From the polarizing U.S. presidential election to the exit of Britain from the European Union based ostensibly on xenophobic ideas about immigration, the racial tension of this season of Orange is the New Black almost perfectly mirrors real life. Episode 12 is a focal point as it contains what many consider the season’s heartbreaking climax and a scene touted as the series’ Black Lives Matter moment.
It starts with a flashback to CO Bayley’s reckless teenage years, giving us a glimpse of the white male privilege he has benefitted from his entire life. He trespasses on private property with a few of his friends while smoking weed and engaging in some quality underage drinking. After being arrested and sitting in jail for what seemed like two seconds, he’s released alongside his friend despite admitting to to the weed intake. No doubt if he were a person of color, that would’ve been the “gotcha” moment.
We can glean a lot about Bayley from the flashback. He’s shown as timid, shy and beholden to authority — traits that he holds on to in adulthood. They lead him to inform Caputo of the fighting incident between Suzanne and Maureen that Officer Humphrey incited, but the plan backfires. Piscatella swiftly cuts Caputo down to size when he tries to suspend Humphrey, making for an awkward showcase of toxic masculinity and power imbalance in front of the other guards. (But we’re used to that, amirite?)
The only good thing to come out of the fight between Suzanne and Maureen is the coalition building between the different racial factions within the prison. The Black women, Dominicanas and white supremacists band together and plan a peaceful protest against the guards. (Could you imagine the power if all the disparate marginalized groups in our country came together to push against state violence?)
Throughout the episode, we also see Sophia coping with all of the changes that have occurred in her absence. It’s touching to see Gloria reach out and care for her. In one of the few moments we get of Sophia this season, Gloria styles her hair and soothes her. As a trans woman, I’m always particularly interested in the moments when OITNB lays off the abrasive transmisogyny and shows how cis women can be better allies.
We also see Pennsatuckey openly discuss with Big Boo how she’s forgiven Donuts for raping her. Their friendship seems back on the right track and we see some redemption for Pennastuckey victim status. Her character is given the chance to express that she forgave him of her own accord and no other reason.
The gravy of the episode happens when Piscatella causes a scene by pushing Red on the ground, and the plans for the protest began. One-by-one the inmates stand on their tables, like Blanca and Piper did previously, which starts an all-out shuffle. Piscatella instructs the guards to pull down the inmates causing Suzanne to respond frantically. Poussey jumps in to try and get the guards off of her, and Bayley pins her to the ground where she is killed by asphyxiation.
Poussey’s death directly references the death of Eric Garner after New York City Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo held him in a chokehold in which he couldn’t breathe. This was the climax of a season that really went into the depth of social and systemic racism almost with no regard for its fans of color. This episode, like much of this season, falls flat on it’s face, largely because there are no Black writers on the show. In fact, out of 16 writers, only two are of color, Latino and Asian respectively. We’ve seen numerous problematic things said by all types of characters on racism and anti-Blackness. Poussey’s death underscores the tone-deafness of the writers on race. Yes, having actresses of color is great, but we’re barely hitting the mark on representation if their words are coming from a white lens.
I understand the mindset behind staying true to life, considering we still see law enforcement getting off scot-free after killing Black folks, but in a show that leverages several inmates murdering a prison guard without consequences and an hours-long prison inmate escape, we should at least be able to see some justice in fantasy. There was so much emphasis placed on humanizing and empathizing with Bayley’s plight in life, which ended up being a disservice to our relationship with Poussey. She deserved better.
For queer fans, it was an especially brutal way to kill off a character that had meant so much to us. Far before Ruby Rose, Poussey was one of the show’s most beloved crushes. She also existed amongst a family of characters who actually identify as a part of the LGBTQ community — and not just pawns in a the situationally queer prison trope. Those who followed her past of having a girlfriend with a homophobic parent, her inrequited crush on Taystee, and the season where she finally had a love interest (albeit one who held super privileged and problematic ideas about race), Poussey’s storyline was one of the most authentic.
For as long as OITNB continues and beyond, Poussey will be a standout character and fans will long for the what-ifs. You may have been thinking the episode’s title referred to the inmates, but it’s pretty obvious who the true animals are. With one more episode in this heart-wrenching season, we are all still gasping for air and dreaming of justice.