The most painful thing about Orange Is the New Black is not that bad things happen to good people — although as we know too well, they certainly do. Nor is it that bad people exist in the world — although there absolutely are, and Litchfield is home to some doozies.
No, the hardest thing about OITNB’s depiction of imprisonment, of corporations that operate in the dark, of damage and illness and amorality, is this: Once you’re inside the system, it doesn’t matter whether you’re good or bad. Regardless of your individual responsibility, once you must face the churning, soulless machine that views inmates as subhuman, you become swept into that system.
This is how two characters who meant no harm, who tried to do their best, who were decent and thoughtful people, ended up as the villain and the victim in a battle that isn’t even theirs.
“The Animals,” which was directed by Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner, is an episode shaped like an arrow, with several story lines converging on a single, explosive endpoint. One edge of the arrow is CO Bayley, whose flashback follows his dumb youthful shenanigans, drinking with his buddies on a water tower, getting fired for giving away free ice cream, and egging prisoners. It’s a portrait of a guy who’s capable of seeing outside himself, but who’s internally rudderless. He’s the poster child for why peer pressure is bad. He means no harm, but he lacks the confidence to stand up to authority figures. His confused, tragic haplessness stretches directly from adolescence to the moment he walks into the cafeteria.
The other edge of that arrow is Poussey Washington. She and Soso sit together in Lolly’s time machine, trying to imagine how they’ll create a life together outside of Litchfield. They imagine mundane things like getting an apartment; they imagine fantasy scenarios involving overwater bungalows in Fiji. And in a giddy mix of pragmatism and hope, Poussey goes to Judy King and asks for a job once she’s out of Litchfield. It is her optimistic attempt to throw a mental grappling hook outside of the prison walls, a thing she can use to help drag her outside of Litchfield’s increasingly dehumanizing system. It’s a plan.
And right through the middle of that arrow, the central line on which those two stories unavoidably converge, is the full-fledged incarnation of Piscatella’s Litchfield. Absent Caputo’s moderating influence, the prison has become a place where inmates — especially inmates of color — are no longer people. And in unwitting, perfect parallel, the guards who animalize their prisoners simultaneously shed their own humanity.
It’s an idea that’s been brewing for a long time. Since the very first episode, the subtext of OITNB has concerned itself with prison’s ability to stomp out individuality, to reduce people to base monsters, to turn people into mere bodies. Here, near the end of season four, the idea surfaces from deep within the thematic undercurrent, and is now written all over the text itself. It’s a revolting constant in the guards’ incredibly racist language (Humphrey calls Suzanne an “ape”), but it’s everywhere else else, too. Caputo gives Bayley a long warning soliloquy about why he should quit. Litchfield “is like a monster that’s grown too big for its stubby little legs, and now it’s stumbling around crushing whole cities.” Bayley asks Caputo if he’s the city or the monster. He answers, “Neither. Both.” When a younger Bayley pelts an egg at Freida in a flashback, she yells, “I’m a fucking HUMAN BEING!” and his face falls. And when Red protests that Piscatella’s sleep deprivation torture is inhumane, his answer is almost too on-the-nose: “Prison wasn’t built on humanity, inmate!”
In an echo of Regina Spektor’s theme song for the series, this episode is called “The Animals.” I hate to steal from Taystee and her broken watch, but don’t make my ass point out the metaphor.
Litchfield’s inmates do try to stave off the inevitable. Spearheaded by Sankey and Taystee, the rival groups of inmates meet, trying to find some common ground to organize a resistance against Piscatella’s reign. It collapses. Red, the figure who’s been placed as a possible foil to Piscatella all season (and whose square jaw, tree-like stance, and rock-solid beliefs make her a fitting match), is simply too tired to step into the leadership role. The younger women can’t see beyond their own prejudices and motives, so any chance of an organized response among the inmate leadership falls to pieces.
When Red finally sways under Piscatella’s torture in the cafeteria, though, there’s a last-ditch groundswell effort, a final attempt at a peaceful protest that transforms Flores’s one-woman table-standing rebellion into a mass movement. I almost expected someone to shout, “O Captain, my Captain!”
But at Litchfield, the women are not allowed to be people. They are mere bodies. Piscatella orders the guards to start pulling the inmates off the tables, and Suzanne, deeply traumatized by Humphrey’s fight club, loses it. It is chaos. Chanting “I did a bad thing,” Suzanne begins throwing herself at the reinforced windows, knocking over food and trash cans. Piscatella orders Bayley to subdue her, Poussey comes to her friend’s defense, Bayley throws Poussey to the ground and kneels on her while trying to restrain Suzanne. Everyone is screaming. Amid the confusion and disorder, Poussey slowly dies underneath Bayley’s knee. The idea Piscatella has long threatened, the idea that Linda From Purchasing’s budget-line view of the world enables — that the inmates should become mere bodies — has reached its grim conclusion. Poussey Washington is dead.
The episode’s final shot will be hard to forget. Taystee runs to Poussey’s side, falling onto the floor next to her, and the guards form a circle around their two prone bodies, holding back the rest of the inmates as they crane to see what’s happened. The camera swings upward, up toward the ceiling, showing us the tableau from above. Poussey and Taystee lie on the floor, surrounded by emptiness, and the blue guard uniforms and tan prisoners’ clothing form a circular wall of color beyond. Maybe it’s my own sense of indictment watching this episode — my own sense that OITNB is scolding us for observing this kind of cruelty happen in the world without acting — but to me, the final shot looks like an eye.
Animalism and humanity are the most notable thematic preoccupation here; the tension between the two drives this episode and this season. There are others themes as well — I’ll talk about time travel in my recap of the final episode. But it’s important to be clear that while Orange Is the New Black lingers on images of loss and brutality and the banality of institutional evil, those are not the only stories it gives us.
Sophia Burset has come back from solitary confinement, looking as empty and inhuman as it’s possible to be and still be alive. Watching Gloria helping Sophia put her wig back on feels like watching a body slowly transform back into a person. Healy shakes off his malaise for just long enough to check himself into a psych institution — it’s hardly a happy ending, but for Healy, it may be the closest he can get. Judy King is still herself, resilient and self-centered and delightfully insistent that society not desexualize older women.
The strongest counterbalance to the unbearable sadness of “The Animals” comes from a source that would’ve seemed impossible at the beginning of this series: Tiffany Doggett. The conversation she has with Boo about the difference between pain and suffering, about individual choice and forgiveness, is the ultimate rejoinder to Piscatella’s worldview. In one of Bayley’s quiet moments, he asks Coates whether he thinks Litchfield changes people — the answer to that question is an absolute yes. If there is a glimmer of hope, it lies in someone like Tiffany Doggett, who somehow seems to have emerged from this horrific, monstrous system changed for the better.
But for everyone else — for anyone whose humanity is sacrificed to something like MCC’s brutal corporatism — change is almost unavoidably for the worst. Poussey’s death is a condemnation of all systems that let people in positions of privilege lose sight of that humanity. It’s a condemnation of those who subjugate, dehumanize, and destroy. And it is a sharp, painful jolt to the rest of us, who watch it happen and do nothing.