Stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers for season four of Orange is the New Black.
Since Orange is the New Black first premiered, it made a point to dive into the reality of women’s lives in prison. It’s done a good job of it, delving into the humanity denied for Litchfield’s prisoners. The show’s growing popularity has coincided with its comfort in exploring the worst the world has to offer: guards on perpetual power trips and abusing their power (and the women in their care), an incompetent and willfully ignorant administration, deplorable conditions and unfair rules. This continues in the recently released season four: white supremacists appear in Litchfield, Pennsatucky tries to recover from her rape, Lolly’s mental health is mocked and ignored, a depressed and suicidal Sophia is hidden away in solitary. It goes on and on like this, one awful thing on top of another. Though still managing to make us laugh, season four is brutally low on optimism. But it’s in the penultimate episode that the season is at its darkest, culminating with the death of Poussey Washington.
During a peaceful protest, Poussey is suffocated by a guard. She dies on the cafeteria floor, gasping for breath as a guard kneels on her back. No one notices until it’s too late, and we watch Taystee collapse, screaming and in tears, beside her body. It’s a shock, to say the least. Until this moment, Poussey has been on the outside of the dangers brewing in Litchfield. She’s in a relationship with Brooke Soso and fawning over new inmate Judy King, happy and anticipating her future.
Before the season premiered, word had spread that Orange planned on taking on real life components like Black Lives Matter. It’s not the first show to attempt this (and it did a better job than most), but maybe it did it too well. Poussey gasps for breath, saying she can’t breathe just like Eric Garner did. Her dead body remains in the cafeteria overnight and into the day like Michael Brown’s after his shooting. Poussey’s name goes unmentioned in the press conference about her death, recalling the Say Her Name movement and women like Sandra Bland whose stories would likely go undiscussed if not for us pushing them to remain in the conversation.
I already know that a black lesbian woman can be killed by people who are supposed to protect her. I know that her body can be left abandoned on the floor. I know that her death will be explained away by people in power looking to protect themselves and direct attention away from their faults. I know that this will stoke outrage that goes unheeded by people with power. I know that people will look for reasons her death was justified. I know that the people responsible will avoid punishment however possible. I know all this, have seen it before, and even in fictional realities, I don’t want to see it again.
I don’t expect escapism in everything I watch. I’ve appreciated the ways OITNB has been explicit in the challenges faced by the women in Litchfield, and I’ve also appreciated the show’s ability to weave joy and love into scripts laden with pain. I know that, when bad things happen to the women of Litchfield, it’s supposed to make me angry. It’s intentional in how awful it is, but I continued to watch because there were moments of light in the dark of Litchfield. The women inside continued to be dynamic and charming and to make the best of a hand they’d been dealt.
So I cried over Poussey, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her since. She was one of OITNB‘s most popular characters precisely because of her ability to remain kind and compassionate and hilarious even inside Litchfield. She was charismatic, magnetic and endlessly lovable. She had friends, a family and a partner who loved her. And even if she was none of those things, had none of those things, she shouldn’t have died. But she did. And so have other other black men and women in real life.
When I’ve turned to fiction (whether it be in film or television or books) I don’t go into it looking for a happy ending. But I go into it looking for some kind of meaning. I didn’t find any here. After Poussey’s death I kept waiting for something else to come of it, for something to finally change in the cesspool that is Litchfield Penitentiary. I know what it looks like out here where we live, and I kept hoping it might look different in there where it’s written by a writer and not beholden to the real world’s twisted sense of justice. I hoped that Caputo may finally protect the women in his care, I hoped that Judy King would use what power she has to expose the truth, I hoped that any one of those (terrible, terrible guards) would be so overcome by guilt that they’d do the right thing for once.
That was always a long shot, considering how OITNB has never really allowed change to happen in Litchfield. If anything, things just get worse. But it’s hard to watch Caputo’s press conference, where little responsibility is accepted for Poussey’s murder. It’s hard to watch too much time pass before her body is removed and her father notified. It’s hard to watch those who loved her, and those who barely knew her, mourn her, while the people responsible for her death weigh their options. I needed this one time to be different, for someone with power to stand up and do something, to demand justice for a woman who shouldn’t have died. But it was exactly the same.
Other people, equally disempowered, called for Poussey to be acknowledged and for justice to be served. But in the end, Poussey’s life was less important compared to that of those who killed her. She’s dead, while they’re alive and making excuses for their actions.
It’s just too much reality right now, and I don’t know if I’ll watch OITNB‘s next season. More than being painful, Poussey’s death, and what followed, makes me angry. Being angry in the real world is hard enough without having to do it in fiction, too.