Magazine article The New Yorker

Empathy for the Devil

Magazine article The New Yorker

Empathy for the Devil

Article excerpt


Radical loss on "Orange Is the New Black."

The show's theme has always been the refusal to see anyone as inhuman.

Nearly every moment of the fourth season of "Orange Is the New Black"--which this review discusses in full--feels refracted in a small sequence in the finale, a bubble of joy floating up through tragedy. In a flashback, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) is visiting friends in New York, and ends up taking an F train to Dumbo, blissful and exhausted. Sitting next to her, a white guy with dreads plays a steel drum. An Asian mother falls asleep; when her little boy opens her wallet to take some cash, Poussey catches the eye of a middle-aged man in a turban. They smile, sharing the secret. Poussey watches Wall Street suits offering a flask to two girls, then gazes at an older black woman reading Michael Chabon, an interracial couple kissing, a pregnant woman, some jocks.

For anyone who lives in New York City, this is a familiar vision of cosmopolitan heaven--a weave of strangers, open and curious. The city that Poussey gets lost in isn't perfect. She's a young black woman, and when her phone is stolen, and she asks for help, white men brush her off. But, for a few hours, her life is full of jittery serendipity: she meets a drag queen named Miss Crimson Tide; she sees a dopey Roots cover band; she goes to a club where participants follow instructions that flash on the wall (Kiss, Dance, Share); she ends up hitching a bike ride from a fake monk who's a member of Improv Everywhere. It's hell to watch, though. The subway car is the inverse of the justice system that will swallow Poussey up and, years later, kill her.

The theme of "Orange Is the New Black"--a show that launched on the cusp of a TV revolution in diversity--has always been empathy, a refusal to see anyone as inhuman. But, season by season, the show has shifted, absorbing and reflecting critiques. The first season spun its ensemble around Piper Chapman, a white, well-to-do outlier who went to Litchfield Prison for smuggling drug money. In Season 2, Piper receded, and the main arc was a sharp melodrama of six black women: a villain, a heroine, a tragic victim, an object of love, a henchman, and a clown. (Those six weren't the only black characters: there was also an elderly woman, a trans hairdresser, and a guard--such is the ensemble's radical sprawl, which emphasizes not just diversity of characters but wild diversity within groups, including the guards.) The backstories were more varied, the ethical range broader, the jokes sharper. Last season, the show's third, Litchfield was bought by a corporation, M.C.C., which union-busted guards and exploited inmates as sweatshop drones. The tone darkened, with a focus on the gruesome spillover of privatization--one character was raped, another put in solitary--and yet the season still managed to end in a rapturous vision of unity, with the inmates swimming together, as if baptized, in a lake.

The hardest trick for "Orange Is the New Black" has always been in balancing its humane values--sex, humor, spirituality--with candor about its harsh setting. (Too light, it's trivializing; too heavy, it's gloom porn.) This season, the show made a risky leap, taking structural racism as its central subject. Owing to an influx of prisoners, Litchfield is now dominated by Dominicans, whom the guards treat differently from white inmates. Piper's attempt to exploit this distinction, by forming a community-watch program--really a cover for her attempt to squash competitors in a smuggling business--aligns her with neo-Nazis. (In a solid song cue, "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" plays over the credits.) Even in a show that thrives on rude comedy, the epithets feel uglier, the plots more violent. (Some echo the HBO men's-prison show, "Oz.") In the penultimate episode, there's a cruel loss: Poussey, the heroine from Season 2, a military brat with a romantic heart, dies beneath the knee of a guard named Bayley, gasping, "I can't breathe. …

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