Written by Dylan Brandsema
Now this is what I’m talking about!
OITNB episodes 409-412 feel like exactly the kind of episodes needed to bring this fourth season towards its epic end. They feel different than any episodes of this show we’ve seen before. They’re filmed with an alternative, more intrusive point of view, as if always building towards a potential catastrophe. The lack of music throughout most of episodes creates a nervous, apprehensive tone that puts the viewer dark place. The further we go down the Litchfield rabbit hole this season, the more it feels like something cataclysmic is about to happen. This was also the case going into the end of last season, but there’s more weight this time around for it to feel important.
Episodes 9 and 10, “Turn Table Turn” and “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull” are mostly episodes of inmates dealing (or not dealing) with their own personal problems while dodging new ones. The most compelling is Adelaide (Elizabeth Rodriguez) getting out of prison, and facing the real world struggles of being a convict. We almost never follow inmates after they leave Litchfield, but Rodriguez is a skilled enough actress to give the scenes the gravitas they need. Similar to Caputo’s journey through the prison system earlier this season, Adelaide’s struggling to function as a seemingly normal citizen is fascinating enough to be material for an entire, or even several episodes. It’s also a great alternative to more needless backstories, which are gladly mostly absent from this cluster of episodes. If I were to predict Adelaide’s future, my guess is that she will discover it’s impossible for hers to survive life outside of prison, and she will get herself back in on purpose.
As is the series tradition, it isn’t all gloom and doom, though. There’s an amusing, but important arch that later turns into something more dramatic. It involves Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) doing anything she can to get on the guards’ collective nerves to get herself set to SHU and see Sophia (Laverne Cox). It’s easy to admire Ingalls’s tenacity in spite the heavy consequences. It’s also nice to see Beth Fowler have something to do after mostly AWOL this season.
When Sophia finally does return to Litchfield towards the end of episode 12, Litchfield seems like an entire new place. Her tattered salon has been completely taken over; unfamiliar faces roam the halls. Cox does an excellent job at looking like a stranger in a place she used to call home. Even when she gets her wig and make-up back, we know she’ll never be the same. It’s interesting to ponder how her time at Litchfield will pan out from here on.
The 11th episode, “People Persons,” at long last, gives us what we’ve been waiting for since the premiere. Under Caputo’s new construction mandate, the body of Aydin is finally dug up in the garden. If you’ve been following these reviews regularly, you’ll remember that I complained about the ridiculousness of all this. Seriously, weeks have gone by without any of the Litchfield staff noticing that a new employee hasn’t been showing up for work. That in itself is acknowledged in beginning of this episode, and the answer is that, well…there really isn’t one. With everything else going on, they simply didn’t notice. I suppose a half-assed, superficial explanation is better than no explanation. But, I stand by my original criticisms that the circumstances of the murder going totally unnoticed is ludicrous and unbelievable.
Despite this hamfisted justification, “People Persons” is likely the finest episode this season — playing out like a feature length mystery thriller. It manages to be a white-knuckle whodunnit, even though we already know whodunnit. The genius of the episode comes not from watching the COs unravel the mystery, but in waiting for those guilty, and not guilty, to be rightly or wrongly accused based on result. It is, at times, almost unbearably intense – like waiting for a gun to go off. The culmination of all of this winds up being an explosive, emotional ending featuring spectacular, poignant acting between Michael J. Harney (Healy) and Lori Petty (Lolly), but also commendable commitment to physical, brutal violence between Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes) and Emily Althaus (Kukudio).
“People Persons” is likely the finest episode this season — playing out like a feature length mystery thriller. It manages to be a white-knuckle whodunnit, even though we already know whodunnit.
“People Persons” would be a perfect episode if not one for a particular, extraordinarily out of place sequence in which Luschek (Matt Peters) is sent to guard Judy King (Blair Brown) during lockdown. This results in he, King and Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman) having a threesome while high on Molly. Not only in this so overly comical and outrageous, it’s almost impossible to believe. However, placing it in the middle of an otherwise intense, dark, nail-biter episode momentarily takes away all the suspense of the episode. It alienates the viewer and takes them out of the episode. It’s true that this series began as a comedy, and has always had morsels of comedy throughout its development, but adding this into the episode feels like an obligatory callback to the initial formula, when the episode wouldn’t be just fine without it.
Episode 12, aptly titled “The Animals” turns down the suspenseful, mysterious feel, but still maintains an uneasy, dark, almost ominous tone.
The episode begins with the backstory of CO Bayley (Alan Aisenberg). He’s just graduated high school and he’s become the hell-raising young adult delinquent cliché you’ve seen in all the movies. Given what happens later in the episode, these flashbacks are serviceable enough. However, much of the dialogue by episode writer Lauren Morelli is, uh…questionable. In a scene where young Bayley and his friends are smoking pot on the top of a water tower, one of his friends exclaims, “I can’t believe we’re actually adults now!” Another replies, “Yeah, we should start taking vitamins now or some shit.” I know I can’t speak for my entire generation, but I can guarantee Ms. Morelli that this is not how recent high school graduates speak to one another in private.
One of the highlights of the episodes is the dialogue between Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Vause (Laura Prepon). Still amid lockdown, the two find themselves cooped up with one another in the bunks. This causes them to confess their prolonged feelings towards one another. These characters have been through hell and back with each other over the course of these four seasons. At certain times, it was impossible to care about either of them, and other times it was impossible not to. In these subtle, quiet scenes we see two people who are on the edge finding simple solace in one another’s presence. I’ve lost track of how many times they’ve hated each other and then loved each other again, but in these scenes, none of that seems to matter. What matters now is only the present, and the present is terrifying. Prepon and Schilling do a stellar job at downplaying their emotions, yet somehow bring everything to the surface. A handful of perfect moments. Consolatory and beautiful.
The episode ends with the series’ most disturbing, chaotic, and sad sequence yet. In an effort to get Piscetta (Brad William Henke) fired, all of the inmates stage a sit-in (or, in this case, a stand-in) in the cafeteria. The exercise proves to have calamitous results when Pisceletta calls in the big guns and a full-scale riot break out between the inmates and COs. In the midst of it all, Bayley pins down Poussey (Samira Wiley) with his knee and, without realizing it, quite literally suffocates her to death.
Traditionally, Orange Is The New Black has not been a series that kills off its characters with high frequency, and Poussey’s death obviously comes as a total shock. I had the unfortunate displeasure of have her death spoiled for me by accident long before I saw the episode. I can assure you still, that not only did I not see it coming, but knowing what was coming didn’t do anything to soften the blow. Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) uncontrollable sobbing that follows, accompanied by the final camera spiral upward send the fourth season’s penultimate episode out an melancholy, tragic heartbreaking note, more so than any of the show’s previous episodes.
It’s worth noting also that this is the first episode of the series that does not end in an orange flash — instead, a slow fade to black over the final shot’s Breaking Bad-style upward spiral. This is not a normal episode of Orange Is The New Black. This is a dark, emotionally manipulative, nightmarish conclusion to the show’s most gloomy chapter.
In some ways it almost feels like a finale with its atom bomb of a climax, but then I remember that’s there still one more. I’ve never simultaneously dreaded and anticipated a season finale like this before. Oh my God.
409 – “TURN TABLE TURN”: 8.5/10
410 – “BUNNY, SKULL, BUNNY, SKULL”: 8.5/10
411 – “PEOPLE PERSONS”: 9/10
412 – “THE ANIMALS”: 9/10