‘Orange is the New Black’ Season 4 Review
From contributing film critic Barry Levitt
Entering the fourth season of a TV series can prove to be a great challenge for showrunners. Programmes often begin to reveal their cracks, and end up getting weighed down from fatigue. Not every story is meant to last for countless seasons and hundreds of episodes, and season four is often a breaking point for many beloved programmes. The third season of Jenji Kohan’s Orange is the New Black confounded many with its lackadaisical approach, having removed a distinct villain from the equation, and the show appeared to have lost its focus. The third season ended with a massive influx of new prisoners to Litchfield, and season four starts exactly where the previous season left off. While the third season was one of transition, the latest season kicks the ideas into gear, beautifully balancing an enormous ensemble cast with compelling plotlines and fascinating villains. As a result, the latest season of Orange Is The New Black is the best of the series so far, and one of the best seasons of contemporary television to date.
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) has relinquished her role as the show’s undisputed lead, with OITNB diving further into its exceptionally diverse and talented cast. This is one of the series’ biggest improvements, which is not to say that Schilling is a poor performer. On the contrary, Schilling is on top form, but the lack of a concrete lead makes Litchfield a more exciting place. In previous seasons, it would never be too long before returning to Piper’s plotline. Now, Orange has become refreshingly off-kilter, with it being nearly impossible to guess where the show is going next on a scene-to-scene basis. This new level of unpredictability has added a great deal of excitement, with twists and turns coming seemingly without warning, making the show all the more binge-able.
Another one of this season’s biggest successes is its flashbacks. These have been an integral part of the show since its beginning, and each episode has focused on a particular character before their life in prison. While previous flashbacks explained how inmates ended up in Litchfield, this season goes far more in-depth. Instead of just showing the how, these flashbacks delve into the why, giving reason and purpose to the inmates’ personalities and actions, and allowing them to be much more multi-dimensional. These trips into the past also manage to tie-in with what is happening in the present, evoking a sense of urgency while allowing us to understand specific character motivations. Season four features some particularly outstanding flashback sequences, allowing viewers to understand characters such as Martiza, Lolly, Maria and Blanca like never before.
OITNB has always showcased great performances, and this season is no different. In addition to the excellent performances viewers have come to expect from the recurring cast, a number of new additions to the group, as well as a number of regulars who have been given increased screen-time, have elevated the show to new levels. The leader of the all-new prison guard force, captain Piscatella (Brad William Henke) brings a ferocious regime that challenges the foundation of the inmates’ lives. Henke delivers a menacing performance, freely expressing his power over the ladies of Litchfield. Another key addition this season is Judy King (Blair Brown), a celebrity TV personality who arrived at the prison at the end of season three. King could have easily come across as a cheap parody of Martha Stewart, but Brown is a revelation, bringing far more than just comic relief. The mere introduction of Judy King adds another dimension to the show, highlighting class issues in prisons and providing a fascinating look at celebrity culture, while also injecting some humour into the show.
Orange is the New Black has always struggled with tone, particularly in terms of balancing comedy with drama. Moments that should have come off as dramatic have felt too amusing, and vice-versa. This season, Kohan and company have solved this problem, and the show appears to be transitioning more towards drama. That being said, the comedy is still there and is still effective, though it now feels more balanced within the high-stakes drama of Litchfield.
A major change this season has come through its commitment to prison conflicts, particularly in setting up major racial divides within the prison. Race has always been an issue in the series, but has only ever come out in occasional bursts. This season, the issue has come to the foreground, and it has significantly increased the stakes for the entire prison ecosystem, making tensions higher and more unbearable than ever before. In the last few episodes, everything the season has been building towards comes together, and it results in some of the most harrowing moments television has to offer.
While the newest season of Orange is the New Black takes a few episodes to find its footing in its now much busier universe, when it establishes itself, it cannot be stopped. Kohan and crew have taken everything that worked well in previous seasons and have greatly increased the stakes, resulting in an astonishing, heartbreaking, and revelatory season of television. For newcomers, the show may seem daunting as there are endless characters and scenarios being introduced in each episode. That being said, it is absolutely worth starting from the beginning and experiencing every minute this show has to offer. And for devoted fans of the series, OITNB has reached a new high, and its fourth season is the best to date. This is truly unmissable television.(5 / 5)
(Photos copyright: Netflix, Lionsgate Television, Tilted Productions)