Orange is the New Black took a slower-paced, less intense approach this season, with more of a focus on themes and character growth than on a central Big Bad plot.
Orange is the New Black remains an incredibly important show. It’s been repeatedly proven that seeing unfamiliar and marginalized groups in fiction encourages people to be more empathetic towards them, and Orange is the New Black takes this responsibility seriously. It presents the most diverse cast of women seen on television, with old and young, conventionally attractive and unattractive, different sexualities, gender fluidity, a transgender character, women who love makeup, women seen without makeup, women who are exhausted and sad and ambitious and vengeful and afraid. And it also presents the prison population in a unblinking and sympathetic way, forcing viewers to consider issues as varied in seriousness as prison guard abuses and the quality of prison food that might otherwise feel too far outside their own experience to be considered important.
Orange is the New Black is particularly skilled at presenting the sympathy and humanity in characters that would otherwise be far too easy to condemn. It has to be, if it wants to give us characters who committed more than petty, victimless crimes — murderous stalkers like Morello, rage-driven murderers like Pennsatucky, and the like. But the show is also good at redeeming characters who originally seemed irredeemably awful, by showing the layers underneath, and showing their struggle to be better. Most notably this season was Pennsatucky, who developed from the somewhat one-dimensional religious fanatic seen in Season One to a flawed and ignorant but generally well-meaning and sympathetic character here. By using flashbacks to explain her past, and her new friendship with Boo to explore her present, we got to see a nuanced character grow and redefine herself, and she quickly became my favorite on the show.
And that’s true of most of the characters — almost all of them are on paths to becoming better people. Although many of them are deeply flawed, they often have good intentions, or understandable reasons, or even demonstrable pain that makes us more accepting of their mistakes.
The one exception, I found, was Piper. In Season One, she was the more easily marketable character, providing us a glimpse into this diverse prison world. That role is defunct at this point, but she’s still nominally the protagonist, and so she has to be given some growth, something to do. So she has changed from the struggling outsider, making enemies through oblivious ignorance and learning to adapt and survive, to one of the villain characters herself. She has become the bully, the manipulator, the one who revels in her power over others, who uses them to make a profit, and who isn’t afraid to destroy someone else’s life for crossing her. And unlike her similar counterparts, like Red, she offers nothing in return — no emotional support, no sense of unity, nothing but her own advantage. She’s cruel, she’s manipulative, and she has no reason for being so. Despite her plaintive insistence that she needs the money she’s earning for when she leaves prison, she doesn’t, not compared to everyone around her. She still has her rich family to help take care of her. The other inmates who leave with just a bus ticket that’s not even worth enough to get anywhere are a different story. We can sympathize with Nicky despite her mistakes because she’s an addict. We can sympathize with Morello because we see her genuinely caring for people. Even Alex becomes sympathetic as she struggles to leave her own manipulative past behind.
But Piper? Piper somehow became the villain of the piece, the one who is unsympathetically awful. And unlike characters like Pennsatucky, she’s not a new character who will be given more depth in the future to make her more sympathetic. So, as the gradually developing villain of the season, I was hoping for some kind of comeuppance at the end. Some realization of the cruel way she has been acting, some character growth, a set-back to her operation or a challenge that she does not one-up before the end of the episode. Either we needed to see a sympathetic reason for why she was acting this way, or we needed the narrative to treat her more like the villain she became.
Of course, officially this season’s villain was the Big Corporation, as their callous takeover introduced problem after problem. I’ve seen that some people were disappointed with this plot arc, as it focussed more on the administration than the prisoners, but I think it played to the show’s greatest strength. Orange is the New Black always been about powerlessness — about guard abuses, a lack of choices, a life that crushed these women before they came to prison and will crush them after they leave. Although it’s interesting to see nuanced villains among the prisoners, Vee never struck a chord with me because she was entirely evil, and she was one of the prisoners herself. She held power over them, but it wasn’t the all-crushing, inescapable systemic power that I’d argue was the main villain in Season One. It’s definitely unpleasant to see characters being crushed from above, to say the least, but it’s important for the show to make powerful statements about the prison system and its abuses.
The show’s dedication to showing both the good and the ugly in its characters means that it is full of racism, sexism and other bigotry and discrimination — proving that including problematic content does not necessarily make a show problematic in itself. It all depends on the show’s perspective, and although this season is once again full of casual racist attitudes and slurs, the narrative itself never supports those views. So although, for example, Sophia faces escalating transphobia and is eventually punished for it “for her own protection,” the narrative itself is unambiguously focussed on showing the cruelty and injustice of this. And yet, because of this dedication to finding the humanity in characters without erasing the bad, many sympathetic characters are involved in this campaign against her.
Of course, Orange is the New Black is not free from stereotypes of its own. The main Asian character’s sole flashback, for example, involves her playing the piano while her mother berates her for not practicing hard enough. Despite the number of bisexual characters in the show, the word has yet to be heard on-screen. And many people have criticized the show’s representation of Judaism this season. It has flaws that need to be challenged.
But, for good or ill, it’s still the most diverse representation of women on TV. And despite some criticisms of a lack of momentum, I thought it was an enjoyable character-driven season with a lot to offer.