If you’re anything like me, there’s no question that you spent your weekend binge-watching Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black. Since Netflix dropped all 13 episodes on Friday, it’s been the singular focus of fans’ attention. And while the prison dramedy definitely didn’t disappoint, it did break our hearts.
Before we go any further, suffice it to say this article contains serious spoilers from OITNB‘s fourth season. If you haven’t finished binge-watching yet, proceed with caution. If you have already plowed through the entire season, here’s a metaphorical hug — I know you need it, friend.
This season, showrunner Jenji Kohan did not pull any punches. Every single episode in some way served as a scathing commentary of the American penal system, particularly by focusing a harsh light on the way for-profit prisons disregard inmate lives outside of how they affect the bottom dollar.
As Litchfield’s new parent corporation started stacking cells four inmates deep, tensions rose among the prison’s incarcerated and now very overcrowded population.
Coupled with the addition of some seriously sadistic new guards, Litchfield’s new for-profit system was a powder keg just waiting to blow. And, sadly, the incendiary event forced OITNB fans to say goodbye to one of the series’ most beloved characters: Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley).
Everything comes to a head in the cafeteria, when extremist CO leader Piscatella (Brad William Henke) begins shoving around Red (Kate Mulgrew). The prisoners, pushed past their limits, make a stand… quite literally. Starting with unlikely allies Blanca (Laura Gómez) and Piper (Taylor Schilling), the inmates clear the tables in front of them and climb atop.
Women from many different backgrounds, creeds, religions and races band together in peaceful protest against the corruption currently plaguing the prison. It’s a powerful moment, but one which is curtailed by Piscatella’s ego.
He issues an order to his men to clear the women. As they are being pulled, dragged and manhandled, Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) begins to have a meltdown. Piscatella orders CO Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) to detain her — “Get that fucking animal out of here,” were his exact words — which is when Poussey intervenes in an attempt to diffuse the situation.
In the blink of an eye, Bayley has Poussey pinned on the floor. As he is trying to restrain her, Crazy Eyes grapples with him and tries to pull him off. What Bayley doesn’t realize is that poor Poussey is trying to no avail to tell him that she can’t breathe.
But as difficult as Poussey’s death has been to come to terms with, the way it transpired needed to be seen. That story needed to be told, because it is a story that has been swept under the rug before.
The devastating scene echoed Eric Garner’s final words just before he succumbed to a choke hold in police custody: “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” He said those words 11 times as he lay pinned on a NYC sidewalk.
In death, Poussey became a fictionalized symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement. She joins, of course, many real-life counterparts. Sandra Bland. Samuel DuBose. Michael Brown. Christian Taylor. Walter Scott. Freddie Gray.
Say their names.
This is what Kohan asks of us. Poussey served as a vehicle to expand searing conversations about mass incarceration and its effect on people of color. She wants us to ask the question, “Why do police keep killing unarmed black people?“
So while I hate that the show is losing one of its most endearing characters, I understand why. Having said that, a nagging thought lingers in my mind. Why did they choose a character as sympathetic as Bayley to kill Poussey?
In the grand scheme of the guards, he was one of the good ones. He was a kid. He didn’t know what he was doing, and he’s wrecked for having done it. My question, then, is why? Why pick someone who, as Caputo pointed out, didn’t have any malicious intent?
If they had chosen an outright sadistic and corrupt white CO, like Humphrey, for example, did the show fear it would have been too controversial? Because the message in that case would have been very clear — yes, these travesties happen and, yes, they are often perpetrated by racists.
By making Bayley the fall guy, isn’t the implicit assumption that some of these injustices are byproducts of a flawed system? The kind that hires a young, inexperienced guard to work in an overcrowded prison with little to no training?
I respect and applaud Kohan for going as far as she did but, to be honest, I’m surprised she didn’t go a little further.
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