Spoilers through to the end of season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.
Orange Is the New Black has become a cautionary tale of the streaming era of television. When it first debuted in 2013, it quickly became hugely popular, one of Netflix’s most watched and acclaimed original series. It was at the forefront of that brief moment when “Netflix original series” meant something: ground-breaking television, exploding our very conception of what television could be. With its sprawling, diverse ensemble cast, binge-friendly structure and mixture of comedy and drama, Orange Is the New Black was the kind of show that was regularly preceded by a “I can’t believe you haven’t seen” and followed by an exclamation mark.
But not anymore. The show’s fourth season was polarising, but its fifth was widely disliked, to the extent it made any impact at all. It’s become just another show in Netflix’s bloated catalogue, just another past-its-prime show that you’ve forgotten is still on the air.
“Orange is the New Black seems destined to remain in a sort of TV purgatory,” The Guardian writes, “It has more than enough fans to sustain itself on Netflix and the streaming site is keen to back it considering it’s still one of its most-loved originals. But does it feel as vital as it did when it was first released?”
The answer is supposed to be no, so obviously that it doesn’t need to be said. But here’s the thing: in its latter years, Orange Is the New Black has become something more important and much more radical. I tend to rag on Peak TV quite a bit – if I say something “could only exist in the streaming era” I usually mean that it’s bloated, incoherent and insufficiently concerned with making individual episodes high-quality or enjoyable. The second season of Jessica Jones could only exist in the streaming era, and it fucking sucks. But Orange Is the New Black, too, could only exist in the streaming era: a beacon of light guiding the way to all that streaming television has the possibilities to be.
At what other point in history could a TV series get made – and become hugely popular – that argues, full-throated, for the abolition of prisons?
Orange Is the New Black has always been about the inhumanity of prisons and the humanity of prisoners. Episodes feature flashbacks to a given character’s life before prison: sometimes it’s the story of how they ended up here, sometimes – especially as the show goes on – it’s something else, moments from their childhood or another part of their backstory. The show refuses to let us see any of its characters as just a prisoner, allowing us to see their full humanity even when, in the present-day at Litchfield Penitentiary, it is buried deep. At the same time, the prison itself is designed to strip that humanity away: a small but persistent detail from the start of the show is that guards refer to prisoners only as “inmate”. A young female guard is given out to for addressing a prisoner by name.
In the beginning, our protagonist was Piper (Taylor Schilling), a rich WASP lady who’d smuggled drug money for her girlfriend years previously. She was a fish out of water comically unfamiliar with her surroundings. Even though the show was set in a prison, it wasn’t really about prison a lot of the time: it was high school, it was summer camp, and its flashes of horror – a prisoner dying from an overdose, or a guard nicknamed Pornstache feeling prisoners up – were just frequent enough to remind us that horror is always, inescapably, lurking under the surface. A lot of the rest of it is silly, mundane, human: all sanitary pads, work assignments and dwindling letters from home. If it seems like school, it’s at least in part as a shorthand, creating a frame of reference that forces us to see the prisoners as human beings. (The other part is that school is an awful lot like prison.)
The audience quickly moves beyond Piper’s blinkered perspective. The flashbacks aren’t Piper’s to know: they’re between us and the characters they’re about. From the second season, Piper fades into the show’s huge ensemble cast, more an object of cringe comedy than anything: at one point she accidentally starts a white power group, like something out of a fucked-up bizarre version of Frasier. The huge ensemble is, famously, representative of marginalised communities: save a handful of staff, it’s all women; much of the cast are black or Latina, and a few are Asian; lots of them are lesbians (Piper is bisexual); most of them are working-class; one is trans. This was a frequent point of praise for the early seasons of Orange Is the New Black – telling stories about people whose stories are rarely told – but, as the show has shifted in tone and content, has become a sticking point. It’s a debate that had its flash point at the end of season four, with the murder of fan favourite Poussey (Samira Wiley).
In the third season, Litchfield Penitentiary was bought by a private corporation. The fourth season is about the consequences of that. A new “education” initiative is barely-concealed slave labour as the prisoners are “trained” to pour concrete in the construction of a new building. Existing problems, like racial profiling, solitary confinement and abuse, escalate exponentially. The guards’ union is busted and the newly hired, non-union guards – most of them army veterans – are poorly and improperly trained at best. Their new captain is ex-CERT (Correctional Emergency Response Team, basically SWAT for prisons), and he consistently frames their job as a battle between the guards and the prisoners. Mentally disabled inmates are forced to fight, another is made to eat a mouse, and frisking of Dominican prisoners becomes standard. Their treatment of the prisoners recalls, for me, Abu Ghraib, if on a smaller scale. The guards are something more than just cruel: they see their job as not just to maintain order, or even to punish, but to deny any kind of power or autonomy to the prisoners. They use the power over them sadistically, like it is the prisoners’ lack of autonomy which gives them their enjoyment. The guards will go to bat for each other, but never for anyone else, even when they know it’s wrong: it’s us vs. them, and it’s war. Right and wrong don’t come into it.
Even the “good” guards are pulled in, like a whirlpool: “Do you feel like this place… changes you?” Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) asks another correctional officer. Bayley is good: he is young and sweet and worried by the behaviour of the other guards. He is good enough to know that this place is changing him, and to know that it’s wrong.
Bayley is the one who kills Poussey.
All of season four pulses with underlying dread, an escalating horror of powerlessness and hopelessness. In the penultimate episode, the prisoners stage a protest – standing on top of the cafeteria tables, a sadistic punishment transformed into an act of defiance – and it feels momentarily like a spark of hope. Everything that divided them – their prison families and race, most especially – seems washed away as they stand together in solidarity, because there are more of us than you, and we demand things change. The guards yell at them to get down and threaten to punish them. It doesn’t work, so they start to pull them down by force. Chaos erupts, and in the midst of it, Bayley kneels on Poussey’s back until the breath leaves her body. “I can’t breathe” are her last words, echoing the real-life murder of Eric Garner at the hands of police in New York City.
Poussey was a black lesbian, a military brat and a romantic. She worked in the prison library, and she was funny and kind. Her death was met with immediate backlash online. Emily Nussbaum summarises it nicely in her (excellent) review of season four:
Some observers resented the fact that the show, which has mostly white writers, had forced fans, especially African-Americans, to soak in racist violence rather than offering them a respite from it. Some were uncomfortable with echoes of real crimes. Some of the pushback was fan response to losing a beloved character—especially a black lesbian, a rarity on television—and, with her, a happy ending.
But here’s the thing: Orange Is the New Black was never supposed to be a respite. Prison isn’t high school, and it isn’t summer camp. The show was always filled with flashes of horror, and as it continued they became more than flashes, as unchecked power and dehumanisation become more and more central to the show’s themes. The reason the ensemble is so diverse is not as balm for the liberal heart but because those are the kinds of people who are disproportionately sent to prison. In the last two episodes of season four, the flashbacks are Bayley’s, then Poussey’s: we watch as Bayley receives not even a slap on the wrist for crimes that have sent black, Latina and working-class characters to Litchfield, including smoking pot, trespassing on private property and stealing from his employer. When a middle-class white kid like Bayley does them, they’re teenage hijinks. And then we see Poussey’s flashbacks, and learn that she went to prison for marijuana possession. She did something 62% of Americans don’t even think should be a crime, and it got her killed.
It is important that it’s Bayley, and not one of the overtly monstrous guards, who kills Poussey. Bayley is not a bad apple. He’s not, as an individual, intrinsically inclined towards murder. Because the problem is not bad individuals, it’s an evil system. Bayley is a fairly average guy, poorly trained and out of his depth, who has been told daily that his job is to dehumanise and disempower. The other guards quickly develop “the story” of what happened to exonerate Bayley; the corporation that owns the prison wants to paint him as a bad apple and pin it all on him to avoid liability; Caputo, the warden, is disgusted by both, but ultimately defends Bayley in his press statement. He forgets to call Poussey’s father until he is reminded to do so.
Another guard drives the ashen-faced Bayley home, and tells him offhandedly about strangling a woman to death after he had sex with her in Afghanistan. “Now, I didn’t see what happened exactly, but I know you. Sort of. You’re a good guy! I’m a good guy. It was an accident.”
If there was any worry that the decision to kill off Poussey was done for shock value, a shallow and simplistic lesson about Black Lives Matter for the white viewer, that should be assuaged by season five. The fifth season – all thirteen hour-long episodes of it – is set during the riot that begins shortly after Poussey’s death, digging deep into the shit to explore why these crimes happen. The story takes inspiration from real-life prison riots, most especially the Attica Prison uprising in 1971. Several guards are taken as hostages, and a group of Poussey’s friends, led by Taystee (Danielle Brooks), lead negotiations, armed with a list of demands voted on by the prisoners. They want better healthcare, free tampons, fresh vegetables, an end to random cavity searches and to solitary confinement, and access to competent lawyers. They’re just asking for basic human dignity. To be treated like human beings. Their sillier demands are still, for the most part, almost pathetically modest: Flaming Hot Cheetos at the commissary, live music, an ice cream sundae bar.
But what Taystee wants more than anything is justice for Poussey. Bayley killed her best friend, and she wants him to be arrested. This demand proves the stickiest: as the riots go on, Caputo and the corporation are willing – or claim to be willing – to grant most of the prisoners’ demands, but justice for Poussey is always off the table. Meanwhile, out in the world, Bayley cannot live with the evil he’s done: he goes to Poussey’s father’s house, looking to be punished because no-one else will do it. He is, of course, turned away.
The prisoners abuse the hostages. They humiliate them and, in one case, rape them. It is, once again, the system more than the individuals in it: to hold that kind of power over someone, where they are locked up, is inherently dangerous. Like the pigs in Animal Farm, for some of the prisoners, power does not cause them to transform the system but transforms them into the original oppressor class. A lot of reviews of season five focus on this angle: The Atlantic notes that showrunner Jenji Kohan “seems to be intent on… exploring how people who’ve been subjected to horrific treatment can so cheerfully turn around and inflict the same thing on others.” And horrific is definitely one of the key words for season five, even if the sense of dread isn’t as tightly coiled as the previous season. I am really confused by the review in Slant that says, “While comic relief may have been a welcomed guest in previous seasons, here… the show’s usual silliness feel out of place. When Litchfield’s resident meth-heads decide to put on a mock American Idol, one can’t ignore how horrifying it is that the contestants are hostages.” Because, uh, yeah. You’re supposed to laugh and wince and recoil all at once, the humour only serving to make the horror all the more disturbing.
But more interesting, to me, are the moments when the prison runs more humanely as run by the prisoners. Doggett (Taryn Manning) is put on trial for helping a guard escape – Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), a butch lesbian in a suit and tie, delightfully hams it up as her defence “lawyer” – and convicted. My mind immediately filled with the horrible things they would do to her – tying her up with the hostages, obviously, but torture, too, in a repulsive kaleidoscope of forms – but, after Doggett gives a speech about how they should strive to be better than their imprisoners, they sentence her to community service.
Doggett walks around the prison dispensing yellow drink to anyone who wants some. She makes amends to her community by serving her community.
Because that is, for the most part, not the approach of the criminal justice system. Prisons are such a long-standing institution in such disparate societies and cultures that it’s easy not to think about them at all, to not even expend the mentally energy to shrug and say “that’s just the way things are.” But what goals do we want our criminal justice system to achieve? If it’s rehabilitation – and good Lord, I hope it is – then do prisons achieve that? Prisons are designed primarily to punish, and punishment is a cold and cruel thing, revenge dressed up as justice. They exclude the imprisoned from their community, at the very least, and often much more, from the mundane, accepted dehumanisation of not getting to wear your own clothes to practices acknowledged as torture, like solitary confinement. Prisons do not give the prisoner the opportunity to provide redress for the wrong they’ve done, or to think of themselves as part of a community they should be concerned about.
And lots of people are in prison not because they’re bad people, but because of systemic inequality. We lock drug addicts up instead of getting them the help they need. We don’t put the mentally ill in asylums anymore, but the community care services promised to replace them never materialised at a sufficient scale, and so severely mentally ill people wind up in prison for trivial offenses. Class is one of the primary predictors of whether or not someone will go to prison, as outlined in the People’s Policy Project’s report, and it’s not because the wealthy are more virtuous. Black and Latino people in America are more likely to be arrested, be sent to prison and to serve longer sentences for the same crimes: the long history of this, dating back to the amendment which abolished slavery sneaking in an exemption for slavery as punishment for a crime, is traced in Ava DuVernay’s excellent documentary, 13th. Justice is rarely, it turns out, blind.
But there’s the still the problem of what to do when people harm each other. And, quite honestly, I have no idea. But what I love about Orange Is the New Black is that it doesn’t just point out the inhumanity of prisons, but dares to dream of something better. The problem, in the show, is not that people are inevitably monstrous. It is that they’ve built a system that demands they behave monstrously. There is horror in this revelation, but also hope: because if we built it, we can tear it down.
Orange Is the New Black, more than any show I’ve ever seen, is about how everyone is a person, not just as an obvious truism but as a deeply moral truth in a world where personhood is routinely denied. And so it became, ultimately, a show about how prison is an affront to human dignity. Where seasons three and four criticised private prisons, run for profit by corporations, season five did something bigger and braver: it attacked prisons at the root, as institutions of injustice, inhumanity and deprivation. They are not designed to make the people inside of them better, or the people outside of them safer. They’re designed to lock away drug addicts and the mentally ill and working-class people and people of colour: sometimes for profit, sometimes for political gain, but mostly just out of indifference. That’s the thing about systemic injustice – it doesn’t really require that many people to be actively malicious or hateful or cruel. They just have to not care all that much.
The prisoners’ makeshift court sentences Doggett to community service, and it feels like a glimpse towards a better world. One centred not on punishment, but on both justice and mercy. Taystee argues for basic human rights – like education and healthcare and freedom from torture – and it aches to know that what she’s asking for will be treated as an impossibility. Not because it is actually impossible, but because the world has convinced itself that people like Taystee don’t “deserve” it.