Saturday, July 2, 2016

Orange Is The New Black's Season Four & the Viewer's Prism - SPOILERS

The new Orange is the New Black season is probably the show's most audacious and challenging yet. I say that because there were parts of this that were awful and gut-wrenching to watch. This is challenging, forward thinking TV, and yeah, there are going to be some SPOILERS in this thing, so if you don't want that, go back on Netflix and finish the show.

I guess I'll just address the elephant in the room immediately, with Poussey Washington's death in Episode 12, “The Animals.” It's a horrible thing to watch, her being suffocated on the floor, and notably by Bayley, who was the most harmless looking, innocent seeming guy prior to this – that's really, really something, I think.

The thing for me was that I didn't know how to feel – Poussey's death was a tragedy, and Bayley was responsible yet is not some kind of evil psychotic monster like some of the other guards. That's important. Several characters on the show in the last episode – Caputo and Coates most notably – talk about how prison changes you, how Bayley is ruined after that. And obviously, that's the complete wrong reaction to have – like in the case of the Stanford rapist, talking about his life when another person has died (or in the Stanford case, been raped) because of him is unspeakably shitty. But Bayley isn't portrayed as some kind of evil monster either. His actions are awful and what happened is awful, because he's a moron who wasn't good at his job. He feels bad and he should fucking feel bad. But he isn't written as some kind of cartoon villain monster like he would be in other shows. It would be cheaper if he was written that way. He had to be a fully fleshed out character.

It's just a shitty situation. And the show does well at testing your moral compass and then smashing it up and throwing it into a blender.

The flashbacks in the episode are about Bayley basically going through life as this moron slacker kid. Getting thrown in jail for drinking on top of a water tower, getting fired from a job for giving free ice cream to girls. It's all inconsequential goofy petty bullshit that happens and none of it means a thing, because he's an upper-middle-class white kid and the world's his oyster. Even when asked why he's working at the prison, his answer is to shrug and say he's here “until the next thing.” Nothing has any meaning and he's just this aimless loser who gets by because he was born in a pretty privileged area and had a decent life up to now. He doesn't look like the kind of guy who'd kill someone, so when he does without meaning to, its his future and well being that are worried about – not that of Poussey or her friends, family, or the general injustice of it all. Infuriating shit. It's supposed to be – you're supposed to be mad at this.

The finale is even more gut wrenching – we see Caputo and the MCC PR people floundering desperately, Poussey's body left for hours on the kitchen floor while they try to spin it their way. Caputo, who has talked a big game all season about really helping these inmates and being there for them, can't do anything – he's paralyzed and his actions come off as cowardly. He's a fairweather friend of sorts, with good, charitable intentions during the good times, but then unable to do a thing during the bad solely from his own incompetence. And then again, how can we blame him? Any major insurrection against MCC would lose him his job and then nothing would ever change at all. He's doing what he can. But as in real life, doing what one can isn't always enough and it won't always matter a damn.

The show excels at creating these situations that are so morally complex that there is no right answer and people will view them through different lens. It's easy and valid to say that Caputo's a piece of shit and Bayley is trash and the flashbacks about him are unnecessary, because a person died, a black person, who are so often victimized by police in real life. It's also easy to say that they're all doing their best and things are fucked either way and nothing is simple. That's valid, too.

The show is a sort of reflective mirror-prism for how you look at any number of situations in life. Not everyone is supposed to find this season pleasant or easy to watch. I think that is what makes it great art, and what puts this show up there with Breaking Bad and The Wire for groundbreaking TV that portrays the human experience. I've read a handful of editorials from black viewers who absolutely hated this season:

They are perfectly justified in doing so. Why wouldn't they? It more directly affects their community. It talks about a problem they deal with every day and which is so much more real to them. Expecting them to react to Poussey's fictional death in the same way as someone like me is farcicial. It's never going to happen. I don't know shit compared to them.

So, like I said – the mirror-prism thing. Your view of this sequence of events in OITNB is solely dependent on your view of the real life things going on. Some people won't like this stuff because it's uncomfortable or it comes off as exploitative, and that's fine, they are perfectly justified. I would never try and patronize them by acting like I know better. I don't. I have no idea what they go through and wouldn't dream of trying to push my worldview on theirs. I'm just a guy myself, seeing this show and I like it because I'm into real life news, and seeing art that portrays things in this manner interests me. But other people have different experiences and they may find this to be offputting. I don't think the show really wanted to please everyone anyway. What it wanted was to show this stuff – to open the window a bit. Let us gaze out.

But as sad as this all is, what you should be taking away is that young black people die at the hands of the law way too often in real life. This is a fiction, but what's happening mirrors things that the black community has faced for real. This is nothing compared to real life. Black lives do matter, and the show's portrayal of these current events is maybe not even necessary when there's so much real evidence of this kind of thing happening. That's the one flaw here. It's ugly, sad and horrific, and there are no punches pulled. Maybe it doesn't need to exist or be shown. I don't know - but it is here. And so I'm writing this.

The show pulls this trick, of testing your morals, over and over again. Sam Healy is an odious man, a racist and a misogynist who uses his position in power at the prison to work out his mommy issues. But he has other dimensions to him and we see the show's portrayals of him as sympathetic in his attempts to find real human connection, to feel good at his job, to help out. He doesn't often succeed, because of his own limitations as a person. Not everyone gets a happy ending. That's realistic. The point of portraying him this way is that even terrible people have dimensions and complexities. Lots of movies and shows don't have anywhere near this kind of insight. Should art only humanize and explore those that are widely considered good and respectful people? It's all fiction at the end of the day. We should use it to challenge ourselves a bit.

Likewise with the perhaps even worse Coates, who raped Pennsatucky last year. He was widely reviled last season. But this year, we see that he feels confused and starts to regret what he did after he learns what Pennsatucky thinks of him – you know, that she isn't just avoiding him to play coy. The fact that a show with such a feminist message and written by so many women is doing this is pretty key here. For one, it's the same thing as Healy, this humanization of a rapist, showing that he's still a person at the end of the day with his own complexities. You don't have to like him. In fact you're probably not supposed to. But his characterization, his humanization shows a different point – rapists are not the shadowy monster in the bushes, and they aren't somehow less human than us, and it isn't okay to feel vindicated or different if you've done something to someone without their consent just because you aren't that old stereotype. Rapists are guys who appear pretty normal from far away. That's what Coates shows.

The fact that the show gets these reactions is what makes it great to me though. I don't think art needs to be likable or palatable to everyone. Better if it's not, even. I want art to surprise and challenge me and make me consider things in ways I hadn't. OITNB does that big time here. That should be the whole purpose of art. People not liking something is fine. With a show like this, it'll be a given. You shouldn't want art to be easily palatable and accessible to everyone, because what's going on then? You're not taking a real stance, you aren't saying anything controversial or exciting or electrifying, and it's harder to come out with something really great if you're just taking the middle of the road and not trying to push any buttons. Does all art have to be likable first and foremost, over any other quality? I don't think it does.

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