Review: ‘Orange is the New Black’ Raises the Stakes in its Devastating Fourth Season

“We a for-profit prison now,” Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) says in the first episode of Orange is the New Black’s fourth season, eyeing the new inmates who are about to take up half of Litchfield Penitentiary’s already scarce space. “We ain’t people anymore. We bulk items.”

It’s a new, privatized world at Litchfield, with a new group of guards that makes the old crew look like camp counsellors. Skillfully plotted — and more devastating than ever — Season 4 raises the stakes, digging deeper into the series’ central concern and expanding its parameters. We may not have all experienced the horrors of incarceration in the United States, but in our increasingly corporatized world, most of us can relate to the dilemma of how to feel like a human being in a system designed to strip you of your humanity.

If you thought Caputo (Nick Sandow) was a villain, Season 4 will make you think again. Now the warden, Caputo has a new girlfriend, “Linda from Purchasing” (Beth Dover), a chipper, ambitious employee of the prison’s new management company, MCC. Linda is a wolf in a corporate sheep’s clothing who’s never set foot in a prison. Driving with Caputo to a correctional facility business expo called “CorrectiCon,” she gushes, “It’s worth it for the swag alone. One year we got these little toy jail cells for you to put your candy in when you’re on a diet.” (One conference panel is titled, “Immigration violations: The next goldmine.”) When Litchfield needs to staff up quickly, she suggests hiring veterans — they’ll get hefty tax breaks, plus, “If anything happens, they’re already in prison.”

Double the inmates means half the space and resources, but rather than hire more employees, MCC simply puts the inmates to work. Port-a-potties are added to alleviate stress on the bathrooms, and the inmates have to clean them up. Caputo suggests putting the derelict old cottages on prison property that used to house guards back to their original use, and it’s the inmates who have to fix them up.

Linda is willfully ignorant of what actually happens inside Litchfield. The new captain of the guards, the burly, bearded Piscatella (Brad William Henke), allows his staff full discretion over their treatment of the prison’s inhabitants. Random stop-and-frisks and cavity searches become the norm, especially for Litchfield’s Latina inmates. “You committed a crime, inmate,” Piscatella informs Gloria (Selenis Leyva) when she complains. “So if you want to see who stepped on your civil liberties, check under your own boot.”

OITNB has always been unflinching in its depiction of prison as a microcosm of race relations in the United States, and this season’s racial politics are ever more complex.Despite the lack of space, the prison’s new celebrity inmate, Judy King (Blair Brown) — a cross between Martha Stewart and Paula Deen — gets a big, cushy room and her pick of bunkmates. When she needs extra “protection,” she’s not sent down to solitary confinement like the transgendered Sophia (Laverne Cox) was last season; she’s simply tailed by her own personal security detail.

This season holds up a magnifying glass to the fear, ignorance, and plain boredom that stokes racial conflict. Since so many of the new inmates are Dominican, the balance of power begins to shift. Maria (Jessica Pimentel) harnesses that strength in numbers to counteract Piper’s (Taylor Schilling) posturing. (“I’m gangsta,” Piper says, flush from the success of her panty-smuggling business. “Like with an ‘a’ at the end.”) Although she’s crazy about her new girlfriend, Poussey (Samira Wiley), Soso (Kimiko Glenn) presumes she’s the product of a “cycle of poverty,” unaware that Poussey has a relatively privileged background. “I watched The Wire a lot,” Soso apologizes. “I made assumptions.”

When Maria starts to encroach on Piper’s territory, organizing the Dominican women to start their own panty-spunk business, Piper plays the race card, telling Piscatella she’s afraid for her safety. But her plan boomerangs when she inadvertently starts a white-power gang complete with skinheads all fired up about “spooking spooks” and “crunching tacos.” “Black Cindy”(Adrienne C. Moore) — a.k.a. Tova, now that she’s converted to Judaism — whines, “I’m bored! Can’t we have a race war? It’ll be fun!”

OITNB’s wicked humor can distract from the horrific reality of prison life — until that horror becomes impossible to ignore.As the season progresses, the racial turmoil converges with the chaos unleashed by the prison’s corporate takeover. The conflict between the inmates and the new guards, bubbling underneath from the start, boils over in the stomach-churning final few episodes.

While early seasons focused on the inmates’ pre-prison lives, this season deepens the backstories of some of the guards; taken together, these flashbacks demonstrate that the problems inside Litchfield don’t begin in prison. We see how Lolly (Lori Petty) slipped through the cracks of the mental-health system, winding up on the streets before being carted off to prison, and, finally, Litchfield’s notorious psych ward. We see how Healy’s (Michael Harney) childhood — his mother had serious mental health issues — shaped his savior complex. He’s a familiar type in the real world but one you don’t often see on TV: A good-hearted man who aggressively tries to rescue women who don’t want to be rescued.

More than any other show, OITNB is constantly shifting the view of its characters an inch here, an inch there, to reveal them as fully rounded humans. Even Coates (James McMenamin), the guard who raped Doggett (Taryn Manning) last season, gets a chance to redeem himself. There’s a beautifully scripted conversation in the fourth episode that illustrates the disconnect between what Coates thought he was doing and what actually happened:

“You think I raped you?” he says when Doggett confronts him.

“Yeah, I mean what else do you call that?”

“But I love you, I told you that. And I said it…I said it.”

“So?”

“So, that makes it different.”

“But that didn’t feel any different.”

The camera lingers on Coates’s stunned expression as Doggett walks away.

Later, Coates defends the inmates against the callous guards: “They’re people,” he insists. OITNB displays a rare willingness to absolve characters of their sins — to separate people’s actions from who they are at their core. Its moral compass points in all directions.

This show isn’t interested in categorizing people as “good” or “bad.” That’s a binary for another era, a time when it was easier to blame wrongdoing on actual people instead of faceless conglomerates. In an increasingly privatized — and digitized — world, OITNB manifests a deep respect for the complexities of our stupid, flawed brains. Its hilarious, heartrending fourth season is an impassionate plea for our common humanity — and a reminder that in order to truly feel human, you have to feel free.