Actually, I Don’t Have Time: Breaking up with Orange Is the New Black

*Full of as many spoilers as OITNB’s writers room is full of white people*

Forty years.

I turned 40 in the woods about 90 minutes northwest of my West Oakland home enjoying the peace and relative quiet of the redwoods, the Russian River, and the quaintly gentrifying town of Guerneville, California with my partner, our then 20-month-old, two silly brown pit bulls, and a dizzying cast of our son’s many adoring fans/my friends/our family.

One of the reasons we went up to Sonoma County for my birthday is because I wanted to get away from our neighborhood during the week my birthday shares with America: the “4th of July” fireworks started in June, the day after the shootings at the Pulse night club in Orlando, and the constant booms and bangs had us all on edge. Plain old firecrackers seem downright quaint these days. M80s set off just down the block from our house, wake the baby, cause the dogs to lose their minds, and leave me shaken and shaking. There’s enough actual gunfire around here to make setting off fireworks that sound like it both redundant and also evidence that one is a dick. But whatever.

[quote_left]Even when we’ve had glimpses of brilliance, usually through flashbacks but rarely in the ongoing, current narrative, the writers have time and again flattened these women into tired, racist clichés[/quote_left]I was also hoping that going to a cabin with no cell service for a week would help me detox a bit from screens and their own peculiar trauma parade. You know, the horrifying Republican presidential campaign, an endless stream of dashcam and bystander smartphone footage of police brutality, and season four of Orange Is the New Black, which I finished a few days before the fam and I headed up to the woods.

Since OITNB‘s first season, it’s been… a struggle, let’s say, to stay engaged with the show and not feel guilty. On the one hand, the peppy, blonde protagonist Piper Chapman could be simply a Trojan horse–a way for Jenji Kohan, patron saint of insufferable upper-class white women, to tell the potentially far more interesting stories of incarcerated women of color on the small screen. On the other hand, what those stories are and how they’re told has rendered the show’s Black and Latina inmates as cartoons incapable of any real character development. Even when we’ve had glimpses of brilliance, usually through flashbacks but rarely in the ongoing, current narrative, the writers have time and again flattened these women into tired, racist clichés.

Which brings us to the fourth season, most of which was an endless orgy of female suffering with the nuance of a Lars von Trier film. Our protagonist Piper recruits a crew of white supremacists to defend her dirty-panty-smuggling turf from Maria while simultaneously encouraging the prison staff to target the Dominicans as an organized gang. One of the new guards, the sadistic Humphrey, forces Maritza to eat a live baby mouse with a gun literally to her head. Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset, one of the series’ most fully fleshed out characters, is practically invisible this season, languishing in the SHU for most of it. Doggett spends the bulk of it still traumatized following her rape in Season 3 by Corrections Officer Coates but ultimately forgives him because he feels bad.


And that’s the problem with this season. Even as Orange Is the New Black attempts to tackle the increasingly corporatized prison industrial complex by portraying Litchfield Penitentiary as descending into chaos once it is taken over by a private company, MCC, the show spends the entire season doing its absolute damnedest to humanize the people who wield the most power. Like Doggett, we’re supposed to soften our hearts towards the guard who held her down and raped her. We’re supposed to pity Officer Healy as he sends Lori Petty’s Lolly to psych after realizing her confession of murder isn’t a delusion. We’re even supposed to forgive Piper’s Aryan Nation leanings when she receives some retribution for framing Maria and getting an extra five years tacked onto her sentence.

And we sure as hell are supposed to sympathize with C.O. Bayley, the wet-behind-the-ears, aww-shucks new prison guard who accidentally kills Poussey Washington, one of the show’s most beloved (and most realized) characters.

And this is why I’m calling it quits on this show.

[quote_right][…]the show spends the entire season doing its absolute damnedest to humanize the people who wield the most power. [/quote_right]In the penultimate episode, a brawl in the cafeteria ends with Poussey suffocating under the weight of this guard, mouthing “I can’t breathe” in a manner reminiscent of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of a New York police officer. Her corpse remains on the floor through the last episode, a stand-in for Michael Brown’s body lying in the Ferguson street for hours after he was shot to death by a cop. And yet–and yet–the show’s writers are trying to impress upon us that that we, the audience, which includes brown and black people like myself, aren’t allowed to draw any clear conclusions about our relationship with law enforcement. As the actor who plays Bayley said in an interview, “Bad people do good things, and good people do bad things.” See? It’s all just so complicated.


Except that a week after I watched the end of this season, while I was up in Sonoma trying to enjoy a fireworks- and media-free birthday, cops shot Alton Sterling and Philando Castile to death. And there is no blithe Regina Spektor soundtrack to their deaths, no bloodless credits to roll, no Emmys to be awarded to the grief-stricken lovers and mothers and children trying to survive traffic stops and press conferences. Orange Is the New Black‘s nearly all white writing room can touch these raw nerves, traumatize their viewers, and then go home unscathed. They are, as poet Ryka Aoki once said, like “forks trying to taste food.”

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  • Lauren Wheeler writes poetry, fiction, and about the places where the personal, the political, and pop culture intersect. She works on self-driving cars in San Francisco and lives in Oakland with her partner, a five-year-old, and two brown dogs. Michonne is her alter-ego.

  • Show Comments

  • Scotty Swan

    truth. I to have untangled myself from the clutches of what was once a great guilty free binge watching worthy show. this last season made house party 3 look like house party 1.

  • Vicki Harmon

    We need more black writers and fewer excuses for injustice.

  • chrissygreenny

    Thank you! I watched until the end and felt utterly shaken. I’ve had an essay about the Latina characters spinning in my head for weeks now. The end of this season turned my stomach and you articulated so much of what I was thinking.

  • Lola Rew

    Tell Lavern to stop bleaching. Why do we continue to support people that aren’t proud of their skin. Everything else in the article is spot on.

  • Sunny Buns

    Great read, I had been putting off seeing this season but now I won’t bother. What a pity to watch a show with great potential go downhill so fast and so totally.
    I’m sorry your birthday coincided with such bad news.

  • mrsjojoxoxo

    I’m tired of the racist African Americans ripping everything to shreds and making it about race. Either enjoy the show, of don’t, but crying out loud stop making everything about race. Its pathetic

    • Nicole Jones Jameson

      That’s extremely easy for a white person to say. You don’t have to deal with racism. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing about it. Imagine living it.

    • Brian Jensen


  • Cynthia curtis

    Sorry. I beg to differ. I cried watching this show. Very intense airplay I thought they did a super job giving us more backstories intensely. The dream sequencence of pousseys earlier life was one ofnthe mist brilliant scenesi have ever seen on. Tv. I am a lesbian jewish white liberalnnin case u needed to know

  • josiews99

    You gave a very interesting perspective on the show. I hate that they killed off Poussey. Her character had really evolved since season one. I enjoyed season 4, but it’s getting really sloppy now. Too much chaos, not enough character development where it should be. I will say this, as someone who has dealt with mental health issues, i truly felt bad for Lolly.

  • michelle

    It’s a show!?! Why think into it so much? Really??? And y everything always about race? ITS A FICTIONAL SHOW. seems your more obsessed over the show then your admitting…… reading into every scene? Smh wow

    • Kathryn Parmeter

      Once you’ve learned how to spell and understand grammar, your opinion might get some attention.

    • Brian Jensen

      Yep, just passively swallow media and never think about what’s put in front of you.

  • Marcus

    Personally, I took the writer’s attempt to humanize Bayley as demonstrative of a simple reality: one does not need to be evil or sadistic or overtly racist to propagate and participate a system in which black lives are devalued and snuffed out without a second thought.

  • Elaine Plourde

    Thing is.. you will watch next season. The critic in you needs fodder.

  • thehireathofothello

    Thank you! Somebody finally said it. I Couldn’t agree more. When the first season aired, I think we were all just distracted by this entitled upper class white woman who had no clue beyond the measures of her own complexities. It was funny watching a white person squirm from the same I’ll treatment that woc are subjected to on a day to day basis. And Now it’s literally just black/brown women being the target of Truama as per usual. The only the ratings went up, was simply cuz they added a few steps to some stories. Let’s all admit it, It’s Truama porn for bored white ppl who don’t want think nor talk about race. Hell, look at this thread. It says it all.

  • Indigo&Tired (@Nola_Tsu)

    I delayed watching this season, but I don’t feel they apologize for these characters. Hearty is always protracted as a sad chaunist/racist, Piper is always entitled/clueless, and Caputo as well intentined/ineffectual.

    There are so many women on here who show great characteristics. They are not perfect, but one thier in prison for a reason and two they don’t need to be perfect. Their imperfection is why they are compelling.

  • Kathryn Parmeter

    Word. Even from a purely artistic standpoint, the refusal of the guilty white people in the writing room to take a real issue-based stand got old and led to the disintegration of this show as quality programming. But more troublesome is the drift away from the original message, which was that Piper was a window through which we were exposed to some of the elements of real life, and the narrative turned on her to expose her privileged white roots. It stopped doing that. Everyone went home to their mcmansions and collected the paycheck.

  • Blaquestarr

    I cried through the last 2 episodes of the season. BAWLED. I hadn’t cried that hard since the Charleston Shootings. Afterwards, I thought about why those episodes and Poussey’s death triggered such hurt feelings, and the truth is that OITNB is triggering for people of color. It is trauma porn because the reality is so close to our lives. Yes, I’m sad Poussey died, especially in that manner. But what really brought the tears is that it’s real life for us. None of the reviews from white people I’ve read ever touched on that. It doesn’t hit that same nerve as it does black and brown people. They feel sad because they have invested in the characters, not because its a life reality for them, and there is no one in the writing room who can bring that up when deciding what they do to the women that represent us. That’s why I have to quit this show too.

  • Gregory Jones

    Jenji Kohan is a moralistic liberal. As you note in an increasingly clear experience of law enforcement as oppressive -categorically- humanizing them is shit. The way to humanize them is simple; draw them in full renegade, anti establishment stance, risking all, inverting power like the sherif in Stranger Things.

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