Bridger Cunningham's Look at Orange Is The New Black, Season 4

Written Restrained by Bridger Cunningham

Orange is the New Black returns with a crackle for Season 5 on June 9.  Taking a retrospective look, let's examine the unsettling effect Season 4 delivered with slow-boiling tension culminating in the last moments of episode 52, featuring an increasingly flawed inmate pointing a gun at corrupt detention officer Humphrey's head.  The cliffhanger set up the following season beautifully for a departure of timeline, focusing the season's 13 episodes over a 72-hour period inside the embattled prison's walls.  Such an approach is a necessary bold stroke as we are at the fifth season and have apparently processed about 12 months in the show's timeline over five years.  

Had this abbreviated approach been used in Season 4, the rhythm of the show would have collapsed.  Season 3 slowed down the pace after the "Prison Vice" theme Yvonne "Vee" Parker's (Lorraine Touissant) character engulfed the show with during Season 2 in favor of "Prison Nice".  Season 3 was uneventful, adding more character explorations.  The season languished and left us with a season finale resembling an outlandish farce with the prison gates breaking down and the incarcerated ladies took a holiday in a sewage-filled pond.  As touching as those moments were, OITNB stood in threat of losing its gritty realism which launched its show, and Netflix into prominence.  Season 4 restored the balance in an arc exploring overcrowding and continued political corruption.  

It utilized slow-boiling tension in the race conflict to drive the plots vs. farcical plot driven developments.  The silliness of the prison panties arc stifled out through a vice business war as Dominican leader Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimental) not only threw the soiled story into the washer, but took the lead this season as she vengefully crusaded for her fellow Dominican inmates to fight for their place inside the walls of Litchfield.  Maria's ruthless rise to prominence was welcome as OITNB explored prison overpopulation and the effects on the community.

Prior to the overcrowding story, the large ensemble was divided by the whites, blacks and Latinas, who all seemed to coincide with little conflict.  Enter a rash of Dominican transplants, dividing the Latinas as the dynamic shifted to Puerto Ricans vs. Dominicans.  The Dominicans managed to divide the Latina demographic, intertwine and create divides among the whites within themselves and against the other ethnic prisoners.  And most potently, it boiled over creating a writhing divide between the enforcers and the prisoners.

Season 3 lacked polarizing writing and tension, leaving Season 4 to restore the rhythm.  New characters emerged, and established characters either came to full circle or are overstaying their welcome.  And thankfully, caricatures like Judy King (Blair Brown) existed solely for plot fuel/comic relief and will burn off fast.  Without divulging too many dirty twists and ruining the experience for new viewers, let's take a look at what worked and fizzled this season --

What Worked in Season 4

The overcrowding arc is the standalone MVP in OITNB tales.  Season 1 set up the launchpad for us to invest in our detail-rich characters.  Season 2 added a crime thriller perils of Vee and her drug empire with mixed-to-positive results.  And Season 3's arc involved the silly exploits of prison panties.  Season 4's Overcrowding arc utilized its 13 episodes like stair steps escalating to a full-blown conflict.  

Pimental's ruthless portrayal of Maria managed to command and upstage several characters who outlived their plot purposes, including increasingly irritating Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling).  While Schilling's performance is not to blame, she has been written into a corner as a narcissistic WASP whose caustic choices land her in hot water.  Her brutal attack was cringe-worthy, yet leveled the karma route for Piper's haughty antics.  Several viewers cheered as the Dominican baddies belted a white supremacist in comically rewarding fashion.

Outside the overcrowding arc, Judy created some laughable distractions which manipulatively tackled the class issues.  A shameless and passive aggressive narcissist, Judy was inappropriately placed with organic minimalist Erica "Yoga" Jones (Constance Shulman).  She also degraded passive Poussey (Samara Wiley), as she depicted her as a stereotypical product of a black crack fiend vs. an upper-middle class black lady fell on bad decisions.  Judy used her feminine wiles to turn the karma meter on fairweather Joel Luschek (Matt Peters) via a drug-hazed threesome.  Judy is a cartoon character against the gritty, character-rich, dirty ensemble, and gratefully will vacate OITNB's house after her purpose expires like a gracious and phony houseguest.

Luschek was not the only DO who experienced an about-faced comeuppance, as Charlie Coates (James McMenemin) demonstrated his remorse for raping Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning).  The DO house was a plot hindrance this season, yet Coates standing his ground and defending a prisoner redeemed much of his tarnished presence.  Director of Human Activities Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) fell victim to the toxicity of the system, yet eloquently towed the line between heroic and shady in the prison's ultimate antihero.  Caputo lost his underdog rooting by allowing Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) to be placed in solitary confinement after enduring a hate crime.  He returned to our beloved hero when he slyly allowed Sophia's image in confinement to be leaked under the radar, facilitating her return to the general population.  Caputo ominously and earnestly warned lovable Baxter Bayley (Allen Aisenberg) to get out of the prison and save his soul, yet threw the DO under the bus after Poussey's senseless death.  Caputo is tarnished, yet has created a standalone status as the most enriched male character in a female-dominated cast.

Speaking of Poussey's death, Samara Wiley was an iconic and peaceful presence in core original cast.  Her purpose came full-circle to our dismay, yet her last season delivered a rewarding bite.  She and her two true-loves, Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) and Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) delivered lighthearted fuel minus outlandish antics, devastating us as their trio is down to two.  After saving a despondent Soso from a suicide attempt and psych, Poussey cemented Soso as an asset to the cast vs. a nuisance via their slow-built romance.  And Poussey's tragic last moments burned the best tearjerker in the show's history into our viewing memories as Taystee somberly unleashed that cry of grief at realizing her spiritual soulmate met a tragic end.

Taystee delighted us as she earned a well-deserved promotion from janitorial duties as Caputo wisely promoted her to his assistant.  She has steadfastly progressed from the moments she returned to prison, making efforts to polish her tacky demeanor in hopes of a promising life upon release.  Taystee's community neighbors also enjoyed some lighthearted endeavors, albeit they rooted from initial hatred dating millenniums beyond origin.  Newfound Jewish convert "Black" Cindy Hayes (Adrienne Moore) channeled an immediate hatred toward fellow Muslim inmate Allison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen), poetically over territory and space.  Both sparred over the first half of the season, then bonded over a disdain over Scientology.  This site does not have any faith preference and does not condone lambasting any religion, yet it was touching to see two women switching their pawns from adversaries to alliances.

Galina "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) continued to command as the mother of the Litchfield ladies.  She took a backseat this season to her younger counterparts, yet retained the sage wisdom needed from the over-45 demographic.  She played the central force in the show's undercurrent to the overcrowding tale, remedying several conflicts like a a beloved mother to the displaced inmates.  She mediated the murder of Alex's would-be killer by recommending turning him into tomato fertilizer.  Red also repaired Piper's injured hoof after Maria punished her with a swastika brand for leading to profiling the ethnic prisoners.  Red branded her "an open window" and righted a remorseful Piper.  

Red faced her "conviction" in one of the finalepisode as viewers learned precisely what landed her in prison -- a murdered mobster found dismembered in her restaurant's freezer, similar to the DO found chopped into a mixed green salad in her garden.  The "Between Heaven and Hell" plot hook helped us reinvest in a character who was sidelined by younger, brassier inmates.  Just as she did to protect her nuclear family, Red stood fiercely cold and silent to protect her prison community.  Kate Mulgrew's appropriately stoic performance tugged at our heartstrings as we feared our beloved prison mother would wrongfully endure another conviction in spite of never committing a felony by her cold hands.  

The murder enriched three performances beyond Red's den-mother role.  Laura Prepon entered OITNB red-hot as Piper's heron of sexuality, yet waned into a plot device in Season 3.  After Lolly defensively murdered her assailant in the season's opening hook, Alex Vause upped the ante and suffocated her would-be-assassin.  Prepon flourishes in dramatic tones on OITNB, wise to leave her comic abilities behind with her persona on That 70's Show.  Tragically, mentally unhinged Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty) fell victim to her insecure psyche.  

After Alex wrongfully pegged her as her stalker and attacked her the previous season, she inadvertently led to Lolly's downward spiral as she dutifully dispensed Kubra's enforcer with her steadfast, defensive heels.  Said plot twists unhinged Lolly's last screws, leaving her in death's clutches as Freida Berlin (Dale Soules) had her marked for death.  Tragic foreshadowing painted a souring portrait of Lolly's descent into prison life via backstory , as she was an intelligent soul gone sour via conspiracy theories in the 90's.  After wandering too far into the rabbit hole, she downgraded to a rambling vagrant pushing a shopping cart and lost her freedom.  Tragically, the clutches of sanity slipped, and she fell victim to the psych unit late in the season.

Sam Healy (Michael Harney) made valiant efforts to save Lolly, as he projected his mother's loss of mental clarity into keeping her in clarity.  He spared her life, yet lost the battle as she was confined.  We learned Healy's mother suffered the same tragedy as Lolly, and his mother's loss left him with power complexes over controlling women, as depicted by Judy, leading to his convex, damaged psyche.  Healy's committal is appropriate as he his a layered, flawed and valiant soul.

In a welcoming comic foil, Sister Mary Ingalls (Beth Fowler) deliberately invokes the wrath of the guards by smoking like a frisky teenager, then slapping a guard.  Comic farce?  None of the above.  She smuggles in a cell-phone in solitary confinement to do reconnaissance on Sophia.  Sophia's wrongful isolation ripped the scab off of the system's cruelty as she was isolated "for her protection".  Sophia's sickening suicide attempt was sour at best, yet upped the dramatic ante.  It also magnified the root of the conflict with Gloria, who shined as she used her resources to keep Sophia's family abreast (no pun intended) of her latest tragedy.  Thankfully, the sour plot dissolved mid-season with Gloria polishing a wounded Sophia's image with her wig, narrowly repairing their fragmented friendship.

What Failed in Season 4

As triumphant as Season 4 delivered, several plot holes emerged in lieu of writing, characters and delivery.  Elizabeth Rodriguez is a talented performer as depicted by her guest-spot on The Big Bang Theory  as Raj's Cuban date who schools him on profiling.  She is a beauty and a capable performer.  Yet her being a mere 2 years older than on-screen daughter Daya (Dasha Polanco) retired the use of her character Aleida as she outlived her purpose of guarding Daya during her pregnancy.  Whilst Aleida's reemergence into the free world made a nice arc, it left unease as we were left to wonder if Aleida would return to Litchfield.  Rodriguez is a great actress, but lest pray Aleida decides to adopt stability over familiarity.

The DO house was an eyesore to OITNB viewers this season.  Initially Suzanne and Maureen's love nest, it morphed into the misogyny playhouse for the corrupt male DO's.  Most disturbing was Humphrey pointing his loaded weapon at Maritza's (Diane Guerrero) head and forcing her to pick between ingesting dead roaches or a live baby mouse.  Maritza's backstory painted her as a vile opportunist, and this tragic twist moved the sympathy pendulum too far.  Even beyond Coates raping Pennsatucky or Pornstache facilitating an inmate's overdose death.

Image result for orange is the new black -- mouse

Apologies are in place for that visual, yet it was necessary to depict the graphic flaws committed this season.  The DO's exhibited minimal redeeming qualities this season outside of Coates' redemption and Bayley's innocent nature.  In order to depict an effective villain, writers must establish some rooting qualities to make us invest in their dastardly deeds.  Luschek has yet to pay for his role in Nikki's downfall and loss of sobriety.  Piscatella barely grazed sympathy when he disclosed he was sent to a deprogramming camp.  And the image above left little rooting qualities for Humphrey.  

George "Pornstache" Mendez was a despicable presence we hoped to fall, yet his vulnerability made us care when he was sent to prison for "raping" a scheming Daya.  And John Bennett (Matthew McGorry) plunged to cowardice as he abandoned his pregnant mistress.  Yet his PTSD from the Iraqi conflict was carefully painted to justify his flaws.  If OITNB wants us to care about Humphrey taking a bullet, they best fill in the blanks as to why we should care if he dies.  Luschek exhibited mild guilt over his wrongful actions against Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), yet her lapse into her addiction lacked punch.  Instead of being a heartbreaking downfall, it was glossed over like an ABC After School special or self-contained sitcom conflict.

Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) were criminally underused (no pun intended), and Lorna (Yael Stone) lost her credibility as she satirically attempted to depict a jealous spiral like a laughable tantrum from a 5-year old.  Worst of all, Daya (Dascha Polanco) languished after her heralded birth last season, depicting regression as she had not learned from her tragic consequences which landed her inside the walls of Litchfield.

Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba) finally explored the root of her incarceration to souring results.  Audiences knew Crazy Eyes is developmentally delayed, yet they took it to far as she accidentally murdered a young boy.  Her boundaries backstory would have sufficed in an accidental kidnapping, yet OITNB upped the ante and took it too far when he fell to his death in a graphic visual.  Yoga committed a similar offense, yet OITNB restrained itself and avoided a graphic visual of the boy's death.  Worse yet, Suzanne and Maureen Kukudio (Emily Althaus) were used as pawns in the guards' twisted fight club.

Movie night delivered disastrous results.  Not because Taystee played critically lambasted "The Wiz".  Or the racial tensions.  But rather, that nasty slur we shall not speak of poisoned an already effective scene.  OITNB attempts to carefully depict the sour, toxic environment inside the prison.  Yet using that nasty slur which is a boil on the sagging behind of American society and is a cheap way out in depicting racial divides.  Nothing good comes out of that word, even in prison; just don't use it!

Breakout Performances

Laura Gomez created the best scene-stealing performance of Season 4 as Blanca Flores, an unkempt, intriguing addition to the cast.  Viewers first notice Blanca's rough entrance as she sports a surprisingly sensual tribute to Frida Kahlo's prominent eyebrows.  OITNB writers promptly (and wisely) explored part of Blanca's backstory as a put-upon servant of a nasty shrew who desired a roll-back on civil rights.  Saged viewers may recognize Mary Wilson Brown's  Millie in a contrasting cameo to her One Day at a Time role as free-loving Ginny, the key ingredient to igniting Blanca's vengeance.  

Blanca put up with the nasty curmudgeon renaming her "Bianca" as it fit her spelling and culture.  Yet she stood her ground when Millie fired her paramour to prevent distractions from "Bianca" inheriting her figurative paradise.  Gomez sympathetically delivered a factual declaration when she stated "he is a person" vs. the distraction Millie fired him for.  Dangling the carrot of "you may inherit my estate," Blanca stands her ground, declaring she will not live her life waiting for her inheritance via speculation.  

Blanca wistfully (and vengefully) takes a lover on her cantankerous employers' antique furniture, displaying one of the few artistic nude scenes an actress desires as it was deemed necessary.  Gomez has evidently invested in the role with dulling her natural beauty and doubling down with nudity, grit and vulnerability,  deserving praise for rebelling against the easy route of being a Hollywood starlet.  She displayed her distinguished beauty and subtle prowess as she will likely enjoy three-plus seasons of material.

Most rewarding, Blanca takes vengeance on the ethnic profiling via frisk by making herself undesirable and filthy.  She revels in her vile reputation, albeit she enjoys a refreshing shower and applies sardines and noxious scents along with her "Secret" deodorant.  Fellow
Dominicans are furious as they abhor their homeland's occupants being viewed as the trash of the Latin culture, but Blanca revels in the disdain she brings the brutish guards.

After a fiendish standoff, Blanca is forced to stand on the tables as punishment.  She revels in her durability, urinating on the table to avoid losing ground in protest.  And most poetic, she gives Piper her first redeeming scene at the season's close, as Piper's social justice trend lands her standing on the table as she attempts to feed protesting Blanca.  Both crusade against issues, yet Blanca holds grit.  Most fitting, Blanca's smelly stance led to the series' greatest tragedies.  The writer better reward Laura Gomez with a contractual upgrade, or their proper crafting of an iconic figure was all in vein....

Image result for orange is the new black -- piper and lorna

Time To Go...

OITNB's fittingly bloated cast necessitates trimming like a refreshing makeover from Sophia's boutique salon.  Though she helped launch the show's premise, Piper Chapman has withered into a grating nuisance.  Still drama-prone from placing herself in harm's way, she has demonstrated limited growth as her child-like desire for social justice leaves her the perennial dramatic punching bag.  Even social activist Soso has learned her social cause antics had consequences, so why can't Piper grow up?  Piper lost her signature naivety when she led to penalties for Stella and Maria.

A vicious branding appears to be an attempt to swing the sympathy pendulum ack toward our "heroine", yet we do not care anymore.  Alex keeps advising Piper to "Stay out of other people's [business]," yet her choices continually lead her to drama.  Not even feeding a protesting Blanca made us care for Piper, so release her and let us explore the plethora of rich, damaged characters.  Just like Piper, Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) lost her edge this season.  The ultra perky, ultra friendly beauty had rooting qualities laced with femme fatale until Season 4.  Her disturbing backstory painted a tale of an obsessed and dangerous lover imprisoned as she was a threat to society through her unbridled love.

Season 4 scraped the dangerous beauty of Lorna to the bone via a silly jealousy twist.  Lorna previously possessed the dangers of Jessica Walters' chilling and unhinged performance in Play Misty for Me.  This twist downgraded her to an annoyingly jealous twit men shrug off or run away from out of cliche.  We've seen enough of Lorna's Fatal Attraction, ruined like an insipid and dismissive twit.  Much like Lorna's diminished presence, Daya (Dascha Polanco) floated through the system like a carefree teenager.  The new mother should have exhibited growth and maturity via childbirth as majority of women do, yet Daya could care less about formulating a plan of release from the prison walls.

Image result for orange is the new black -- daya and aleida

Losing her mother to release left Daya carousing with the drug-dealing Dominicans, foreshadowing more trouble coming her way.  The question is whether we care if she pulls the trigger in Season 5.  Her invested purpose of her unplanned pregnancy has served its purpose, and viewers can do without another embattled trainwreck stealing the spotlight.  In a flattering demand for removal, it is time for Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) to stay out of prison.  Earning an early release, Aleida's purpose as Daya's mother also played out after her child's birth.  OITNB beautifully depicted her struggles with returning to mainstreamed society as we learned why she landed in prison to protect the man she loved.  Let's hope she does not return to prison to protect her insipid daughter.  Elizabeth Rodriguez is a lovely performer and enriched the show's legacy, but her character has come full circle.

So What's Coming?

Little has been disclosed about plot developments or cast changes from Season 5, and it should stay that way.  Publicity stills and teasers have been released, yet viewers need not spoil on early plot details as needed with Season 4.  Much of the season was leaked as interest waned after an underwhelming previous season.  Such leaks proved necessary to get fans to invest again.  Now as we peer forward, we know we are primed for a Greek Tragedy with Season 5.  Tune in starting June 9, as Netflix unveils its show pony's epic 72-hour arc story.

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