I postponed watching this latest season of Orange is the New Black because at the end of last season the plot established the role of private prisons, taking over the establishment where the women live in the series, the last scene has the women exuberant in a brief freedom facilitated through a hole in the fence leading them to a lake, while inside, beds are doubled into bunk beds. The institution of private prisons is one of those dark realities we as a society cannot confront, along with child labor making our clothes and sex slaves being bought with our marijuana profits. I did not have the mental nor emotional space to reconcile with what the show would present next – whether truthful or deception. Not as many reactions spread across my newsfeed, some critiqued the form of pain porn that is executed via these stories, others revealed that the show is created by an all white writers room and fails to offer authenticity for the Black characters.
Now I have watched it, the nearly ten hours of a series that breaks form and asks the view to confront a world purposefully removed from our sphere of encounters. I have made no deliberation on the depiction of women of color presented in this piece, but I think one area of precision is what this cultural creation does with the white characters. The range of white people presented in this show is complex, revealing, and unforgiving. They range from morally questionable, to corrupt, to selfish, to self-serving, repugnant, sociopaths and well meaning liberals. What I appreciated the most was the depictions of the private prison industry, a subject that would never gain traction in network television. The range of corporate zombies is not one simple enemy, rather it shows that the failure of those in unearned power comes from a range of motivations and when the eventual loss of life occurs, the intense focus on rationalizing to avert culpability.
In conversations I have heard commentary that the show is difficult to watch because the white lead character is so unlikable, but to me that is the critical affirmation. She is not meant to be likable, she is depicted as flawed, self-serving, oblivious to the larger context she exists within. We need cultural production that represents white people in the rainbow of disfunction our current society requires. One of the most beloved characters in killed in this season, the loss of this woman reminds the viewer that as much as we may have laughed, loved, and enjoyed these stories, the reality of prisons is that people lose their lives. No one is here to redeem us, awareness at injustice saves no one, and that we have a debt unpayable in one generation.