Up Next

In its strongest season so far, ‘Orange is the New Black’ yells ‘Say her name!’

The show won’t let us forget how police violence affects women

This piece discusses the entirety of season four of Orange is the New Black, and therefore is full of spoilers.

Despite the deaths of Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland, we still tend to think about and talk about police violence and injustice as something that happens to black men. We’re attuned to the way black men and boys are dehumanized, the way profiling and unconscious bias affects everything from stop-and-frisk statistics to conviction and sentencing disparities. When it comes to criminal justice, the crisis facing black men and boys tends to take up all of the oxygen in the conversation.

Not at Litchfield.

The strongest season yet of Orange is the New Black premiered during an extraordinary year full of pop culture that reflects and explores the subjugation of black Americans, past and present. From Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the Grammys, to Beyoncé’s recent Lemonade, and “Formation” in particular, to WGN’s Underground, the History Channel’s recent Roots reboot, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation Nat Turner biopic, and even OJ: Made in America (an ESPN production), OITNB still manages to stand out, and does so by fulfilling its initial mission to tell the stories of imprisoned women of color.

What makes Season Four so memorable is its prescience and its daring. OITNB writers killed off one of the show’s favorite characters, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), and broke the heart of her best friend, Taystee (Danielle Brooks). Now the entire season is an examination of our current conversation about race and criminal justice. By taking the real-life circumstances surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and foisting them onto the body of a 92-pound black character named Poussey, Orange is the New Black has very deliberately ensured that its audience doesn’t forget to #SayHerName.

Poussey is killed by one of the guards at Litchfield during a peaceful protest in the cafeteria. It’s a standoff fueled by weeks of inhumane treatment at the hands of Litchfield’s new underpaid guards, war veterans who have been brought in to quell any potential misbehavior now that Litchfield is packed to the gills with inmates. The women in the cafeteria decide, one by one, to stand on top of the tables and defy the orders of Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke)—the bullying, bearded captain of the guards. When Piscatella orders his men to start pulling women down from the tables, a guard named Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) grabs Poussey and holds her down on the floor with a knee in her back and his forearm across her neck.

He’s trying, at the same time, to fight off Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), who has gone ballistic because of the chaos in the cafeteria and because she’s afraid Bayley is hurting Poussey. Suzanne is trying to pull the guard off of her. Bayley’s pressure on Poussey’s neck only increases, and we see her mouthing desperately, “I can’t breathe.” They’re her last words.

The show constructed a beautiful send-off for Poussey by treating its audience to flashbacks of her life before she was imprisoned, still brimming with the hope and optimism of youth. Poussey wasn’t just a pitiful victim of a prison murder. She was a person. Poussey’s body is left in the cafeteria overnight as MCC (the corporation that runs Litchfield), strategists brainstorm how to spin her death. They won’t allow Litchfield warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) to call the police until nearly 24 hours later. The entire time, Poussey is covered by a white sheet and guarded by an officer. Bayley is allowed to leave the prison, and Caputo even orders one of the other guards to drive Bayley home. As everyone tries to cover their own behinds, Poussey’s humanity is lost in the process.

When Caputo decides to show some backbone by flouting MCC’s agreed-upon talking points during a live news conference, he creates a bigger mess by defending Bayley and neglecting to mention Poussey by name. Furious, Taystee, who has been working as Caputo’s assistant, goes back to the dormitory and leads a riot. “He ain’t even say her name!” she cries.

The riot is a culmination of a powder keg of inhumane conditions that have been building at Litchfield since the prison went private at the end of season three. It’s beset by overcrowding and no one seems to care about the fact that the women there don’t even have enough sanitary napkins and tampons.

Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset, the prisoner who's been housed indefinitely in solitary confinement.

Laverne Cox as Sophia Burset, the prisoner who’s been housed indefinitely in solitary confinement.

Courtesy of Netflix

In one ambitious season, through its massive cast, the show has provided a polemic on warehousing the mentally ill, using solitary confinement as psychological punishment, lack of transparency regarding treatment of inmates, solitary confinement masquerading as protection, stop-and-frisk, broken windows policing, corruption and dehumanization inherent in private, for-profit prisons, and police militarization. On a lesser level, it functions as a critique of the tactics of Donald Trump. When Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) uses coded language to stir up and focus white racial animus and via a “task force,” her plan backfires, and she ends up breathing life into the prison’s heretofore disorganized neo Nazi movement.

These are all enormously complicated problems, but when the show is at its best, it demonstrates why it’s so binge-able: because the character arcs and major storylines are so neatly interwoven into each other. The show began with gentle laugh lines poking fun at the hypocrisies of white liberalism, but four seasons in, OITNB indicts Piper for using her whiteness against other prisoners—the Dominicans actually brand her with a swastika for it.

Brad William Henke as Desi Piscatella and Taylor Schiller as Piper Chapman in a scene from Orange is the New Black.

Brad William Henke as Desi Piscatella and Taylor Schiller as Piper Chapman in a scene from Orange is the New Black.

Courtesy of Netflix

The overcrowding is what ties the major event of season four together. It’s what leads to an increase of graffiti on the prison walls, one of the excuses Piper gives for directing the guards attentions toward the Latina inmates. That attention becomes increasingly more physical as handsy male guards take advantage of opportunities to molest the Latina — and only the Latina — inmates. To avoid such treatment, one inmate, Blanca, stops showering and deliberately tries to smell as terrible as possible to make the prospect of groping her as unattractive as possible. One especially sadistic guard punishes her by making her stand on a table in the cafeteria for days without moving, forcing her to relieve herself in her uniform. Blanca finally sees some relief when she’s forced to leave her table to comply with a lockdown order.

When the women have finally had enough, and agree to organize a revolt against Piscatella, they stand on the tables in solidarity against the guards. It’s one of the most moving scenes of the season.

If Orange had a weakness this season, it’s in the writing of Linda (Beth Dover), the MCC company woman and purchasing czarina and the only one-dimensional character on the show. Linda seems to be motivated only by a love of making money for MCC, and by using the men she works with for sex and professional advancement and that’s about it. Her presence in the show is solely as a corrupting force—even counselor Sam Healy (Michael J. Harney) has a backstory and an exterior life that makes it difficult to wholly despise him. The same goes for Natalie Figueroa, the onetime warden whose politico husband turned out to be closeted and gay.

But ultimately, by the season’s end, showrunner Jenji Kohan and her writing staff knit a rich tapestry illustrative of just how a riot can be the language of the unheard, leaving us terrified for what’s to come in Season Five. What’s more, they did it using a cast full of women to show us that mass incarceration and the ills that propel it aren’t just a poisonous epidemic affecting men of color. According to the Sentencing Project, between 1980 and 2014, the number of imprisoned women and girls rose by 700 percent. It’s evident through art coming out this year that the onslaught of high-profile cases of black people dying at the hands of police has struck a nerve. Orange is the New Black remains more determined than ever to make sure we remember the ladies.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.