Say Her Name: Competing Themes in Orange is the New Black‘s Season Finale
(Episode 4.13)TV Reviews Orange Is the New Black
This review contains spoilers from episode thirteen of Orange is the New Black, Season Four.
Say her name.
This is Taystee’s furious demand on behalf of Poussey Washington, after Caputo delivers a televised apologia for her killer, and in a sense it’s Orange Is the New Black’s plea, too: “Remember all their faces/Remember all their voices,” Regina Spektor sings, urging us not to forget the human quotient in a system we still prefer to describe as an anonymous, inexorable force. Whether the series’ stimulating, contentious fourth season achieves this end is another matter—as I wrote of “People Persons” and “The Animals,” there are moments in which it seems more focused on the problem of white silence than on the details of black lives. But “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” suggests, at minimum, that the first step in the struggle on behalf of the dead is commemorating their existence. Maybe this is why Orange Is the New Black, for all its unkempt rhythms, its shaggy, fitful plots, remains such potent viewing: Its stories reflect the basic nature of stories, which is always to resist containment.
Flashing back to Poussey’s warm-hearted, wide-eyed engagement with the world, its Whitney Houston-inspired drag queens and improv-comic monks, the season finale thus defies Soso’s assumption, in ”(Don’t) Say Anything,” that Poussey came, to use the troubling term of art, from a “broken home”; thus rejects MCC’s repugnant attempt to shape the story of her life into one that might “justify” her murder, replete with an appropriately “thuggy” photograph. The truth will not, cannot, bring Poussey back—toast can’t never be bread again—but against Piscatella’s fictional account of her “extremely violent” manner, supported by his colleagues’ brazen lies, it becomes an important bulwark. To challenge one narrative requires constructing another, and it’s fitting that the one we see is Poussey’s own.
That said, I find myself turning over the meanings of the episode’s competing stories again and again, unable to pin them down for long. I slip into the pleasures of Poussey’s long night in New York, the series’ celebration of her spirit, and from there into the niggling concern that Orange Is the New Black reserves its sense of injustice for its most sympathetic victim. I bristle at MCC’s determination to treat Officer Bayley as a loose cannon, but worry that Caputo, in combating this depiction, calls him a “victim of circumstance” and lets him off with a slap on the wrist. I can’t seem to parse the prison riot, the decision to have Humphrey’s weapon end up in Daya’s hands, except to say that it doesn’t sit quite right: Her hardening under Maria’s tutelage is too precipitous; her switch from drawing wholesome portraits to pointing the gun is too abrupt. But when I turn over this swirl of stories once more, the kaleidoscope changes, and with it the color of each character’s actions. Perhaps the only resolution to a season so suffused with contradictions is no resolution at all.
In this context, it’s striking that Taystee should set in motion the climactic confrontation, the merging of four seasons’ worth of stories at the intersection of Litchfield’s long halls. Of all the inmates, her arc comes closest to that of Red’s metaphorical garden: Despite her grief, she pours herself into work, caring where Caputo does not, only to see her efforts wither on the vine. She criticizes his use of the term “crime scene” to describe the cafeteria, when it’s clear that no criminal will be held responsible for Poussey’s death. She argues that this was no “tragic accident,” but “cold-blooded murder,” and rightly condemns the implication of his cruelest question. “What are you asking me?” she says. “If she deserved to die?” Taystee has—in struggling to meet the terms of her parole, in winning the mock job fair and standing up to Vee’s manipulations, in approaching her position as Caputo’s assistant with purpose—long tried to tend her garden, to live by the rules. And the moment she realizes it’s all been for naught is as unbearable as any this season. “And so you pour yourself into it, care so much, and see up close so much birth, and growth, and beauty, and danger, and triumph,” Red reads, recalling Suzanne’s summation of “The Myth of Sisyphus.” “And then everything dies anyway, right? But you just keep doing it.”
The seething rage of the inmates’ march is, seen from Taystee’s perspective, the result of rolling the boulder to the top of mountain and watching it roll back to the bottom day after day, year after year, and in this there’s a real sense of despair. But the season’s final image, of Poussey smiling into the camera from the bank of the East River, suggests other stories, too: of grief, of pain, of commemoration, of struggle. I’m not sure which of these is the one I see most clearly; it’s the blurriness that defines Orange Is the New Black, that sends it spinning in so many directions. Still, the conclusion of “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” is clear enough on Taystee’s point, and Regina Spektor’s, that the human quotient matters. Say her name. Remember her face. Remember her voice. And keep doing it.
It isn’t justice, but it’s a start.
Matt Brennan is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Indiewire, Paste, Slant, The Week, Flavorwire, Deadspin, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.