This piece contains spoilers for the entire fourth season of Orange Is the New Black.
Looking back, it seems inevitable that the new season of Orange Is the New Black would wallop. Netflix’s prison series has always hit hard in its depictions of the dehumanizing process through which women are remade into inmates. But in its bleak, terrifying, and crushingly hopeless fourth season, OITNB delivered one reeling gut punch after another by portraying how inmates become “bulk items” after Litchfield -- and the prisoners therein -- are sold to MCC, a for-profit corrections corporation. The quickly deteriorating conditions within the newly privatized facility, especially the overcrowding that makes Litchfield lucrative for MCC (which gets "30 grand per head in a bed"), leads to Poussey’s (Samira Wiley) totally believable accidental death, its blood-boiling cover-up, and a prison riot after it dawns on the inmates that the prison guards can not only kill their charges but be protected after the fact by their higher-ups.
OITNB excels at humanizing the empowered as well as the powerless (when it wants to). And so Warden Caputo’s (Nick Sandow) paternal instincts to defend Poussey’s inadvertent killer, baby-faced correctional officer Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), are absolutely understandable. But for Poussey’s bestie Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Caputo’s mercy toward Bayley is indistinguishable from the toxic brotherhood among the prison guards that made up one of this season’s two most formidable villains. (The other is, well, capitalism.) Litchfield’s inmates have proven in the past that they can toss out a lone rotting egg like former C.O. Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) or placate a natural chauvinist and homophobe like prison counselor Healy (Michael Harney). A collective hardened mind-set, though, is much more difficult, if not impossible, to change.
To watch the uneven but devastating fourth season is to witness the accretion of compromises that results in the wildfire that is the finale’s prison riot. When the spark is lit by Poussey’s killing and the corporate inertia that leaves her cold body on the cafeteria floor, the police uncalled, and her beloved father uninformed of her death, it only lights aflame because the new guards have poured emotional gasoline all over Litchfield. Like UnREAL, the summer’s other wonderfully gender-obsessed series, OITNB’s Season 4 expands its feminism beyond women’s representation to critique a noxious and contagious version of fraternity that wages war on everything around it.
Caputo’s first major mistake occurs in the season premiere, when he lets Piscatella (Brad William Henke) and his crew of Iraq and Afghanistan vets take over Litchfield in a cost-saving measure. (Their salaries are subsidized by the federal government.) First seen in (foreshadowing) riot gear to corral a group of minimum-security inmates who had nowhere to run to anyway, Piscatella and the guards under his command become an occupying force that speaks to the militarization of the police and the prison-industrial complex. They establish forced chain-gang labor, reinforce a whites-on-top racial hierarchy so blatant it eventually makes even the neo-Nazi inmates uncomfortable, and, of course, facilitates Poussey’s fatal suffocation, which nods to Eric Garner’s death by the NYPD.
But what is arguably the most frightening aspect of Piscatella’s brotherhood is their easy ability to shield themselves and each other from accountability, which theoretically allows them to continue to act callously and criminally with impunity. A sadistic guard like Humphrey (Michael Torpey), who forces inmate Ramos (Diane Guerrero) to choose between eating 10 flies or a live baby mouse by holding a gun to her head, might have grown up to be a Joffrey Baratheon or a Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones, a cartoonish malefactor we can’t wait to see cut down. But on OITNB, he’s another brother the rest of the guards have to look out for. Not since the classic cop series The Shield -- a show about the chilling evil of those armed with badges and the allegiance of their fellow officers -- has a series looked so critically at the dark side of uniformed brotherhood.
Their blind, knee-jerk loyalty stamps out individual conscience, as we can see from the more reasonable Caputo and Bayley’s multiple concessions to Piscatella’s whims throughout the season. And to be sure, a C.O. doesn’t have to be straight or even a man to be a member of that brotherhood: Piscatella is gay, and one of his female guards shrugs her willingness to go along with her superior’s ass-covering lies. Nor is that sense of exploitative fraternal bonding unique to soldiers and cops: In flashbacks to his late teenage years, we see Bayley egging the house of the boss who rightly fired him for theft and throwing garbage at prisoner Frieda (Dale Soules) as they whiz by her in a speeding truck. He feels bad then, and of course much, much worse after killing Poussey. But in one of the season’s most painful and shocking scenes, he’s discouraged from his guilt and remorse by a vet who sighingly confesses to having killed “innocent people” in Afghanistan out of boredom, revenge, or convenience. “You just gotta get over it,” the former soldier urges. “I didn’t see what happened [with Poussey] exactly, but I know you, sort of. You’re a good guy. I’m a good guy.” And so the world turns, bad guys convincing each other of their goodness, while no one, legally speaking, is ever held responsible for the deaths of the people under their watch.