Series four of Orange is the New Black is something new, something darker, something better. Here’s Hannah Dunleavy with a SPOILER-FREE series four review.
No television series was more affected by eligibility rule changes for the Emmy Awards than Orange is the New Black. Previously, a show’s chiefs could select whether they entered episodes or actors into the comedy or drama categories on a case-by-case basis. Which, for OITNB, was fair enough, considering its success is largely down to its ability to do both.
But a new and seemingly less-than-failsafe method of deciding what’s what, based on whether a show is more than half an hour long, places Netflix’s most successful original series to date firmly, in the Emmys’ mind anyway, in the drama category.
I can’t possibly know how much impact this had on in the latest offering of OITNB. Maybe zero. But also, maybe, fuck it, if you’re competing against heavyweights, you might as well give your women some genuinely meaty stuff to do, right?
What I can say for certain is that series four has come out swinging as a drama. A dark, painful, tragic drama. And it’s all the better for it.
At the risk of picking on another drama for having a weak third series, I’ve got to say last year’s OITNB was all a bit meh. Certainly there were things that worked – the burgeoning friendship of one of the least likely pairings on TV, Boo and Pennsatucky, being a prime example.
“It’s prison: the inmates are depressed; the people who work there are depressed; the sorry tale goes on and on.”
But there was so much stuff that just happened – Cindy’s conversion to Judaism, for one – that delivered grand emotional endings that hadn’t really been earned.
The isolation of Sophia never sat right with me either. What started as a credible beef between two mothers being bigoted towards each other, suddenly escalated – even bearing in mind the hothouse setting – into something where a well-liked woman is menaced into seg by mostly faceless extras, while everyone else just stands by.
And so, it would be remiss of me to criticise the first few (five, to be exact) episodes of series four for being slow. Because if you want an earned pay-off, you’ve got to put in the groundwork. And this is television at its most place-setting-est.
It’s not just the long-term planning that slows up the early episodes of the series. It’s been stripped of much humour and what remains is pop culture jokes, which, for me, just confuse the time frame.* The shifting focus onto different characters and the introduction of a screed of new ones, leaves many familiar faces on the outs. (Sister Ingalls, Watson and Flaca are particularly poorly served by this series. Even Chang, who mostly just popped up at apt times to scowl hilariously, is almost entirely absent.)
*This, along with a flexible approach to how many prisoners are actually housed at Litchfield – even bearing in mind new arrivals – is one of my chief bugbears about OITNB as a whole.
That’s not to say there isn’t stuff to enjoy in the early episodes. In fact, after playing scared Soso, angry Soso, hungry Soso, dirty Soso and, finally, suicidal Soso, Kimiko Glenn’s megawatt smile really drives the first third of the series as she finally gets to unleash the rarest and most endearing of things – happy Soso.
But I did spend a lot of those early episodes hoping I wasn’t witnessing the start of a downhill slide/wondering if the cast had finally grown too large to effectively tell anyone’s story.
The plan was to watch six episodes, write a half-season review and deal with the rest when I had more time. But, during episode six, things finally started packing a punch (often quite literally), and I couldn’t stop myself.
When you get to the end of the series, it’s going to be hard to see past the inevitable, avoidable and genuinely heartbreaking tragedy which unfurls in the final episodes. It’s the culmination of a sometimes heavy-handed tale of the human cost of corporate greed (hey guys, you’re preaching to the converted). But it’s no less powerful for it and it ranks among some of the best stuff the show’s ever done. (Danielle Brooks is an extraordinarily talented and versatile actor.)
The rest of the tail end of series four continues to be (the right sort of) violent – the realistic kind, with faces and bodies bloodied, sickeningly swollen or blackened from confrontations. Many characters still bear the irrevocable marks of previous accidents or altercations and one more is scarred here, in one of the worst ways imaginable.
But the series continues to focus on the internal scars too and not just the ones gained in Litchfield. Shit, it’s prison: the inmates are depressed; the people who work there are depressed; the sorry tale goes on and on.
Instead, it’s the issue of long-term mental illness that comes to the fore. It’s fitting that in a series so stripped of comedy that we are reminded that Suzanne, Morello and Lolly, so often a rich vein of black humour, all have deep-seated psychological problems. Problems it seems no amount of love from their families or their prison families can even begin to solve.
All three actors deserve praise but Lori Petty is especially wonderful. In fact, I know it’s not a competition but if it was, she wins series four for me. She shares a scene with a not-without-his-own-issues Healy (compulsory Mexican wave for Deadwood alumni Michael Harney) that is so bloody touching, it buys OITNB a place on my 2016 Top 10 list on its own.
It’d also be unfair of me not to mention Taryn Manning. I’ve criticised the trajectory of Pennsatucky before but Manning continues to be great here, as Doggett (as she’s more commonly known now) tries to get over the terrible things that happened to her last series. You might not agree with how she does it, but it’s not presented as a good or bad thing, merely the one that is best for her. And now she is so far removed from the cartoonish fire and faith that so defined her character, she finally feels like a real human being and, as such, you can’t help but admire her.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.