Orange Is The New Black’s Mixed Messages

By  · Published on June 28th, 2016

Sometimes a show takes a big swing at a political message and misses.

The fourth season of Netflix’s hit show Orange is the New Black may be its best yet. Equipped with both a young and liberal creative team and fanbase, the show has tackled such complex and controversial social questions throughout its run as transphobia, racism, gender, sexuality, mental illness, rape, and drug abuse. The show has done immensely well at presenting a realistic view of these issues in the past that the major plot twist at the end of Season 4 leaves viewers with mixed feelings and a lot of unanswered questions about the motivation of the creative team.

Season four finds Litchfield Women’s Correctional Center in the middle of a privatization nightmare. The acquisition of the prison by MCC has led to the doubling of the inmate population and the mass exodus of correctional officers. MCC, in their infinite and intensely capitalist wisdom, chooses to bring in veterans to fill the empty guard positions. The show portrays these veterans as harsh, violent, and petty. The officers abuse their power at every turn, and Warden Caputo is too blinded by the corporate hierarchy to see it.

The officers’ abuse of the inmates escalates significantly as the season progresses, and it comes as no surprise that the victims of this abuse use nonviolent protest tactics to express their anger. Officer Piscatella (Brad William Henke), the Captain and ringleader of this new group of brutish guards, orders the officers to remove the women from the cafeteria tables, where they stand in protest. This scene is chaotic. People are shouting. People are being pulled and escorted away. Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), overwhelmed by the guilt she experiences over the fight one of the guards forced her to have, becomes unstable. Poussey (Samira Wiley) jumps to her aid, only to be pinned to the ground by Officer Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) – one of the only officers to report the violence, let alone refuse to partake in it. She is alive and unable to move for an uncomfortably long time. She cannot struggle; she is extremely small. She whimpers for help. By the time Bayley realizes the pressure with which he has his knee on her, she is already dead.

Everything about the protest scene is uncomfortable. We’ve seen the horrific liberties taken by the guards over the span of the season, and the anticipation builds toward Poussey’s death. It is presented as a moment in which fiction steps into the real world for a flash, but it does not stand up to scrutiny. Too many parts of the death were too ambiguous. Some ambiguity would obviously be called for; sometimes a cigar is not just a cigar, but this was too much.

Poussey Washington is a perfect victim. She is small. She is kind. She doesn’t have beef with any of the inmates or the officers. She is the daughter of an important Army major and has lived much of her life outside of the United States. She is well educated. She is not so outspoken about the oppression of African Americans as some of her friends, namely Watson and Black Cindy. She is a character with universal appeal. To kill her seems like a ploy to make all of the viewers of OITNB feel strongly about a law enforcement brutality death at Litchfield. The death is even more devastating because she cannot fight back or make any effort to protect her life. She is powerless at the hands of the State. This fits into a particular narrative about the police state. Her universal appeal makes this narrative more compelling to those who may be more skeptical of its truthfulness.

The narrative of the brutality of the police state fell apart as the show named a second victim in Poussey’s death. Baxter Bayley was the kindest officer in all of the prison. He never hurt anyone. He helped Piper get her prison panties onto the market. He was sweet and idealistic. During the raid of the protest, he seemed more worried about the safety of the inmates and himself than any of the other guards. By the time he kills Poussey, he is painted as an equal victim for having done it. We see him crying. We see the other guards being callous about the trauma he has just experienced. We see his pain, his guilt, and the loss of his innocence. This undermines the very point of the brutal police state narrative. The show’s protection of Officer Bayley could be seen as explaining away the very real threat of law enforcement brutality as a cocktail of unfortunate circumstances. If the victim is innocent and the perpetrator is innocent, on whom can we place the blame?

Poussey’s death felt contrived. It felt like a half-hearted homage to the Black Lives Matter movement by white liberals and for white liberals. It felt like it had been thrown in for shock factor. There had been very little foreshadowing leading up to her being pinned onto the floor that she would die. It would have been much more realistic if Poussey had been held back from intervening in the first place. It would have been more realistic if it had been Suzanne.

Suzanne’s struggle with mental illness and her outspoken nature had already made her a target in the eyes of the guards. The memory of being forced to fight by one of the correctional officers is what caused her to react and catch the attention of the guards the way she did. She had suffered abuse at the hands of the guards in the past; it would have made sense that they would have done anything to keep her quiet. The chaos of the protest was the perfect opportunity for that silencing. Poussey was killed instead because her character was likable and “normal” enough for her death to matter.

It seems that the show refused to attribute her death to brute force and animosity or racism by using Bayley as the vehicle of her demise. There had been also been nothing in the preceding episodes to indicate that Bayley would be a villain/victim. Ninety-eight percent of the other guards and Captain Piscatella would all have made the realistic choice of a perpetrator of this violence. If anything, it would have been truer to Bayley’s character to have run away during the chaos. Caputo had been speaking to him over the course of a couple of episodes about how working in a prison changes a person. He seemed worried by it.

Bayley was a decent character. He was not driven by racism or a thirst for power the way the other guards were. By choosing Bayley of all characters, the writers made a deliberate implication that violence at the hands of law enforcement is a tragic accident. That the overtly racist and violent correctional officers were innocent of the same level of cruelty that Bayley committed by accident, the writers have implied that racism and power are not factors in the these acts.

It felt to me like the show’s writers dropped the ball on this. I would like to see how they choose to rectify and make meaningful this contrived death in Season 5. I hope that the political underpinnings become clearer and Poussey’s death serves a larger purpose in the grand scheme of the show.

Related Topics: