Warning: MAJOR spoilers for Orange is the New Black season 4 ahead
Given that the show is set inside a prison and the majority of its main characters are criminals to one degree or another, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Orange is the New Black plays around with the grey areas of morality. The newly-arrived fourth season is already proving to be one of the most controversial chapters of the series so far, with many fans angered by the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) in the season’s penultimate episode – a tragedy that’s further compounded when bureaucracy and indifference result in her body being left on the floor of the prison cafeteria for more than a day, while Director of Human Activities Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) fails to call either the police or a coroner.
Caputo’s characterization is emblematic of a theme in Orange is the New Black that has been steadily building since the show’s first season, and reaches a crescendo in season 4: the deconstruction of the popular social myth that bad people do bad things because they are bad people, and good people cannot do bad things because they are good people. It’s ultimately a comforting myth, after all, and both movies and news stories subsist on a steady diet of heroes and villains. But while the good person/bad person binary might seem like the perfect way to reinforce moral values and boundaries, Orange is the New Black season 4 lays out the reasons why it can be so damaging.
For three seasons the show has been showing its fans the sympathetic side to criminals like Yoga Jones (Erica Jones), who shot and killed and 8 year-old boy while drunk, and prison den mother Red (Kate Mulgrew), who stored human body parts in her freezer for the Russian mob. The show’s original protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), was convicted on a ten year-old money laundering charge and fervently insisted that she was a “good person” who just made a mistake… until she realized how many women of Litchfield had a similar story.
Orange is the New Black season 4 takes this thought exercise into challenging, uncomfortable, and outright offensive territory – and because of that it may well be the most thought-provoking season of the show so far. The audience is confronted with two “villains”: Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), the young, naive, hopelessly untrained corrections officer who accidentally suffocates Poussey while restraining her (in a scene that’s no doubt deliberately reminiscent of the real-life death of Eric Garner at the hands of a police officer); and Charlie Coates (James McMenamin), the equally inexperienced corrections officer who violently raped Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) last season.
Coates and Pennsatucky’s storyline comes at a particularly sensitive time, in which public attention has been recently captivated by the real-life case of Brock Turner, a Stanford University student who raped an unconscious woman at a party, but was sentenced to just six months in jail and is expected to only serve half that time. The outrage was further stoked by the judge’s justification for the lenient sentencing: concern that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on [Turner].”
The decision was partly influenced by a series of character witness letters submitted in court, including one from Turner’s father that lamented the fact that since committing the rape his son hadn’t been his usual “happy go lucky self” and no longer enjoyed eating ribeye steak or pretzels. In a moving response statement read in court, Turner’s victim addressed the way that his case had been built around a portrayal of his own suffering:
“You said, I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin a life. A life, one life, yours, you forgot about mine… I want to show people that one night of drinking can ruin two lives. You and me. You are the cause, I am the effect.”
Needless to say, it was probably the worst timing for a TV show to ask its audience to, if not feel sympathy for a rapist character, then at least to see him as nuanced and human. On the other hand, it could also be considered the best possible timing.
One of the most awful things about Pennsatucky being forced to face her rapist every single day, is the fact that Coates genuinely doesn’t understand that he raped her. He is baffled by the fact that she’s suddenly acting so distant towards him, and for a long time Pennsatucky is unable to confront him about what he did – going so far as too fake a seizure to get out of driving the van, so she won’t be left alone with Coates again. After the attack she clings to her friend Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) for comfort, but finds herself unable to share Big Boo’s anger and hatred of Coates. “I’m not raged,” she tells Big Boo in season 3, after the two of them try and fail to revenge-rape Coates with a brookstick handle. “I’m just sad.”
Coates and Pennsatucky finally talk in season 4, episode 4, “Doctor Psycho.” The conversation plays out like this:
Coates: You think I raped you?
Pennsatucky: Yeah. I mean, what else do you call that?
Coates: But I love you. I told you that. And I said it when… when… I said it.
Coates: So that makes it different.
Pennsatucky: But that didn’t feel any different.
Easily the most controversial aspect of this storyline has been the fact that Pennsatucky, who had a crush on Coates before he raped her, finds that she still has feelings for him and thinks it’s “sweet” when he eventually apologizes for raping her. “What if he’s just like a regular person who made a mistake?” she asks Boo, who reacts to that statement with the kind of disgust and incredulity that was shared by many of the show’s fans. Eventually Pennsatucky decides to forgive Coates, asks Boo to let go of her vendetta, and even seems interested in starting up a relationship with her rapist. It’s all extremely difficult to stomach, but it’s also one of the most complex and thought-provoking story arcs on the show.
A core element of Brock Turner’s legal defense was the argument that he was a good person: a student at a top university, an excellent swimmer, and a “sweetheart” in the words of his childhood friend Leslie Rasmussen, who wrote a character witness letter for him. “I tried to accept that maybe he did intend to harm this girl,” Rasmussen wrote. “But I just couldn’t imagine that was the case.” As she elaborates, it becomes clear that Rasmussen has a very fixed idea of what a rapist is:
“This is completely different from a woman getting kidnapped and raped as she is walking to her car in a parking lot. That is a rapist. These are not rapists… I know there are young men that take advantage of young women and vice versa, but I know for a fact that Brock is not one of those people. He is respectful and caring, talented, and smart enough to know better.”
It is a defense that relies on the popular myth of the “good person”: rape is a bad thing done by bad people, therefore a person who commits rape cannot be a good person, and a good person cannot commit rape. Writer Danielle Campoamor addressed the dangerous implications of this black-and-white logical paradigm in a personal essay about her response to Pennsatucky’s storyline:
“All too often, our society seems to only be comfortable calling rape by its name when it’s committed by a stranger under the cover of darkness when a woman is sober and wearing multiple layers of clothing, just trying to get from point A to point B safely.
“We don’t feel comfortable calling rape rape when it’s committed by someone the victims knows or if the victim was drunk or if the victim was wearing something ‘promiscuous’ or if the assailant is a white, young successful swimmer from Stanford… When Coates, for the first time, is called a rapist by his victim, he just can’t understand. To him, consent isn’t about two people mutually and emphatically saying ‘yes’ to sexual contact. To him, consent is telling a woman who refuses his contact that he ‘loves’ her and not feeling bad about whatever happens next.”
After Bayley is told that he killed Poussey, Piper finds him wandering down the hall to C Dorm, with the intention of apologizing to Poussey’s friends and, more importantly, being absolved by them. “It was an accident,” he tells Piper tearfully. “I’m a good person, you know that. I didn’t meant to hurt her.” Ultimately this is enough for Caputo to speak in Bayley’s defense when the time comes for a press statement, even though Litchfield has plenty of inmates – Yoga Jones and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), to name just a couple – who killed people by accident. What makes Bayley any less deserving of jail time than them?
Across its many character arcs and storylines, Orange is the New Black has thrown considerable weight behind the idea there are no good people or bad people. Arguably, though, it runs deeper than that: between Coates’ rape, Bayley’s murder, and Caputo allowing the Litchfield inmates’ lives to become progressively worse despite his good intentions, the show’s overwhelming message is that it doesn’t matter if someone is a good person or a bad person. The fact that Bayley didn’t intend to kill Poussey doesn’t make her any less dead, and the fact that Coates didn’t intend to rape Pennsatucky doesn’t mean she wasn’t raped.
A final point of note: when Litchfield’s parent company MCC steps in to deal with the Poussey “situation,” their first priority is to come up with a story for the public and give it a suitable villain. After trying and failing to create a convincing portrait of Poussey as a “thug,” they switch tactics and frame Bayley as a violent loose cannon – all to divert attention from the fact that Litchfield had poorly trained, out of control COs, and a Director of Human Activities who wasn’t paying enough attention. Perhaps there’s another lesson in this: that fixating too much on individual people and whether they are good or bad distracts us from confronting the systems and social environments that can lead people to commit terrible crimes, and offer excuses for them afterwards.
Orange is the New Black season 1-4 are available now on Netflix.