Orange is the New Black as a Portrait of White Silence
(Episode 4.11, "People Persons," and Episode 4.12, "The Animals")TV Reviews Orange Is the New Black
This review contains spoilers from episodes eleven and twelve of Orange is the New Black, Season Four.
Near the conclusion of “People Persons,” as Officer Healy leaves a message for Katya and wades into the water to end his life, images of Litchfield’s limited universe flash before our eyes: Piper and Alex, in search of peace after a period of tumult; Caputo, in bed with Linda, staring at the ceiling, distraught; Nicky, in the throes of withdrawal, under Doggett’s gentle care; Red, in the midst of Piscatella’s interminable interrogation; Luschek, Judy, and Yoga Jones, in the sordid aftermath of their night together; Lolly, alone, wondering when her time machine will finally whir to life. It is, I suspect, meant to be a powerful moment—such montages often are—but as Healy returns to shore to find his hopes dashed, the sequence’s lily-white complexion suggests that his words might be less elegy, more excuse: “The harder I try, the worse things seem to get.”
But in turning its attention to unintended consequences, as Paste TV editor Shannon Houston argues, Orange Is the New Black misapprehends—and misuses—the movement at the center of its fourth season. Black Lives Matter asserts that the deaths of Black people at the hands of the police are no mere coincidence, but rather the result of a campaign of state violence that includes mass incarceration; for “People Persons” and “The Animals” to focus on the accidental, the inadvertent, is a betrayal of principles the series professes to hold. There are, in both episodes, elements that soften the blow, that attempt to complicate the season’s devastating climax. Its heart is in the right place, its efforts sincere, its drama compelling, but in the end it’s hard not to feel that Orange Is the New Black lacks the courage of its convictions.
As Suzanne Warren knows all too well, “Sometimes people’s intentions get warped, like light through an evil prism,” and it’s her intense, ferocious kindness that creates the dire circumstances of “People Persons.” High-fiving families at the entrance to Super Emporium, cheering “Holy polar bear!” when named Employee of the Month, she’s the picture of a childlike innocent, with the enthusiasms to match: toys, video games, costumes, prank calls. Anchored by Uzo Aduba’s heartbreaking performance, these flashbacks foster a strong sense of foreboding—the episode’s ultimate disaster, a child’s death, is even more terrible than I feared—but their use in the context of the lockdown at Litchfield is unsettling.
In part, this is a function of the narrative’s heedless construction: “People Persons” draws (rather cravenly, to my mind) on Suzanne’s past to explain her vicious beating of Kukudio, a confrontation all out of proportion with the hurt feelings of their recent dalliance. More broadly, though, the flashbacks emphasize a distinction between the negligent and the nefarious that might reshape one’s reading of the episode as a whole. We recoil in disgust at Humphrey, Stratman, and Piscatella’s egregious, sadistic abuses of power, but what of Caputo, unable to control his staff, or Bayley and Coates, unwilling to condemn their colleagues? What of Alex, allowing Lolly to accept the blame for the murder of Kubra’s hitman, or Piper, erstwhile bigot, now desperate to forget the damage she caused? As Doggett tells Nicky, “You are really good at lying to yourself,” and it’s this that constitutes the true subject of the season’s eleventh hour: the denial of privilege, the maintenance of innocence, the power of pretending a problem doesn’t exist. “People Persons” is, without quite knowing it, a searing portrait of white silence.
The problem with “The Animals” is that it doubles down on the prior episode’s warped intentions—its treatment of Litchfield, to use Bayley’s strange formulation, as “so sad it’s almost supernatural.” Of course, Poussey Washington’s tragic death is no unfathomable happening, no inexplicable occurrence. It’s the logical conclusion of the COs’ brutal excesses, and of a space in which civil disobedience is met with violent force. But as the series approaches the end of its charged, challenging season, it’s unclear if Orange Is the New Black is capable of reckoning with the difference: While “The Animals” witnesses the inmates mount an inspiring protest, the focus of its all-important flashbacks is the life of a naive guard.
Bayley’s adolescence—drinking beers, smoking pot, and egging houses at the urging of his contemptible friends—turns out to be a mirror image of his relationship with most of the men at Litchfield. And by comparison, he is indeed the innocent: Sweet, soft-spoken, baby-faced. But in portraying Bayley as a person prone to being swept up in the moment, Orange Is the New Black frames his actions under much the same rubric as, “I was just following orders,” the moral compromise made in duress, when in truth he’s complicit in the prison’s cruel regime. It’s not that “The Animals” papers over his shortcomings altogether—he’s unapologetic upon stealing from the ice cream parlor, and forgets, as Frieda exclaims, that she’s “a fucking human being”—but that it transforms him into the “model culprit,” the man our culture all too often describes as having his life ruined, while forgetting the victim of the crime he commits.
By the time Blanca Flores leads her fellow inmates into another, larger revolt— momentarily overcoming Litchfield’s tenacious racial divisions in the process—Orange Is the New Black has long since scuttled the politics of Black Lives Matter in favor of the optics. The scene is a moving demonstration of the refusal to submit, one that segues, as Poussey suffocates under Bayley’s weight, into the sorrow of oppression, but the fact remains that neither “People Persons” nor “The Animals” is a thoroughgoing portrait of the Black lives that Orange Is the New Black claims it wants to matter. This is not, in itself, a failure, but it becomes one, if the meaning of the movement is rendered unintelligible in the process. For the fear, in each episode, is not that of the black person whose survival is threatened, but that of the white person whose culpability becomes clear. It is the fear—not as instructive as the writers appear to believe—that we’ll be exposed, not excused, when we lack the courage of our convictions. “Even if you’re the city now,” as Caputo warns Bayley, “One day you’ll be the monster.”
Other thoughts and quotes from these episodes:
As Suzanne checks a customer’s receipt in “People Persons,” Orange Is the New Black lands a potent, timely gag about the ease of purchasing assault weapons just about anywhere—including Super Emporium.
Mendoza once against shows her mettle, clearing the salon for Sophia’s return with a sharp, “Respect your elders and get the fuck out!”
Morello’s distrust of Vinnie reaches fever pitch. (Does anyone care about this subplot at this point?)
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.