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Has Orange Is The New Black Outgrown Itself?
Overcrowding led to bathroom lines and a whole lot of plot in Season 4.
To get a sense of the fourth season of Orange is the New Black, you just have to look at Litchfield's long-term inmates -- the ones we've been following from the beginning. The grande dames of Litchfield have gotten…not soft, exactly; more like mellow. Tired. Maybe wiser, or maybe just older. Season 4 is a world where Pennsatucky, now mostly called Doggett, spends her time contemplating the value of forgiveness and helping Nicky withdraw from heroin. Alex leaves potentially self-incriminating notes all around the prison, proclaiming the humanity of the hit man she killed. Red's back hurts a lot and her soul hurts a little, and her bunkmate snores; she's too tired even to put on her lipstick. Who are these chill, compassionate people? Oh, right: they're the same hotheads we used to know, but they've been in prison awhile. (Never mind that in the timeline of the show, it hasn't been that long; Piper's sentence is only fifteen months.)
This season is a little like those characters: a little slower, a little more into long-range planning, but still willing and able to punch you in the gut (or chop you up and bury you under the tomato plants) when the time comes. It's a timely season, all about restructuring and overcrowding and police violence, both intentional and accidental -- in my viewing timeline, Poussey was crushed under Bayley's knee just hours before the officer who drove Freddie Gray's police van in Baltimore was acquitted on all counts. Ultimately, it's a heavy season: heavy with plot, heavy with things to remember, heavy with rage, heavy with sadness. All those heavy parts connect in the end, and it certainly goes somewhere once it gets moving. But things at Litchfield have changed since we first arrived, and OITNB isn't the same show it was at the beginning -- or even last year.
The inciting incident and organizing principle of the season is overcrowding: a new wave of inmates from another prison pours into Litchfield and pushes the limits of how many characters one show can reasonably track and expect people to care about. Everything gets more complicated and takes more time. The first half of the season (and a few episodes later on) weights a lot of different characters and storylines equally, basically giving everyone the same amount of screentime no matter how well we know them or how much we care about them. It effectively sets up a lot of storylines and grooms some minor characters for bigger things; it's also pretty boring. Essentially, nobody cares how many ways Red tried to cure her bunkmate's snoring. When's she going to manipulate the local drug trade for heartbreaking yet self-serving reasons?
Things begin to move at midseason, around the time we run into Nicky (in max, and intentionally clean for the first time in her life) and Sophia (in SHU and wrecked, but staging an escalating series of rebellions) after nearly a full season away. It's striking how important both of them are to the OITNB landscape and how much things change as soon as they return to the story, even tangentially. Neither of them is actually that significant to how the seasons ends, but Nicky especially ties people together; you can see when she comes back how much everybody cares about her and wants her to succeed. She adds instant stakes. Sophia has about ten lines in the entire season, but knowing she's at risk (and knowing there's a death at the end of the season) is terrifying. Everything comes to a head at the end of the second-to-last episode with a chaotic protest scene in the cafeteria, the culmination of all the crowding. There are twice as many inmates taken care of by guards who can't get to know them all; with so many people and so many things happening in so small a space, it's no wonder somebody doesn't get up.
Cramming this many stories into thirteen hours of screentime is impressive, and the way everything ties up is really satisfying. It also leaves a lot out along the way; there just isn't enough time to tell everybody's story deeply. The wealth of storylines adds to the complexity of the season, and that feels right; it's a complicated situation. But it's hard to keep track of, and some of the storylines (ahem, Kukudio; why are you even there?) don't seem worth the sacrifice of time with other characters. The way even small details from this season come together at the end is impressive, but less volume might have paid off in better depth.
A cast of this size, with a limited amount of time in the season, also leaves a lot of people standing around without a lot to do -- minor characters like Angie and Leanne, who have always been comic relief anyway, but also people like Daya, who carried her own storyline for three seasons and now just tags along with Maria's gang, waiting around for the final scene of the season (where she ends up with Humps's gun, setting her up for Season 5). Even Poussey, who's so wonderful and so much beloved that she could not remain on this Earth, did nothing before she died except moon around with Soso, who is also sometimes funny and annoying but in this case did nothing except moon around with Poussey. One of OITNB's charms has always been its engagement with minor characters, but now nearly everybody's essentially a minor character.
So maybe this show's enormous, diverse, excellent ensemble doesn't need to be quite so enormous. It's been four seasons; maybe some of these characters (including, I'm sorry to say, Poussey) have run their course. How about this: if characters are repeating storylines, it's time. Is Nicky spiraling and checking behind every brick for heroin…again? How close is Lorna to finding herself in some dude's bathtub? These are characters I love, but maybe it's time they were up for early release or went out in a blaze of glory, Miss Rosa-style. (I also think Laura Prepon should go; Alex isn't that interesting, and are she and Piper back on again? And of course, Piper herself doesn't really need to be there.)
Thinking about the previous season, it's clear that OITNB is headed in a very different direction than it was at this time last year -- there's no lake, no frolicking, no redeeming moment of freedom and fun. This season is slower, but also bigger, more sprawling, and in some ways more ambitious. Whether that's a good thing for S5 remains to be seen.