After the first couple of episodes of Orange Is the New Black season four, which starts streaming Friday on Netflix, you may be inclined to bail on the show and binge-watch something else instead. Don’t do it. While this fourth chapter in the saga of Litchfield Penitentiary gets off to a bumpier start than usual, it ends on such powerful notes that if you’ve ever been a fan, you simply have to view all 13 episodes. The last two in particular are among the best Orange Is the New Black has ever done; they’re going to be talkers.
But before getting to them, it’s necessary to start at the beginning, where the show picks up milliseconds after it left us at the end of season three, when Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) was trying to fight off the hit man she knew would come for her, a bunch of new inmates were being processed into Litchfield under the supervision of an overwhelmed Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), and a temporary hole in the property fence enabled half the prisoners to take a dip in the Litchfield equivalent of the River Jordan, which, Litchfield being Litchfield, is more like a man-made lake that probably has some nasty chemicals in it.
Many of the narrative threads established in season three continue to weave their way through season four, including the aftereffects of the rape of Pennsatucky; Sophia’s confinement in solitary; Piper’s power-tripping role as kingpin of an underground dirty-underwear business; and the ongoing sea change that’s occurring as MCC, new corporate overlord of Litchfield, continues trying to transform the act of rehabilitating criminals into a cash-generating business. But the issue that dominates and defines season four is prejudice — racial, ethnic, religious — and how it bleeds into every aspect of prison life, in ways both minor and life changing for the women serving their sentences.
Thanks to MCC’s insistence on packing in as many criminals as possible, the Litchfield population doubles. All the new bodies, as well as a collection of more aggressive guards hired to replace the ones who previously walked out on Caputo, means all kinds of fresh opportunity for conflict. At times, especially in the first half of the season, the establishment of those conflicts feels a bit forced. When Piper (Taylor Schilling), hungry for more ways to establish herself as a leader, tries to start a “Community Carers” club, it quickly devolves into a white-supremacist movement. Black Cindy’s previous conversion to Judaism, one of the highlights of season three, is disappointingly used to tee her up to deal with a Muslim roommate. And then there’s the arrival of Judy King, the celebrity cooking and lifestyle guru who, after a brief appearance in season three, shacks up at Litchfield — in a nearly private room, of course. Judy is a little bit Martha Stewart but even more Paula Deen, given her checkered past and still-sketchy present when it comes to relating to people of color. “Maybe I’m racist and don’t even realize it,” she drawls at one point, summarizing her white privilege and, essentially, the entire point of her character in a single sentence.
As written, Judy seems to exist for reasons that have more to do with highlighting the show’s themes than creating an actual, fully dimensional character. Nevertheless, Blair Brown plays her with a committed vibrancy that gives her more life and nuance than she might have otherwise had. Brown isn’t the only veteran actress who gets a chance to show her range of colors this season. Lori Petty, who previously played a supporting role as the mentally scrambled Lolly Whitehill, steps into the foreground as Lolly’s story becomes more pivotal. Initially, her performance feels a little too Manic, Paranoid Ellen DeGeneres, with gesticulations borrowed straight from the Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren playbook. But as Petty settles into her season four arc and we come to know more about Lolly, via the present and the show’s traditional use of flashbacks, the character transforms from mildly annoying to endearing to thoroughly heartbreaking.
Still, nothing will shatter the heart as thoroughly as the things that happen in the last trio of episodes, when all those racial and class divisions come to a climactic head. In particular, episodes 12 (directed by Matthew Weiner of Mad Men) and 13 (directed by veteran TV director Adam Bernstein, known for his work on Breaking Bad and Californication), deliver what may be the most powerful moments in OITNB’s short history, with Danielle Brooks, who’s already having a stand-out year thanks to her recent Tony nomination for The Color Purple, giving the stand-out performance as Taystee.
Without revealing any spoilers, this season of Orange Is the New Black ends on both a cliffhanger and with the sense that at least one chapter in its book has closed. Even though the first half of this season may try the patience at times, most viewers will ultimately be glad they stuck with it to the end. Essentially, season four of Orange Is the New Black is like many of the women spending their days at Litchfield. They may seem to lack potential at first, but invest some time in them, and you’ll be amazed and moved by what they turn out to be.