I have never been so glad to welcome Orange Is the New Black back into my life. 2016 has been an appalling year for gay ladies on TV, and while OITNB is sure to put its myriad queer women through some hardcore emotional turmoil this season, it’s weirdly comforting to know it’s because all the women on the show will be forced to suffer (because yes, it’s a dark comedy, but also it’s a sprawling, scathing social critique).
We’re going to cover OITNB a little differently this year. We’ve finally accepted that it’s an impossible show to recap in that old school play-by-play way that we all grew up on and love. Basically no one recaps like that anymore, even for shows that don’t drop all 13 episodes at one time, because it requires like ten hours of work for every hour of TV. (Remember Television Without Pity? Those pioneers had a full week to write their recaps, and they didn’t even include screencaps!) Also, it’s hard to make jokes-jokes-jokes about OITNB because it does center around such intense cultural commentary. The best jokes happen inside the show, and trying to add humor always feels weird because every episode features at least one true-to-life horror that women — and particularly women of color — face every day. I can’t think of anything funny to say when I know I’m going to have to write about Sophia being the victim of a hate crime 20 minutes later, you know?
So, our plan is to review one episode every day for the next 13 days, starting right now today with this very review. We have a whole team of reviewers lined up because this show is so diverse and we want our coverage to reflect that. We’re excited to talk about each episode with you, and also to take this break from the apathy and general cluelessness of broadcast TV for a minute.
“Work That Body for Me” picks up only a few minutes after the triumphant, sob-worthy ending of season three, and of course Piper Chapman thinks everyone is running from her (and her new hard-ass crime lord reputation), instead of toward a moment of freedom down at the lake. Despite the fact that she’s been in Litchfield for a while now, Piper is still playing at being a prisoner. She almost beat Pennsatucky to literal death two seasons ago, but inside her mind, this whole thing is still a stage for her one-woman show. She spends the majority of the premiere strutting around trying to effuse competency and control, and finding out at every turn that the only person who is thinking about Piper is, in fact, Piper.
Even Alex has moved on from the whiplash of being tethered to a textbook narcissist. She didn’t die, by the way. Lolly showed up just in time to kill the guy who was killing Alex. Nope, just kidding. Lolly only incapacitated him. It’s a shock to Alex when she sneaks out of Litchfield to bury the hitman’s body under the toolshed and finds him paralyzed and wheezing. If she’s going to stay alive, he’s got to die — she already catfished her old drug boss with pictures of her fake dead body, so he’d move on — so she finishes him off. It’s so much more brutal than the stomping Lolly gave him. Alex covers his mouth and his nose with her bare hands and feels the life go out of him. So much of Alex’s over-it swagger came from the yarn she always wove about how she was just a white-collar criminal who got a raw deal. She’s a killer now. Self-defense? Yes. But it’ll be interesting to see how that works with her own personal chaotic neutral hero narrative.
Freida’s a lot more pragmatic about the whole thing when she finds the dead body in the greenhouse. (“Why waste my time digging one six-foot hole when I could dig six one-foot holes? That’s just murder math.”) (#MurderMath) She hands over the garden shears along with a hot tip about not puncturing the corpse’s intestines, and next thing you know, that dude is fertilizer.
(Alex, I am begging you to stay away from Piper and get a storyline with other people this season.)
The person who surprises herself the most, I think, is Suzanne; first, by running away with Maureen, who wants to live inside Suzanne’s imagination; then, by returning to jail and begging to be let back in. Maureen and Suzanne are so sweet and timid and gentle with each other at first, but by the time they’ve really gone on the lam and discovered an abandoned house on the edge of Litchfield’s property, it’s pretty clear Suzanne is the only one operating in the real world. Sure, she licks the paint on the cottage door to find out it’s covered in lead and fungus, but at least she knows it’s not actually a house made of gingerbread and with a witch inside. Caputo lets her back in when she shows up outside the fence, and no one is more relieved than Taystee, who has been forced to deal her anxiety about Suzanne while dealing wth the space-constraints of the new inmates while stopping Cindy from starting a race war with Soso because she’s bored at lunch.
Soso! Soso and Poussey! It looks like they’re really going there, and that’s not the only good news for Poussey, who frankly deserves a season-long reprieve from the alienation and depression of the last two years! Judy King has finally arrived and eventually she’s probably going to even be Poussey’s roommate! Poussey is so starstruck when Judy King introduces herself that she can’t even talk to get anyone’s attention to freak out. Caputo shows up at the last second and takes Judy King away to give her better accommodations (she already spent a whole day eating pizza!) because she’s a celebrity and she’s got connections and she’s obviously going to write a tell-all when she gets out of there.
Every season premiere of Orange Is the New Black (besides the pilot) basically reintroduces us to the characters and sets up the major themes and over-arching conflict of the season. It looks like season four is going to dig in deeper to the problems of privatized prisons and push things to their breaking point because of overcrowding. Piper’s already in over her head with this crime lord thing; one of the new inmates has tagged her as her key to Litchfield dominance. Alex is going to unravel, bit-by-bit. Maureen’s arrest record terrifies even Caputo, and she seems completely mentally stable when she’s discussing it with him, which is going to mean more trouble for Suzanne. (“She wanted the fairy tale; I didn’t. I just wanted dinner!”) There’s a giant guard clomping around. Judy King is the new white privilege. And there’s not even enough toast to go around.
What’d you think of “Work That Body for Me”? What are you hopes and fears for season four?