Jenji Kohan’s Netflix original series Orange is the New Black has specialized in weaving in the backstories of its characters (incarcerated and free alike) with the present storylines at Litchfield Penitentiary. One of the fourth season’s main narrative pressure points is the infusion of new inmates and guards, so that some episodes this season (for the first time, I believe) do not have time to fit in any backstory at all. The ones that were included this season—1: none; 2: Maria’s, 3: Brook Soso’s, 4: Healy’s, 5: Maritza’s, 6: none (side story with Nicky at max), 7: Lolly’s, 8: none, 9: Blanca’s, 10: none, 11: Suzanne’s, 12: Baxter Bayley’s, 13: Poussey’s—are much more thematically relevant to that character’s present storyline in the episode than previous seasons’, which seemed more interested in revealing how exactly the character had ended up in prison (though usually the way they did was relevant to what they were doing in the present episode, presenting actions that often echoed). The backstories in season 4 also thematically resonate for the character’s arc throughout the whole season, not just that episode, and do as good a job as they ever did of presenting a compact and satisfying narrative arc worthy of a literary short story. Major plot threads this season involve the gruff new CO Piscatella and the dark antics of his former military guards and Caputo’s corporatized coping with such, the hit man sent after Alex at the end of last season that Lolly helps her kill and bury in the garden, Maria and the Dominican crew challenging Piper in the dirty underwear business, and escalating racial tensions all around. While it’s certainly a worth debating whether the fourth season turned into trauma porn for white people, it’s hard to deny that the narrative threads culminate in a raucous climax that is both unexpected and inevitable.
In episode 1, “Work That Body For Me,” we pick up where the last season left off, with the old inmates being rounded up from the lake (thanks to that hole in the fence), new inmates posing a serious overcrowding issue, new fierce guards brought in with military pasts (for the corporate tax cuts), and the arrival of celebrity inmate Judy King (a cross between Martha Stewart and Paula Deen). Suzanne’s new romance with Kakudio goes south when Kakudio turns out to be as crazy as Crazy Eyes used to be (and will be again). We meet the new big bad boy CO Piscatella. Lolly, whom Alex suspected of being the hit man her old boss had sent after her in season 3, saves her from being strangled by the real hit man, but doesn’t quite succeed in killing him, and Alex has to finish the job herself later. With Frieda’s help, they cut him up and bury him in the garden.
The first backstory we get is Maria’s, in episode 2, “Power Suit.” She is of Dominican descent, and her first backstory scene is of her father is leading a Dominican gang with fierce homeland pride when she’s a young girl. In future scenes she becomes disillusioned as she ages with her father, who hits on her friend and disapproves of her non-Dominican boyfriend (whom she met when she saw him toss drugs running down an alley and she returned the drugs to him, and who, in season 3, quit bringing their baby girl to visit, inciting Maria’s rising anger issues). Maria points out to her father that what he does is no different from any other gang, and that she does not care about being Dominican, prompting him to kick her out of the house. In the present, Maria is at first reticent to wield the Dominicans’ new power in numbers, but when her friend is shoved down the stairs by a couple of white girls, she bides her time and plans her violent revenge against them carefully.
Elsewhere, Piper, keen on cultivating the image of hardass she thinks is attendant with having sent her former paramour to max, tries and fails to bully her new bunkmate Hapakuka and ends up hiring her as muscle. The Jewish black Cindy clashes over property rights with her new Muslim bunkmate, Alison. Yoga Jones is chosen as Judy King’s roommate. Sophia’s wife Crystal starts pestering Caputo about where Sophia is. At an MCC meeting, he suggests incentives to hire vets as guards, inspiring the admiration of fellow MCC-er Linda, inspiring him to spring for an $1100 suit.
In episode 3, “(Don’t) Say Anything,” we get (more of) Brook Soso’s backstory; she’s working as an activist trying to get people to sign petitions to open a park instead of a Walmart, and a romance with one of her fellow activists has gone bad. She makes a bet with him she can get the notorious sex offender in the neighborhood to sign. She talks the offender, clearly reticent, into letting her into his house, at which point he reveals that his sex offense was getting caught having sex with his legally aged girlfriend on a public beach. At first he doesn’t want to sign because a new park would require his eviction since he wouldn’t legally be allowed near it, but he agrees to sign anyway, knowing they’ll never beat Walmart. When Brook relays how she got the signature to her ex, the guy guesses the true story of the guy’s nonthreatening nature, prompting Brooke to embellish and lie that the guy tried to make a move on her. In the present, she tries to do her new girlfriend Poussey a favor by getting her an audience with her idol Judy King, whom she tells that Poussey was raised by a crack whore, causing Poussey to realize Brook doesn’t know her at all and has depended in her assessment entirely on stereotypes. But Brook convinces Poussey to give her another chance by going John Cusack on her.
Elsewhere, Morello becomes paranoid her new husband is cheating on her, prompting her to elaborately pantomime sex with him in the visiting room. Caputo hires Taystee as his assistant. Red blisters at Judy King’s special treatment and garden access. Caputo has a dinner date with MCC Linda, where he sees one of the former guards waiting tables; Linda convinces him to abandon his empathy. Lolly keeps freaking out about the guy she and Alex killed, and Frieda declares that they’ll have to kill her.
In episode 4, “Doctor Psycho,” we get Healy’s backstory, first seeing him as a young boy with his dad watching his mom get out of a hospital, looking, to Healy, noticeably different. His dad explains that hopefully she won’t hear things anymore. One night she makes Healy a midnight snack and suggests that she might stop her new therapy because she doesn’t like how it makes her feel. When she asks him if he wants her to be able to hear the angels again, he tells her no, he doesn’t like her that way, and not a minute later, she flees from the house. We then see Healy as a young social worker; just after he’s jilted by a client he’s questionably taken on a date, he sees a homeless-looking woman on a stoop he recognizes as his mother. He takes her to a diner and tells her all about his life before finding a hospital bracelet on the woman’s wrist with a different woman’s name. He pathetically tries to get the woman to stay with him anyway, but she flees. In the present, Lolly is having a psychotic break under the paranoia propagated by the guy she helped Alex chop up and bury, and Healy, recognizing his mother’s illness in her, tries to help. He seems to succeed in convincing Lolly that the murder never actually happened, mitigating the threat that Lolly will say too much about it and get Alex et al caught, so she doesn’t have to be killed.
Elsewhere, we get our first glimpse of Sophia in the SHU, who tries to get out first by flooding her toilet and then by starting a fire. Maria goes head-to-head with Piper in the undies business after Piper refused to accept her new inmate-friends as employees. Judy King runs a cooking class at Healy’s insistence until she requests he’s removed as her counselor. Doggett (aka Pennsatucky) asks Coates, the guard who raped her last season, if he’s raping Maritza, the new van driver, and he says he told her he loved her when they did it, and “that makes it different,” which she disputes.
In episode 5, “We’ll Always Have Baltimore,” the backstory of Maritza Ramos, the usually ditzy BFF of Flaca, reveals her to be much more clever than she’s let on, detailing her development as a con girl and car thief. When she tries a scam where she breaks a vodka bottle filled with water at the expensive club where she works and gets a party of guys to pay for it, one of the guys recruits her for a bigger scam stealing cars from expensive dealerships by pretending to be a salesgirl and getting a guy to give her his license to turn in to take a car for a test drive. But when a real sales guy hops in the car at the last second, Maritza has to improvise, faking sickness when she’s almost discovered and getting both the mark and the sales guy out of the car so she can hop back in and steal it. In the present, Maritza has the idea to use her van duty job as the vehicle to smuggle Maria’s crew’s dirty panties to the outside world. When she’s almost caught, she cleverly improvises, convincing the guards that the pickup guy they’ve spotted is the gardener.
Elsewhere, Caputo and Linda visit an absurd prison-industry convention (“CorrectiCon”), where the former director of Human Activity (and an MCC exec’s son) Danny Pearson protests; Caputo gets temporarily arrested with him when he tries to intervene, and Danny warns him about Linda, who has deemed tampons “inessential” to purchase for the inmates, and whom Caputo then promptly gets some from in a storage closet. Crazy Eyes and Morello look for the shower pooper. Taystee gets access to Caputo’s internet while he’s gone, giving her the idea to pursue a celebrity photo. As a move against Maria, Piper goes to Piscatella about starting an anti-gang task force, prompting him to start profiling the Latinas, and inducing Piper’s new white supremacist following.
In episode 6, “Piece of Sh*t,” we get no backstory, but more of a side story of what’s been going on with a character we’ve all missed: Nicky Nichols. Lucscheck is getting hate mail from Nicky in max, and after talking to his new friend Judy King about his guilt, visits her to clear his conscience. His apology is rejected by Nicky, who’s been struggling to stay sober in an environment where drugs are easy to get, and after Luschek’s visit reminding her how alone she is, and after seeing Sophia’s evacuated blood-stained cell on her janitorial duties in the SHU, she relapses, not knowing that Judy King has had strings pulled to get her sent back up the hill so Luschek doesn’t confess the drugs that got Nicky sent away were his and get fired, leaving Judy King friendless. In return for the favor, King extorts Luschek into pleasuring her—exactly what Nicky has to do to get drugs from her female guard (in the final scene). Luscheck is also having the inmates install illegal cable in a guard’s bungalow, and when one cuts her hand badly in the process, he tells her to wait until he’s done with his video game before he takes her to medical, prompting her to call him a “piece of shit” as well as inducing a surprising dressing down from Coates, the rapist who’s apparently reforming.
Elsewhere, Caputo gets his idea to have the guards teach classes, black Cindy and Alison move forward with the plan to get a pic of Judy King, and Piper’s white-power friends reveal to the guards that some of the Dominicans are sneaking panties out of the shop. Maria is called into Piscatella as the ringleader of the operation and told she’s getting 3-to-5 years added to her sentence, causing her to violently threaten Piper. She’s also decided their gang will go from undies to drugs.
In episode 7, “It Sounded Nicer in My Head,” we get Lolly’s backstory as a nice complement to Healy’s. Working as a journalist, she thought she’d uncovered a plot that the government was poisoning water; eventually she’s let go from the paper and a former coworker tries to get a room in a home for her. But after Lolly talks to another resident who tells her the place is wired, she flees. She squats in a shack on some land, making coffee for neighborhood residents and shaking a stick full of bells to banish the voices in her head, but then the land is commandeered for condos and the neighborhood gentrifies, prompting a run-in with some cops one day (she’s still pushing her cart but one of the wheels breaks as the cops come up to her, and she can’t push it any farther). he voices in her head start up again at the sight of the cops; when she takes out her bell stick, the cops take it for a weapon and arrest her. In the present, she’s been scrounging garbage around Litchfield for what turns out to be a time machine; Healy tells her everyone would like to go back in time to some point but can’t.
Elsewhere, Cindy and the gang are trying to snap a celeb pic of Judy King, leading her to think they’re after her because of the scandal that’s broken about her old racist puppet show. Linda brings home Caputo’s education-program proposal full of “vocational” classes with a focus on hard labor. Nicky cops drugs from the meth-head Angie, the shower pooper (because she’s been swallowing contraband). During Nicky’s welcome-back party Piper is nabbed by the Dominicans, and branded with a swastika.
In episode 8, “Friends in Low Places,” we get no backstory. Piper, realizing she got what she deserved, struggles through the new construction 101 class the inmates now have (the ones who used to work at the panty shop Whispers, specifically), and while smoking crack with Alex and Nicky in the garden, shows them the swastika; Alex in turn confesses about killing her hit man. Piper is surprisingly more concerned about Alex’s pain than her own, and, Red rebrands her swastika into a window (in some of the best symbolism ever, since the dramatic consequence Piper suffered has actually caused her to reexamine herself and her surroundings). Elsewhere, Nicky tries and fails to get back with Morello. Lolly’s time machine prompts conversation that prompts Coates to apologize to Doggett for raping her. Judy King finds out the black inmates want a pic of her, not to jump her, and takes a pic of her kissing black Cindy they sell to the tabloids. After some close calls, Maritza wants to stop smuggling drugs in the van, but Maria won’t let her. Sophia’s wife visits Caputo at home, where Linda pulls a gun on her for trespassing (which Caputo finds sexy rather than appalling).
In episode 9, “Turn Table Turn,” the backstory is the unibrowed Dominican Blanca’s. She is a live-in caretaker to a horrible domineering old lady who yells at her for microwaving her coffee, dangles the promise of leaving her house to her, and calls her “Bianca.” When Blanca strikes up a romance with the old lady’s gardener, the old lady fires him. Blanca protests, initially with words, but when it’s clear that’s useless, she wakes the old lady up in the night by having sex with the gardener on a couch in the old lady’s bedroom. The next morning she serves the old lady breakfast almost as though nothing had happened—except Blanca microwaved her coffee. The old lady, clearly cowed, does not protest anything now, apparently realizing she is completely at Blanca’s mercy.
In the present, the guards have been frisking Latinas almost exclusively since Piper indicated to the administration that they might be a threat, and Blanca has gotten tired of it. She stops showering, happy when the guards won’t frisk her because she stinks. (Some inmates argue over whether it’s less dignified to stink or get groped.) One of the guards orders her to shower but she continues to make herself stink, rubbing oyster juice behind her ears. Humphrey, the guard who ordered her to shower, orders her to stand on a table until she submits to his will, which one of the other guards calls “only a little Abu-Ghraiby.” At the end of the episode, that guard tells Humphrey he might have made a mistake, as Blanca glares defiantly at him (as she did at the old lady while she was fucking the gardener in front of her).
Elsewhere, Boo threatens to retract her friendship if Doggett gives Coates the time of day. Nicky, after being caught drugged out several times, vows to Red to get clean. Sister Ingalls punches Luisa to get thrown in the SHU and check on Sophia. Maritza gives away the pickup guy so she doesn’t have to smuggle anymore, but then Humphrey makes her come in the guard shack with him and forces her at gunpoint to play for real the hypothetical game he overheard her playing with Flaca earlier—would you rather eat ten dead flies, or a live baby mouse?
In episode 10, “Bunny, Skull, Bunny, Skull,” Aleida Diaz gets out of prison and Maria takes the opportunity to recruit Daya for her crew. Sister Ingalls tries to get a picture of Sophia in the SHU, but when she gets caught, Caputo takes one anyway and gives it to Danny. Nicky tries and fails to stay off drugs. Maritza complains to Flaca about eating the mouse but doesn’t want to tell anyone else. Piper joins Blanca on the table. Suzanne tries to revisit the broom closet with Kakudio, who blue balls her in revenge for Suzanne leaving her in the woods in the first episode. A screening of The Wiz causes more racial tension between the groups. The construction project needs to reroute through the garden, and the backhoe digs up a hand.
In episode 11, “People Persons,” we get Suzanne’s backstory, the one that most directly addresses how she came to be in prison (and is the most brutal). Working as a greeter at a Walmart-like chain, Suzanne enthusiastically visits with a family, and when it seems like her boss might reprimand her for being a little too enthusiastic, he instead awards her Employee of the Month. She then goes home to the news that her roommate/adopted sister and boyfriend are leaving her alone for the weekend; when Suzanne balks at the idea of making her own friends, the boyfriend reminds her that the award she just won proves she’s a people person. So on her own, Suzanne goes to the park, where she runs into a little boy whose family she greeted at the store. She invites him home to play video games, but when he wants to leave she insists he has to come back in the morning, as she’s envisioned the whole weekend together. She gets angry at the kid when he freaks on her when she won’t let him leave, saying her feelings are hurt and you don’t run from your friends. When the boy continues to run she gives chase, and the kid climbs out a window then winds up falling off her fire escape.
Elsewhere, the prison’s on lockdown after the discovery of the body. Judy King offers Luschek molly and has a threesome with him and Yoga Jones (to their apparent regret, but not hers). Red warns Piper and Alex not to crack under questioning, but then she’s the one who’s called in to Piscatella, who’s interrogating inmates against Caputo’s explicit orders, and though she doesn’t give up anything, the guard’s keys are discovered in her things. Pennsatucky helps Nicky through detox. Two of the guards (Humphrey of the baby mouse and Stratman) try to instigate a fight among the inmates waiting to be interrogated, and Kakudio volunteers to take on Suzanne, verbally baiting her until Suzanne goes nuts and beats the living shit out of her. Healy flees at the news of the body’s discovery but eventually returns (after calling his ex mail-order bride and leaving a message that he thinks he’s not very good at his job) and turns her in (just in time to prevent Alex from turning herself in), escorting her to the psych ward.
In episode 12, “The Animals,” we get the backstory of boy-guard Baxter Bayley–first him getting caught at a water tower with some friends and messed with by the cops for the brief period he’s in jail, then getting fired from an ice-cream stand for giving away free cones, then egging some Litchfield inmates in a drive-by; when Frieda yells at him that she’s a human being, he stops laughing. In the present, Bayley’s the one who tells Caputo what the guards did to Suzanne and Kakudio. When Caputo tries to suspend Humphrey, Piscatella says if he tries to reprimand his men they’ll all walk, leaving Caputo in the same position he was last season. (Caputo was impressed with Piscatella’s power plays in the first episode, when they involved keeping inmates away from him; not so much anymore.) Caputo tells Bayley he’s not cut out for the job and should get out while he can.
Elsewhere: Healy checks himself into a psych ward. Sophia gets out of the SHU finally and Gloria helps her with her wig. The race groups are banding together now to call for Piscatella’s removal. Soso and Poussey have a tiff over whether inmate efforts will make any difference. When Piscatella, who hasn’t been letting Red sleep, shoves her to the ground in the cafeteria, everyone stands on the tables in a peaceful protest (during which Poussey mouths to Soso that she’s sorry and Soso appears to accept).
Things quickly turn violent when Piscatella calls his guards in to get them down. Suzanne goes crazy, and Piscatella yells at Bayley to restrain her. Poussey tries to help, but Bayley puts her in a full nelson with a knee on her back, holding her there, distracted while Suzanne continues to attack him. Everything is in chaos, and when Coates finally drags Bayley off Poussey, she’s suffocated.
In the final episode, “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again,” Poussey is resurrected in her backstory, in which she visits NYC with a couple of friends to see The Roots play (it turns out to be a bad cover band). When her phone is stolen and she gives chase, she winds up lost on the streets asking for a phone; some drag queens invite her into a club where she has a great time. On her way back to her friends she’s stopped by a bicycling pack of apparent monks who offer to give her a lift to her destination; while smoking with one she learns they’re not monks but an improv troupe, and she marvels at the wonders of NYC and her night, which seems more thematically than directly relevant to the episode–these memories seem to constitute Poussey’s personal heaven. In the present, her body is still lying on the Litchfield cafeteria floor while the guards and MCC try to get their story straight. After concluding it will be impossible to make Poussey a villain, they decide Bayley will be their villain and scapegoat, despite Caputo’s protests that he’ll go to jail. During the televised press conference, Caputo goes off script saying he condones Bayley’s actions. Taystee, hiding by her desk, is enraged when she overhears this, and storms off down the hall yelling that there’s no justice. Everyone pours into the halls following her. They run into Humphrey (the psychotic mouse guard) and McCullough (the female guard) releasing Judy King, who’s just refused Yoga Jones’ requests to tell people on the outside what happened to Poussey. Humphrey reaches for the gun he talked another guard into letting him bring in that morning, but is shoved by another inmate, and the gun slides across the floor. Daya picks it up. Maria asks her if she wants to give it to somebody else, but Daya confidently commands Humphrey to the ground, while all the camera pans around all the surrounding inmates, roaring for her to shoot him.
Elsewhere, Suzanne pulls a bookcase down on herself to try to feel what Poussey did, and Brook, though drunk on Poussey’s hooch, manages to save her (an inverse of the scene in the library last season when Poussey had to save Brook from overdosing). Angie and Leanne find the hooch, get drunk, and destroy Lolly’s time machine, the thematically relevant prop that’s been used throughout the season that’s made the backstories, their own versions of time machines, even more salient.
Backstories from previous seasons did not always show why a character specifically got arrested; one that didn’t was notably Poussey’s, in which she pulls a gun on her girlfriend’s father and her own father defuses the situation before any arrestable offenses are committed. On first seeing season 4’s version of Poussey’s backstory of her whimsical NYC night, I didn’t think it was showing what she got arrested for either, and I was somewhat surprised that the writers would rely so heavily in the finale on a thread that was purely thematic and didn’t tie in directly (i.e., narratively) to the plot. But on closer inspection there are clues that this thread does indeed have narrative significance–is, in fact, the explanation of exactly why Poussey is where she is now–in prison, and now, because of that, dead.
When MCC is trying and failing to make Poussey look like a villain, they mention she was arrested for nonviolent crimes–picked up in Brooklyn for trespassing and marijuana. This seems to be a reference to the scene we saw in her backstory–she climbed a fence with the fake monks, so might well have been trespassing, and was smoking weed with them; she also mentions early on that she’s in possession of a stash she’s trying to get rid of. If Poussey is about to get arrested just after she breaks the fourth wall, smiling at the camera at the the end of season 4’s finale, all of the seemingly random things that happened to her throughout that backstory thread–chasing the guy who jacked her phone, going into the club with the drag queens, accepting the ride from the monks–or rather, all the choices she made in response to the little random things that happened to her, led directly to her death. The camera in this backstory thread was focused on a very particular chain of events.
The New Yorker‘s TV critic Emily Nussbaum does an excellent analysis of the show and season 4’s treatment of empathy, and in particular of how Poussey’s death is narratively earned:
She died when the show became clearer about something that had always been buried within it: the irresolvable tension between that utopian subway car and the tilted, biased world surrounding it.
Nussbaum also points out how Bayley’s backstory thread (the very first scene of it in fact) shows him doing the very same things that Poussey seems to have been arrested for–trespassing and marijuana.