It took four seasons for Orange Is the New Black to name an episode, at least in part, after its perfectly stress-inducing Regina Spektor theme song. “The Animals,” the penultimate episode of the just-launched season of the Netflix hit, calls on those opening lines that start each episode of the series: “The animals, the animals / Trapped, trapped, trapped ‘til the cage is full.”
We always thought the lyrics were a haunting metaphor for the inmates in Litchfield Prison, which in some respects they are. What we didn’t know is that they more aptly describe the correctional officers—the zookeeper guards—who monitor them.
It’s hard to say when the right time is to break off into a discussion of the final episodes of a series meant to be binged.
But with details already leaking about the heart-hurdling two hours that ended this current season of the show—and with the powerful resonance of its events in the world today—we’ve decided to dive into it now…mostly because that’s how long it took us to finish the season. SPOILERS ARE AHEAD!
It seems somehow both obvious and bold that Orange Is the New Black would directly, loudly, and passionately tackle the Black Lives Matter movement. For a show so praised for finally reflecting back to us on screen the people we see, look like, and are in real life, it seems natural that the show would channel and play out the anger we all feel about it.
Yet it’s still surprising that it did. And did it so well. Sometimes the show can be too on-the-nose about the issues it tackles. Here, that’s precisely the point.
The season leading up to “The Animals” and the finale, “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread,” was delicately crafted so that the Big Scene landed with perfect impact. It was a slow simmer that made the eventual boiling point that much more scalding, that much more painful. As television, that much more perfect. And as a reflection of our current human condition, that much more devastating.
Samira Wiley’s Poussey Washington was the epitome of grace, ambition, and joy. Throughout season four she had fallen in love with Kimiko Glenn’s Brook Soso. Determined and looking towards the future, she had arranged to get a job as a cook when she was finally released.
She was in Litchfield serving a ridiculous six-year sentence for, what we learn, is the slightest of crimes: trespassing and selling less than half an ounce of marijuana. And now she’s dead.
The entire fourth season of Orange Is the New Black is an exercise in frustration.
With each episode the inhumane injustices and indignities suffered by the inmates become increasingly infuriating, as the prison becomes more and more crowded and their lives are further reduced to dollars and cents, profit margins, and bottom lines.
The guards are abusive. The corporation that owns the prison is complicit in their abuse. The women know they have rights that are not being honored, and they know they have no recourse to do anything about it.
As an indictment of our privatized prison system, the types of people who work in correctional facilities, and the amount of respect they have for the human lives in their charge, it couldn’t be more damning.
When the prison “families,” typically divided among race and ethnicities, unite in frustration and stage a peaceful protest against their treatment, the structure has already been laid for tragedy to strike—just as the institutions are designed to fail the people they should protect in real life.
“We’re not going to move until you no longer work at this prison,” is the Norma Rae mission statement as the inmates, one by one in a chill-inducing scene, climb onto the cafeteria tables, mirroring an Abu Ghraib-like abuse used to punish Blanca (Laura Gómez) and Piper (Taylor Schilling) earlier in the season.
It’s the guards who become violent, aggressively dragging inmates off their perches, sparking mass confusion that ends with Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) having a psychotic break, Poussey trying to help her friend, and a guard accidentally pinning her to the ground as she wheezes, “I can’t breathe,” and dies.
It’s a plot line that mirrors too many incidents we read about in the news and then unfortunately forget about until the next one happens. For many, those victims are real people who lived, loved, and now are lost. And for others, they are news stories. It’s an unfortunate disconnect. And it’s the power, even maybe a necessary role, of pop culture and television to dramatize this, so that the disconnect is no longer. So that we all feel it.
Wiley, speaking about the storyline to Vulture, says as much in a recent interview: “At the end of the day, I honestly feel pretty honored to be able to be the person or the character or the actor they entrusted with the responsibility of bringing this story to light and bringing this story to a bunch of people in whatever parts of America or whatever parts of the world where this hasn’t really permeated their world yet.”
In an interview this week with The Daily Beast, Kimiko Glenn, who plays Brook, says that filming the scene took roughly 21 hours. It was filmed on a special Sunday shoot—there’s normally no production on weekends—to accommodate the increasingly busy schedules of the cast as, for the first time since season one, they would all need to be there on the same day to film.
And there shouldn’t be any confusion either about whether we should consider this season and this storyline, specifically, to be activism on the part of OITNB creator and showrunner Jenji Kohan.
“It’s intentional,” Glenn says. “I think Jenji is very smart and she wants to say something. This is her way of doing that. She knows a lot of people watch this show. It’s clear to me that this season she wanted to say something.”
And she continued to say something into the finale, which dealt with the prisoners’ mourning and the private corporation that owns Litchfield’s crass attempts to escape culpability in the death.
First was the communication team’s attempts to dig up dirt about Poussey’s life to make it look like she may have instigated the incident. Does she have a violent past? Come from a poor urban family? Have photos on social media that could be interpreted as thuggish?
Then came the attempt to vilify the guard who was on top of her as she died, which was an accident. That was a daring move, too, to humanize the guard that killed her—it was Alan Aisenberg’s Baxter Bayley, the only officer who ever seemed concerned for the inmates’ well-being, instead of one of his one-note demonic colleagues responsible for the death.
Through all of this, Poussey’s body lay under a sheet on the cafeteria floor. A PR crisis, not a human. She didn’t matter enough to call the police immediately. To have her family notified. To be removed from a dirty floor where she was left overnight for inmates to see when they showed up for cooking duty the next morning.
And then came the press conference, which didn’t even identify her by name—a heartbreaking plot detail eerily prescient today, as the #SayTheirNames hashtag continues in the wake of the Orlando club shooting.
So Litchfield rioted. The last shot of the season set inside Litchfield is of the inmates surrounding the guards, with Daya (Dascha Polanco) pointing a gun at the evilest of them. We don’t know if she takes the shot. We don’t know what kind of trouble even holding the gun will leave her in. But we know that it felt right.
It’s not the last shot of the season, though. That belongs to Poussey, in a continuation of the final episode’s flashback of her last night before being imprisoned: two weeks from starting anew in Amsterdam, full of happiness and optimism partying through Brooklyn. Hardly the “animal” that she keeps being referred to by the guards in Litchfield. No, just a person—and good one, at that.
She looks out at the river and then, for the first time in Orange Is the New Black’s run, glances directly into the camera and smiles. Breaking the fourth wall will likely receive divisive reactions from the show’s fans—I’m not sure I’m entirely on board with it. But I’m on board with its significance.
The last time we see Poussey, she’s not a dead body on the floor of the cafeteria. She’s a smiling, vibrant girl. A girl who matters.