“I'm gangsta, like with an 'a' at the end,” Piper Chapman says early on in the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black. She's referring to the power play she made during the third season's finale — a tit-for-tat betrayal that saw her former inamorata shipped off to max — which Piper believes has made her the baddest bitch in Litchfield Correctional Facility. A few moments after this pronouncement, Pipes gets back to her paperback copy of the latest Nick Hornby novel. Just because she's a self-styled Walter White now doesn't mean she's forgotten her brand.
As this ensemble's straight woman, Taylor Schilling's incarcerated 30-something increasingly has the same problem as Jack from Lost and Deadwood's Seth Bullock: barely registering among the five most compelling characters on a show that ostensibly revolves around her. As with those other series, however, this speaks less to weakness on her part and more to the strength of the writing and performances behind the ensemble, in this case inmates like Daya, Taystee and Morello, whose eccentricities are perhaps best served in small doses. Piper remains a solid foundation even if she increasingly feels more like a means of introducing us to Litchfield at large rather than its dramatic focus throughout this slow-burning season — she may have peaked, but the world itself is still on the rise.
The strength of these new episodes is in their use of Piper's newfound braggadocio as the genesis of a conflict that soon goes well beyond her control. It kicks off where the previous one left off: with much of Litchfield's incarcerated bathing in a lake after discovering a hole in the prison's perimeter fence. The revelry comes at a cost, however, as the now for-profit prison calls in a new roster of guards from a maximum-security facility to hold down the fort. They, along with an influx of fresh inmates, represent the show’s largest infusion of new blood yet — and some of the recently arrived prisoners are primarily concerned with blood purity. For the first time, Litchfield is beginning to resemble an actual prison.
Chief among these new arrivals is Piscatella, the captain of the guard who, in his towering self-seriousness, is the Orange equivalent of the Mountain from Game of Thrones: a one-track mind enforcer who inspires fear (and often disdain) in everyone around him. “I will never find you adorable,” the openly gay C.O. says after Piper tries charming him, as she has so many administrators and guards before him. “Keep that in mind.”
The show has always used Piper's status as a bougie, privileged white woman as a source of humor (and, to a lesser extent, actual drama); here it raises the stakes when the illicit panty-selling operation she masterminded last season is threatened by a rival faction. The conflict initially stems from her insulting a group of would-be collaborators — all of them Dominican. This leads her to an accidental alliance with Litchfield's new skinhead population, with Piper looking on in horror as a “task force” she has naively gathered to curb gang activity misinterprets her calls to action and erupts into a “white lives matter” chant. She's later shattered at having inadvertently set this in motion. “I think that I've been trying to win prison,” she tearfully admits, “and I've destroyed people's lives.”
Despite being set in a prison, Orange Is the New Black has never been insular. It reflects the outside world more than ever in this latest go-round, first with passing references to Bill Cosby and El Chapo and then, with each episode, by simmering more and more in racial tensions that will finally boil over in the last two hours.
Still, this isn't Breaking Bad. There's levity to spare in these 13 episodes, and the fact that she's quickly revealed as being in over her head allows Piper to maintain her status as the audience surrogate she was always meant to be. She observes the escalation of once-minor feuds with shock and excitement, sometimes getting involved and sometimes sitting them out. In a late, important episode, a reluctant guard asks a colleague whether he thinks being in Litchfield changes people or simply reveals what's at their core — and, whichever it may be, is there anything to be done about it?
Orange's answer isn't optimistic. None of Litchfield's inmates are there due to a string of good decisions, and it's an uphill battle to quell the impulses that led them to their personal low points. For Piper, this is probably a good thing. Not being the kingpin she's recently imagined herself to be speaks well to her ability to function beyond the prison's walls, even if she'll be leaving with a permanent, humbling reminder that there will always be someone whose capacity for violence far exceeds her own.
Others aren't so lucky, especially a victim of circumstance whose departure directly invokes “I Can't Breathe” and Black Lives Matter. It's the realest moment on the show to date, the kind that seems inconceivable a minute before it happens and inevitable a minute after. Orange Is the New Black is one of the binge-watching era's most prominent exemplars, but this latest season feels like it's meant to be savored more than ever before. Early release from Litchfield doesn't always come in the form of a successful hearing before the parole board, and anything can happen when you're locked in with hundreds of people trying — and often failing — to be their best selves.