Spoilers ahead for episodes 12 and 13 of Orange Is the New Black season four.
The final episodes of Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season rest at the center of two larger cultural conversations. The first conversation, the one OITNB explicitly raises and painstakingly peels apart over the course of these 13 episodes, is one about race and white privilege, about dehumanization, about imprisonment, and about regret. The other conversation, one that it perhaps did not intend, is a conversation about television’s increasing willingness to kill characters, and in particular, its disturbing tendency to kill off its marginalized — especially, its queer — characters.
Poussey Washington’s death at the end of Orange Is the New Black season four is the culmination of the show’s season-long exploration of corporate imprisonment. Inadequate guard training, poor oversight, overcrowding, and a culture that encourages prisoners to be treated as a mass of bodies rather than humans — it all leads to a volatile but peaceful uprising among the prisoners. Poussey dies when one inept guard restrains her while trying to subdue her much stronger friend.
It’s wrenching, and senseless, and unbelievably unfair. It’s the most crushing indictment of the way corporate, institutional thinking obliterates humanity since The Wire. And horrifically, it is all too plausible, both specifically in its depiction of corporate prisons, and more broadly, in the way that it illustrates a young black woman’s life being carefully erased in order to protect institutions from any liability in her death.
At the same time, Poussey’s is part of a different conversation, one about the troubling trend in television storytelling to kill off characters for the sake of buzz and eyeballs. Most TV deaths, writes Todd Vanderwerff, are “devoid of meaning, inserted into the plot only to create shock and boost a show’s profile on Twitter.” That argument doesn’t feel apropos here — whatever else is going on, OITNB treats Poussey’s death carefully, thoughtfully, even reverently. But more pointed, and more troubling in this case, is that Poussey Washington’s sexual orientation makes her one on a frighteningly long list of gay characters who don’t get to survive their own TV narratives.
This discussion has been around for a while, but has risen to prominence recently in the aftermath of Lexa’s death on season three of The 100. After finally consummating her slow-burning relationship with the series’ protagonist, Lexa dies abruptly and violently. Her unfair death sparked a dramatic fan response, and writers for the series are still trying to grapple with it. For a sense of how widespread and infuriating this trend has been, browse through Autostraddle’s list of 160 dead gay and lesbian characters on TV, consider the ongoing reverberations of Lexa’s death on The 100, read more about why that particular death mattered, or just scroll down the “Bury Your Gays” entry in TV Tropes. The “live-action TV” section alone is nearly 5,000 words long.
Orange Is the New Black’s case is different from The 100’s in an important way. On The 100, Lexa’s death was high drama, meant to raise the narrative stakes for the protagonist and generally underline the show’s “no one is safe” atmosphere. OITNB, conversely, uses Poussey’s death to illustrate exactly the issue that “Bury Your Gays” seeks to highlight. Big, unchecked organizations can erase marginalized people without a second thought, and the grinding, faceless mechanisms of bureaucracy are capable of cruelties far beyond what any individual could commit. OITNB kills Poussey in order to tell this story.
The question is whether it’s ever possible to tell that story, to show audiences how bureaucracy and senseless corporate inhumanity are capable of murdering marginalized people, without just reenacting that same narrative erasure yourself. OITNB writes Poussey out of the series in order to tell a story about how prison overwrites human stories. Can her erasure ever be worth the cost? Can telling the story of her death ever justify killing her?
For many viewers, the answer is no. And that’s not unreasonable. She’s a beloved black, queer character, a frequent light place in a series shot through with darkness and despair. Her friendship with Taystee, her happiness with Soso, her razor-sharp intelligence and humor and her unending buoyancy made her one of the few, easy-to-root-for characters. Why did it have to be her, of all people?
Of course, that paragraph answers its own question. Litchfield is full of gay and bisexual inmates — Bayley could’ve leaned too hard on Nicky’s back and killed her instead. It could’ve been Soso, who shares Poussey’s sexual orientation, and nonwhiteness, and the sweetness of her love story this season. Or it could’ve been a straight character like Pennsatucky, whose fragile, piecemeal, thoughtful transformation over the course of the series has made her newly endearing. With few exceptions, everyone on OITNB is treated with empathy. Surely anyone would’ve made for an equally fitting sacrifice … except we all know that’s not true. The plotline is meant to draw parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement, and Poussey is a gay, black woman, who has been almost unfailingly sympathetic on a series where most characters are painted with more nuanced moral faults.
Poussey was also tiny — her 94-pound weight is a detail that’s brought up repeatedly in the finale. She represents marginalization in her race and her sexuality, and she can also be physically pushed to the margins. She does not take up much space. It’s a fact that’s easy to forget thanks to the gloriously outsize breadth of her smile and her spirit. But that, too, makes it all the more painful when she lies dead on the cafeteria floor: The hole left by her absence is so much larger than her physical presence.
It’s likely small solace to anyone offended by Poussey’s death that her sexuality was one of the less remarkable things about her, at least in the context of the story of her death. But it’s a testament to the care and gutsiness of Orange Is the New Black’s storytelling that she was only one of several prominent gay characters on the show, and that her death is a delicate, intricate interweaving of many cultural and narrative threads. It’s the story of not just her sexuality, but also her love story; not just her race, but also her individual history; not just the things she signified, but also all of the ways she was vibrant and angry and joyful and unique unto herself.
And ultimately, I have to believe that what matters the most is how a story is told. Poussey’s death can transcend the troubling politics of its cultural context because OITNB treats her loss as monumental. As Joanna Robinson writes, her death “moves the story along,” but it’s not “merely a plot device.” Her loss dominates the season’s final episode, creeping into every corner of the prison’s highly segregated communities, blasting a crater into MCC’s careless corporate mindset, and taking over the episode’s beautiful, surrealist flashbacks. To echo her closest friends at Litchfield, the final episode essentially forces OITNB’s audience to sit shiva for her, remembering her past and reflecting on her life.
Most movingly, and most significantly for the future of the series, the prison erupts into violence as a response to her loss. But it’s vital to remember that the riots don’t take place in immediate reaction to her death. Litchfield rises up when MCC tries to write a version of events that erases Poussey completely.
Does the fact that Poussey dies in order to tell an important story about privilege and unfairness and inhumanity mitigate the pain of her death? Not really. It certainly doesn’t excuse us from thinking critically about the history of gay and lesbian portrayals in media, and from looking seriously at who dies on TV, and for what purpose. But it is one example of the way that TV can still tell brutally tragic stories without being exploitative, or manipulative, or cavalier. And it’s proof that in a time when TV characters seem to keel over with domino–like readiness, if a story is told carefully and compassionately, death can still carry a sting. A sting, or a deep, painful throb.