Friday, July 1, 2016

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - A Tragedy Forces Everyone Into Action in 'Toast Can't Never Be Bread Again'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 4.13 "Toast Can't Never Be Bread Again"

Corporate bureaucracy and simmering anger work against Caputo's efforts to keep a sensitive situation under control.

The fourth season of Orange Is the New Black has been its best one yet. It's arguably been its darkest and most traumatic as well. The show was not afraid to tackle some really big ideas and push its characters into some really uncomfortable positions this season. The show had a story it was determined to tell despite the tragedy of it all. This is a season filled with horrifying and morally compromising decisions that have affected and changed all of the characters who spend their lives in Litchfield. Everyone has been damaged by the events of this season. They've undergone unspeakable horrors this season. Litchfield is on the verge of breaking apart. All of the decisions of the past two seasons have been building to this finale. It's heartbreaking to see the aftermath of Poussey's death. But it's also rewarding and complex to the narrative journey that has led to this point. It's difficult to watch this episode - especially in close proximity to "The Animals." It's a harrowing experience.

Orange Is the New Black is making some bold and declarative statements this season about the system problems this country faces with prison maintenance and policy brutality. The audience has been on this journey with all of the characters. The heart of the show is the inmates and how their lives are so much more than the crimes they committed. Their humanity shines through despite the oppressive and depressing nature of their imprisonment in Litchfield. And yet, the show has made sure the audience understands the decisions being made at the top and how they can affect and change the prison. Every single action that happened between the guards and the inmates this season was understandable because of the series of decisions that were made stretching back to when MCC first acquired Litchfield. But what good does intellectually understanding how this system got broken do to the inmates right now? The audience understands the systemic problems facing Litchfield. But there's no easy way to address those concerns. They have a right to be angry about how Caputo and MCC are handling Poussey's death. But the situation is a whole lot more complicated than that. The show has spent so much time on Caputo for a reason. All of these characters have different approaches to handling what happened to Poussey. They conflict with each other frequently. And yet, that doesn't mean they are wrong to believe and act in such a way. It's just a conflict that has finally reached its breaking point.

Lichfield is once again in lockdown at the start of the finale. The phones and TVs have been shut off. There is no way to communicate with the outside world until the guards can get a handle on what happened. Caputo is furious that things escalated this far. It takes Poussey dying for him to finally reprimand Piscatella. Caputo takes over again at Litchfield. But how much good does that actually mean? Piscatella has created a society of guards who believe it's okay to be violent towards the inmates because they are criminals. They have all banded together with a story that Suzanne was foaming at the mouth acting like a feral animal while Poussey had a knife hoping to turn the peaceful protest into a full-on prison riot. That's their justification for what happened. Caputo can't believe that. He knows Suzanne and Poussey better than the guards do. He knows that they aren't violent people. A large part of this season has been Caputo standing up for Litchfield against his corporate bosses at MCC. He did so by getting Sophia released from solitary. And yet, that action was too little too late without solving the main problem at the prison. She is still being discriminated against because she's transgender. Her harrowing journey this season literally meant nothing. Poussey's death could have been avoided too. It took her dying for him to get some semblance of a backbone. And yet, he doesn't stand up to his bosses as much as he could.

So, Poussey's body sits on the cafeteria floor all night and for most of the day. Caputo isn't forceful with the team of crisis management lawyers MCC sends over. They are trying to craft a story that will make this tragedy less damaging to the company. They want to blame a violent inmate who got what she deserved. When that doesn't pan out, they target Bayley for being young and untrained. And yet, they do so without questioning why he was hired and why he wasn't trained. Bayley's actions were understandable in the heat of the moment at the end of "The Animals." He's visibly shaken by what has occurred. This simply shouldn't have happened in prison. And yet, it did. He's responsible. He's sorry for killing Poussey. But he's getting conflicting reports on what to do. He is a victim of his circumstances just like everyone else at Litchfield. He's surrounded by guards who believe he did the right thing because they all did horrible things - like murder - when they served overseas. MCC wants him to be a scapegoat for this crime. That would be the easy way out of this mess. It's exactly what the inmates want as well. They need change from the guards in order to actually feel safe in Litchfield. Caputo is at the center of all of this. He's feeling the emotions from all sides. He knows the loss Taystee is feeling right now. He knows how good of a man Bayley is. He knows just how manipulative and evil MCC can be. He's doing his best to handle a situation with no good options.

And yet, all of the time it takes to handle Poussey's death really starts to rile up the inmates. This is an injustice done to them. Not everyone knew Poussey. She touched many of their lives. But she wasn't close friends with many people. She was a memorable part of the show who will be missed immensely moving forward. It is compelling to see how everyone reacts to her passing. Taystee, Cindy and Watson need Bayley to be punished. They need to know that Caputo is doing his job and giving Poussey the respect and dignity she deserves in death. Unfortunately, that's not happening. Her body sits in the cafeteria for a long time while he ultimately decides to let Bayley return to work should he want to. As an audience member, we can see the nuance and moral complexity of such a decision. But to the inmates, that's a horrifying prospect that hurts just as much as Poussey's death. To them, it seems like nothing is going to change in this broken system. In the wake of this tragedy, they've hurdled close with their group of friends. They are appreciating the people they love in these times of confusion. Their lives could end at any point in time. It's natural. But Poussey was not suppose to die now. She was suppose to serve her time and live a bright and happy life. Everyone is unsure of how to pay their respects to Poussey's group of friends. They hold an informal wake outside but it only stands to alienate the communities further. The racial divides return and strengthen. Nothing happens because of the respect for the dead. But it's clear that tensions are rising and going to burst before the season is over.

And indeed, that's exactly what occurs in the finale's chaotic and rising final act. Taystee hears the statement that Caputo releases to the world. That statement is what will define this story to everywhere and everyone outside of Litchfield. She sees a manipulation taking place that is unjust. She is fed up because it was her closest friend who died. The word spreads throughout the entire prison. The inmates could do a lot of damage if they stand up and fight for change. Their peaceful protest ended in tragedy because they were faced with an oppressive regime who only understand violence and refused to listen to their concerns. Violence and death don't have to be defining characteristics of this world. The show has shown the beauty and humanity of life inside a prison many times over its four seasons. But now, the season has reached its climax and the tensions boiling in Litchfield are finally spilling over. The inmates can be peaceful no more. Some rise up because they are angry about what happened to Poussey. Others join in because they have been ready to embrace violence. The entire inmate population coming together isn't some big unifying thing. It shows just how delicate the balance really is in this place. But it has created a situation that the system just can't ignore. The inmates are pushing back. They are now embracing a riot. Some take it on with passion and a need to see justice carried out. Some join in to put an end to the guards' reign of terror. Others flee knowing just how much trouble this riot can bring to the prison. And the season does end with the inmates taking over. They descend on two of the guards - Humphrey and McCullough - as they are escorting Judy out. It's a fantastically choreography final set piece that shows the anger and passion throughout the whole prison.

Humphrey brought a gun to Litchfield in order to better protect himself from the inmates who he believes are getting more violent. He sees what happened to Poussey as the beginning of a war. Bayley did the right thing by killing her. He was justified in that kill. And now, he's doing his best to protect himself from these violent and deranged criminals. He has been unstable many times over the course of the season. But bringing a gun to the prison has the potential to add even more to the chaos. Not surprisingly, it does. When the riot forms, he's the one being swallowed whole by it. The gun doesn't protect him at all. Instead of killing even more inmates, they get the upper hand by stealing it from him. It's so rewarding that it's Maritza who pushes him once he reaches for the gun. But it's even more surprising that it's Daya who picks it up and decides to use it. This hasn't been an especially noteworthy season for Daya. Most of her story has been connected to Aleida being released. Aleida is one of the few characters from the outside looking in on the tragedy happening at Litchfield. She left and hoped that Daya wouldn't be swallowed by the darkness of this place. And yet, that's exactly what's happening. She picks up the gun and points it at Humphrey. He was despicable enough this season to deserve being shot in the face. However, that could only add to the trauma and chaos of the situation. It would essentially ruin Daya's life. She would be blamed for killing a guard - even though Bayley isn't being blamed for killing an inmate. That horror is very pronounced during that final act. There is no good way out of this mess. Every character's reaction to these events feels earned on the show's part. It's just a very tricky and depressing story that feels very satisfying because of its refusal to offer any kind of easy resolution.

And yet, the finale never losses sight that a life was lost. Poussey was a beautiful soul who was only in Litchfield for a low-level drug offense. The show's finales have typically done away with flashbacks in order to properly deliver all of the tension that's coming to a climax for the season. However, "Toast Can't Never Be Bread Again" uses them in phenomenal ways as a final sendoff for Poussey. The show doesn't want her last moments to be lying on the cafeteria floor as a lifeless body. They want her to be remembered as the smiling and lovely person who enjoyed life and had fun. She made a difference in this world. The flashbacks typically show the humanity of the inmates. But here, they show that a character isn't gone just because she is dead. They serve as a reminder of every wonderful thing that Poussey did in this life. It's fun watching her just have a wild and crazy night in New York City embracing everything that the city has to offer. It's a night to remember. That's the highlight of this finale. Yes, her death pushes so many confrontations into action. But her life was so much more important than that. These final scenes honor that. They provide powerful memories that will be cherished forever.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Toast Can't Never Be Bread Again" was written by Tara Herrmann & Jenji Kohan and directed by Adam Bernstein.
  • The one part of the flashbacks that doesn't work is Poussey randomly walking past Bayley and his group of high school friends. It seems to suggest that they were destined to collide in a tragic way even though her death was essentially an accident perpetrated by a broken system.
  • Piscatella is written off early in the finale with Caputo taking control of the prison again. Caputo also mentions a scandal from a men's maximum prison that Piscatella would probably want to keep a secret. But that just feels like a weird and lame explanation to write him off now - while still having the possibility for him to return next season.
  • Once again, Judy King is the only inmate who could actually make a difference in the way Litchfield operates. She chooses not to act even though one of her closest friends in prison was killed. She wasn't there to see it happen. Plus, MCC is releasing her on the condition that she doesn't share a word of what happened to the press. And yet, the final confrontation between the guards and inmates happens while she's trying to leave. She simply can't escape it this time.
  • Suzanne needing to feel what it's like to be unable to breathe is a very weird way to connect to Poussey. It's very troubling to Taystee and it almost gets Suzanne killed as well. It's largely just a way for her to end up in medical next to Maureen.
  • Poussey's death forces Alex to remember the humanity of the hitman she killed. She knew him before he tried to kill her. She knows he too was a victim of circumstances. But she could also be stirring up trouble by leaving notes with his real name written on it. Good thing she has a sensible Piper looking out for her.
  • Most of the grieving over Poussey's death focuses on Taystee, Cindy, Watson, Suzanne and Alison. And yet, Soso's reaction is significant as well because of how important their relationship was this season. It's great that Poussey's hidden alcohol returns here. But it also serves as one last connection to her and is now gone forever.
  • It's great that Nicky forces Morello to escape her delusions and face the reality of her situation. Of course, it's just because Nicky wants to fuck her again. But Morello is genuinely afraid that her mental illness is rearing its ugly head again and ruining her life.
  • The only glimpse of Healy is of him in arts and crafts mode at his own psych hospital semi-watching Caputo's message to the press. Again, not sure the show has earned the reveal of Healy having mental problems of his own. Though it could be significant to see what happens to him because of this institutionalization.
  • Pennsatucky forgiving Coates for raping her has been a very interesting story that demands further analysis. It has been a very nuanced conversation about what would happen in this situation where the two have to spend so much time together. Their brief scene shows that it could happen all over again way too easily.
  • The show isn't going away anytime soon. It's been renewed for three more seasons already. That shows that Netflix is committed to showing just how all of these dynamics will continue to play out. The show wrote itself into quite a corner with this finale. It worked in so many immensely powerful ways. But now, it has to find a way to continue to pay it off moving forward.

As noted in previous reviews from this series, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.