Like everything else, TV series are subject to the harsh law of entropy. But Orange is the New Black has come back from a cooling-off period with more than ever to say, and vibrant new ways to say it. Season 4, to be released by Netflix in full on Friday, is not merely a comeback for a show that had come to feel less central than in its early days; it’s the show’s best season, and, along with season 4 of The Americans, one of the best seasons of an ongoing drama of the past year.
The show’s didactic moral universe lost me in season 2, as a litany of capital-G Good prisoners are put through hell by various nemeses. That was the season that attempted to tell a sweeping story of racial tension in the prison thanks to the arrival of would-be kingpin Vee, a villain whose relentless drive (and whose affectless line readings) proved evil really can be banal. The baggy narrative texture of Orange is the New Black was a huge asset in the early going, when we were getting to know these prisoners’ complicated world, but it felt exhausting when we had to follow a schematic, repetitive narrative. A show that, in its early going, had felt like a vital part of the culture seemed to have been replaced at the metaphorical water cooler. The recent news that Orange is the New Black had been renewed for three more seasons felt a bit more like protecting an asset than telling more stories that needed to be told.
It’s strange to look at a show one had written off and see quite so much that’s worthwhile. Orange is the New Black still has a lot of slack in its fourth season. But that quirky tendency to meander from character to character is now a major asset, allowing for a probing look at a prison community that’s more riven than ever by racial disunity. Litchfield’s inmates, crammed into the building in larger numbers, have effectively been pitted against one another by circumstance. And rather than taking part in one big war or re-enacting Vee’s vendetta, the prisoners bounce off each other like rogue atoms, working against each other and with each other in equal measure. Each interaction helps build, over the course of the season, a majestic portrait of how many different types of bias have made life in America almost unlivable for so many. For lack of a less academic word, this season is truly intersectional—without feeling like schoolwork.
Great television has thus been pulled out of something that feels little like television and a lot like Netflix’s usual strangely paced fare. Like House of Cards and Bloodline, little on Orange is the New Black season 4 “happens” for long stretches. If you asked me the overarching plot of the season, I’m not sure that I could answer; it’s less “novelistic,” a snobbish cliché often used to describe good TV, than a collection of linked short stories. Netflix publicists have requested that writers not reveal effectively any of the season’s big plot points, but they are studded far apart and, in several cases, less compelling than the subtle shading of prisoners’ conversations. The fourth season of Orange is the New Black makes form match function: It allows emptiness and boredom, the sort the prisoners themselves are experiencing, to give rise to provocation.
The show noodles around with Judy King (Blair Brown), a newly incarcerated celebrity chef with a history of performing racist minstrel shows, as long as she can generate story. But when she can’t, she’s put back on the bench. So is Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), whose strange and sad story of forgiving her rapist is a moving little vignette outside the season’s main action. And so is Taystee (Danielle Brooks), testing the limits of her power by working in a prison administrative office. And so on: We get just enough of every member of an ensemble whose vastness has become its great strength. (I’d argue that the show leans too heavily on Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne, whose disconnect from reality limits what she can do in a show that’s otherwise so frank and real, but that’s a small quibble.)
Recently, the best example of a show that showed unusual regenerative properties was Homeland, which returned from a disastrous—though campily fun, from a certain viewpoint—third season to something far more competent. Homeland fixed itself by becoming something different, ditching the soap elements that had long been part of its DNA in favor of becoming a strict procedural. It stopped its decline by ceasing to be itself.
Orange is the New Black, by contrast, seized on tools that were already in its arsenal: A cast of vastly talented actors, a setting that effectively forces confrontation, and a willingness to be frank about political issues. The show’s recent failures to compel seemed to stem from a desire to make TV that fit into a recognizable mold, with an overarching plot and heroes and villains. Season 4 is unabashedly weird—going down blind alleys, dipping deep into uncomfortable ambiguity, and forcing us to endure long scenes that don’t seem as though they’re going to work. But, by some strange miracle of creative confidence, they do.