Alert: Many spoilers follow!
Last year, Orange Is the New Black became one of my new favorite new shows by diving—headfirst—into a great unknown. A TV series ostensibly about a white, upper-middle-class, bisexual Smith graduate serving a thirteen-month sentence for money laundering and drug trafficking dared to delve into the backstories and inner lives of women of color—and not only that, but women of color who are facing years of prison time.
This season, creator Jenji Kohan fades the first-season protagonist Piper Kerman (played by Taylor Schilling) even further into the background, thus giving its diverse ensemble of actresses an even bigger opportunity to wrestle with the complex layers of race, sexuality and class that make up their worlds, and ours.
Sure, part of the appeal of OINB is its binge-worthiness. Combine character depth and a rewarding sense of closure and I, despite my 2-year-old, will find time to watch something that lasts for twelve and a half hours in a day! But the show’s real seduction has always been that it lets me, as an African-American woman, see some semblance of myself in its characters: in other women of color, in incarcerated women and in queer and transgendered women that the rest of society has chosen to ignore or render invisible.
This power is not OITNB’s alone. The politics of recognition and representation are powerful to many, so much so that the reality of the first African-American president and the idea of the first woman president sometimes act as a stand-in for real policies to end gender and racial disparities. When Harry Belafonte called for artists to engage in more political action, Jay-Z responded with a succinct rebuttal: “My presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough.”
Meanwhile, television shows like Scandal, Being Mary Jane, Devious Maids and, to a lesser extent, Mistresses, all showcase diverse casts. (Some of those shows have courted their own controversies about propping up racial stereotypes, demonstrating that diversity alone is no guarantee of thoughtful engagement with race as a subject.) OITNB, meanwhile, sets itself apart, literally, by taking place in a women’s prison. And for me, that distinction comes with an added burden and moral authority: the show should not simply be diverse (though that is a feat unto itself). It should help us imagine a different world—not only for its fictional characters but their real world counterparts, too.
The basic conflict this season, in which authority is pitted against political idealism, however, is quite familiar. In Litchfield Penitentiary, authority gets turned upside down and idealism is squeezed out. This is most explicit in the power play between the corrupt prison assistant warden, Natalie “Fig” Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), and her ambitious and sometimes well-meaning second-in-command, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow). They disagree often over the prison budget; is Fig willing to spend enough to fix one of the prison’s bathrooms, now flooded by sewage waste and feces? Caputo wants the situation remedied immediately; Fig redirects the funds to her husband’s campaign and hires shady contractors. By the end of the season, Caputo, with Piper’s help, exposes Fig’s embezzlement, but not without demanding oral sex from Fig in exchange for keeping mum (once she complies, he reveals that he’s already turned her in).