will watch this show on Netflix — end season three at 9:07 p.m., start season four at 9:09 p.m. — but it doesn't necessarily encourage strong storytelling. Judy King pops into Luschek's view with all the sly surprise of a hidden jack-in-the-box, but the moment is severed from all its season three buildup. What should be a hilarious cherry atop a farcically chaotic prison pie instead feels like that horrible sensation where you're at a party, someone recognizes you, and you have no memory of having ever met them.
This is a short-lived problem, of course. Failing to remember Maureen's name won't stop you from watching another episode, nor will a slight hiccup in Judy King's arrival. Still, it'll be disappointing if this seamless slide into season four translates into some baggy, undermotivated episodes.
If there is a candidate for a season-long storytelling arc moving into place in "Work That Body For Me," it's Litchfield's long-threatened and finally realized overcrowding problem. After security personnel from Litchfield Max arrive to help corral the women back onto prison grounds — and simultaneously show up the regular guards as a ragtag bunch of misfits — the original OITNB crew hangs out in the cafeteria, eyeing the horde of orange-suited newbies on the other side of the wall. Although the full ramifications of the prison's overcrowding haven't kicked in yet, I have no doubt that the mildly amusing inconvenience of a 4:30 a.m. breakfast will not be the end of things.
Amid all of the back-to-school-esque cafeteria chatter and the ominous new bunk beds, there are a few individual stories of note in this premiere. Rather than structure itself with flashbacks focused on a single character, "Work That Body For Me" gives us a collection of smaller, present-day stories. We get Alex and Lolly's murderous adventures in experimental plant fertilization, Suzanne and Maureen's aborted escape plan, and the long-foretold arrival of Judy King.
OITNB can get a bit lost in the weeds, preferring to spend time along unexpected minor paths with new side characters rather than developing the major ones it already has. It's a feature that often works to the show's benefit — especially in the way it showcases diverse faces and perspectives — but it can also be a trap, like the woman who forever remodeled her house rather than ever finishing the damn thing.
When it works, though, it works very well. The three smaller story threads in "Work That Body For Me" are a great demonstration of the different tones and moods an episode can embrace. The Judy King thread is a classic OITNB mix of cynicism and goofiness. When she shows up to begin her prison sentence, she finds the whole place in an uproar, and ends up hanging out with Luscheck while they wait for things to calm down, saying farewell to the boyfriend-not-husband who brought her in and later ordering a pizza. The higher-ups are in a panic when they discover that she's on the premises, and Caputo struggles to walk that narrow line of treating her well, but not too well. It's exactly the kind of story OITNB loves to tell about prison politics: hysterical attention on one small issue while the whole place falls apart.
With the flailing buffoonery of the Judy King story on one end of the spectrum, the Suzanne and Maureen story lets the episode swing in the opposite tonal direction. As the alarm sounds and everyone shuffles back to the prison after their lake interlude, Maureen (seemingly deep in Timehump fantasy land) urges a reticent Suzanne to run away with her. They stumble upon an abandoned building somewhere in the woods, and Maureen keeps trying to start a fantasy game of "yes and …" that Suzanne wants to play, but can't quite accept. If Judy King is the straight humor, Suzanne and Maureen are the sweet, sad, frightening counterpoint. Suzanne's need for acceptance and love is cut through by Maureen's dubious grip on reality, and it's all underscored by the knowledge that Suzanne's prison-based Stockholm Syndrome is not that far off-base. No good can come of her running away.
It will be fascinating to watch how Maureen develops this season. We get a very small hint of what's to come as Caputo looks over her file and is stunned into silence. In that meeting, Maureen suddenly seems fully in possession of her faculties. It would be so nice if Suzanne found an affectionate relationship that wasn't actually fueled by a dominant personality manipulating her, wouldn't it?
In the meantime, let's talk about OITNB's tonal palette: humor, pointed satirical cynicism, and sweet sadness. In the Alex story, we get all of those and more. Lolly's apparent murder of Alex's attacker is sudden, violent, and matter-of-fact, like much of the violence on this series. It's scary, but quickly shifts into dark absurdity as they have to deal with the body and catfish Kubra. (In an episode with a lot of funny lines, the obvious best is Lolly trying to psych up Alex for a staged, boobs-out, death-porn shot to satisfy Kubra: "Cosby dream shot!") When Alex returns to the shed to deal with the corpse, the tone shifts again — Lolly didn't actually kill him, and Alex has to finish the job. Somehow, it was all right for Lolly to kill him in Alex's defense, but Alex, sitting astride this incapacitated man and smothering him with toilet paper, is wrenching.
And then, yet again, a shift. Freida discovers the body in the greenhouse and brings a delightfully pragmatic eye to the problem. Why "waste my time digging one six-foot hole when I could dig six one-foot holes?" she asks. "That's just murder math." The death of Kubra's hitman is gruesome and traumatizing; the agricultural aftermath is cheerfully, hilariously unsentimental.
This is not a knock-out premiere episode, which is fine. OITNB usually needs a little bit of time to ease into its weirdness and build its major narrative tensions. I'm just happy to see everyone again, and I'm pleasantly delighted to remember how funny this show can be. Lolly's "Cosby dream shot!" line is the most pointed example. (And who knew she was so culturally cued-in?) But we also get Cindy asking if she can start a race war out of boredom, the hitman's "Well You Had a Bad Day" text-message alert, an excellent Papa Roach musical cue played over the murderous gardening sequence, and finally, Morello's jaw-dropping "special doin' it shoe" monologue. ("It was a loafer! We was in Catholic school.")
It all speaks to something that's apparent in this first episode: Orange Is the New Black is more defined by its small moments than by its bigger stories. Those small moments are often so unexpected, and they illustrate such a remarkable atmospheric range, that it's hard to criticize them. So let's get this season going! Anybody want to join Suzanne for pre-morning breakfast?