Samira Wiley as Poussey in Orange Is the New Black.
Major spoilers about the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black and its final episodes lie ahead. Proceed only if you’ve watched the season in full or don’t mind having the end of it ruined for you.
When Jenji Kohan and the creative forces behind Orange Is the New Black decided to kill off a beloved character this season in a pointed echo of the Eric Garner case and Black Lives Matter movement, they could have done it without nuance. Poussey, may God forever rest her open-hearted soul, could have died while gasping for breath while a guard pinned her down and deliberately prevented her from access to oxygen. That is what happened to Garner when he was arrested on a Staten Island street, put in a choke hold, and pinned to the sidewalk while he gasped, “I can’t breathe.”
But while there is no doubt that Bayley, the guard who presses a knee on Poussey’s back until she can no longer inhale or exhale, is the person most directly responsible for the young woman’s death, the show is very explicit about the fact that multiple individuals are at fault. Suzanne, who loses it, keeps flailing at Bayley in a way that distracts him from what he’s doing, and probably makes him put more pressure on that knee, definitely does not help the situation. And Piscatella, who injects racism and additional aggression into the situation when he refers to Suzanne as an “animal” and tells Bayley to forcibly take her to psych, clearly sets the wheels in motion that lead to Poussey’s death. (One could argue he set those wheels in motion as soon as he arrived at Litchfield and immediately took a hard-line stance against the inmates, refusing to see them as humans.) The whole MCC system, which allowed a guy as inexperienced as Bayley — who gets his own, humanizing backstory this season — to be put into such potentially high-stress circumstances without adequate training is to blame here, too.
The point is you can’t simply state that a racist prison guard was too aggressive with one of his black charges and killed her. Poussey’s death is more complicated than that, and on a show like this, it has to be. Orange Is the New Black has spent four seasons emphasizing, over and over again, that when crimes are committed, the circumstances surrounding those crimes involve a whole lot of colors, not merely black and white. When someone does what society would deem a bad thing, the perpetrator of that act is not necessarily a bad person.
Orange Is the New Black is admirably committed to this principle in the way it explores the backstories of its prisoners, and it maintains that commitment in its approach to several devastating things that happen to those inmates this season. In the aftermath of her rape last season, Pennsatucky slowly begins to soften toward Officer Coates. She believes he is not a serial sex offender, intent on getting into the pants of whichever woman happens to be assigned to van-driving duty. He actually seems to like and value her, which makes it more troubling that, during season three, he clearly got off on ordering her around like a dog and raping her.
The show is unequivocal on that point: Pennsatucky was raped. The image of her from last season, forced onto her chest in the backseat of the van while Coates does his business, makes that clear. (In retrospect, that visual is not dissimilar to the one of Poussey being held down in this season’s penultimate episode.) Just in case there’s any doubt, though, OITNB recruits Big Boo to repeatedly voice the fact that Pennsatucky was raped and violated, and that some things are unforgivable. But Pennsatucky, who knows how it feels to be viewed through such a limited lens, has empathy for the guy.
By humanizing Coates, and demonstrating that he’s capable of sensitivity in other contexts, the show invites us to ask the same question we have asked about the Litchfield inmates: Should someone with darker tendencies be defined entirely by those tendencies? And even more important: Is it possible for such a person to change? Before, when we’ve examined the poor choices made by members of the Litchfield population, we’ve been able to see a fuller picture of the circumstances that made them do what they did to wind up in jail. Now that we’ve grown to love those characters, the show is putting them in the position of victims and asking us if we can find the same sympathy for people, like Coates, the criminals committing crimes against the already convicted.
While a less obvious example, the murky issues surrounding blame are also raised in the opening moments of the season, with the matter of the hit man who tried to kill Alex. Lolly did, technically, kill that guy, although for good reason: She was trying to save Alex. Then again, Lolly wasn’t entirely responsible for his demise because Alex was the one who, upon discovering him in the greenhouse with a teensy bit more air in his lungs, snuffed that air out for good. Alex is just as responsible for his murder as Lolly is. Yet neither of them are true “murderers” in that both were motivated by self-defense. It’s a case of both women doing wrong and neither of them doing wrong. But just as with Pennsatucky and Poussey, it’s the more vulnerable people in the situation who unfairly bear the weight of the crime.
That’s ultimately what Orange Is the New Black is telling us with all three of these story lines: that when horrible things happen, our American, unconscious bias immediately leaps to the status quo response in order to restore social equilibrium. A guard shows up murdered? Blame it on the paranoid lady who hears voices. A guard raped a woman? He gets away with it because there’s an instinctive desire — perhaps justified, perhaps not in this particular case — to give him another chance. Yet another guard leans so hard on an inmate that she’ll never live to see another day? The warden publicly absolves that guard because this one misjudgment shouldn’t define his life.
If Orange Is the New Black has an ethos, I believe it is that a single misjudgment, or even series of misjudgments, should neither define nor ruin a life. But this season, perhaps louder than ever, it’s also telling us that the system rarely applies that rule to everyone. The people that society has relegated to its bottom rung — the Suzannes and the Lollys, the Pennsatuckys and the Pousseys — don’t benefit from the same built-in protection or understanding. Even when they’re telling us they’re hurting and they can’t breathe, we simply don’t hear them.