Orange is the New Black Finale is Riddled with Heavy-Handed Politics, Jarring Storytelling

Written by Dylan Brandsema

OITNB_S4_BUNKS_US

EPISODE 413: “TOAST CAN’T NEVER BE BREAD AGAIN”

A handful of years ago, my friends and I had a bad experience at the top of a roller coaster. It was the Nitro ride at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ and it had just re-opened after being closed for repairs for a couple of weeks. We waited in line for over an hour to ride, and our excitement was high.

We got on The carts pulled slowly around the turn to go up the hill for the first initial drop. Up and up we went, for what seemed like ages. As we came closer to the top of the hill, our excitement climaxed. Then just as it was about drop, it froze again. It was bad enough that the ride got stuck after just re-opening. It was made worse as time went on and we were stuck at the highest point for a full hour and a half for reasons no park employees could seem to explain. After hours, park staff aided us down the seemingly never ending flight of stairs down to the ground, and everyone left grumpy and dissatisfied. The night ended in a disappointing and messy non-climax.

Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden for Netflix
Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden for Netflix

Orange is the New Black’s Season 4 Finale “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” feels like that night on the roller coaster. Episodes 9-12 gave us a different kind of lead-up to the finale than we’ve seen previously. It was slower paced and darker in tone with a catastrophic, explosive, almost painful-to-watch tipping point at the end of episode 12.

However, after all this tension that’s been built up, the season finale feels like a total flatline. 90% of the 77-minute runtime is spent – or at least feels like it’s spent – waiting for something happen. When things do finally kick into overdrive in the final 15 minutes, it feels contrived and phony.

The writers proved that it was extremely difficult keep up the level of drama while attempting to wrap most of the season’s ongoing threads. It felt like an obvious checklist of storylines being dwindled down simply for the purpose of obligatory closure. None of the conclusions to the ongoing story arcs felt genuine.

OITNB2

This closing of the doors on ongoing threads is mixed steadily with the new dilemma surrounding the accidental murder of Poussey (Samira Wiley). In a nutshell, it goes like this:

  • Poussey’s body is lying on the floor of the cafeteria all day and disturbing the other inmates.
  • Caputo (Nick Sandow) is struggling to keep the MCC in check without causing total hysteria in the wake of this disaster.
  • Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) falls into a deep depression after realizing the effects of his misdirection and later resigns from his position.
  • Poussey’s friends spearhead a movement among inmates to overthrow the prison as a response.
  • The higher powers of the MCC attempt to skewer Poussey’s public image so it doesn’t look as bad on their part.

To give credit where credit is due, that last one is where the episode gets its chops. In cases like this, mainstream media often points to the victim’s background, highlighting the negative aspects of their life, thus showing them in a criminal light. Context, or even a person’s innocence is obscured by this. The scenes in MCC offices where men in suits scroll through Poussey’s internet history for find something that will make her look like the bad guy are infuriating (“Does this picture look thuggy to you?”) They’re also accurate in the way that every person involved in the situation seems to have their own version of the story — whether they were there or not. At the very least, these scenes are doing a service to educate the viewer to look at context and details of these situations when they occur, regardless of whatever agenda mainstream media might be pushing.

However, this also where the episode seems to be politically biased, and not in a way that works in the episode’s favor. There’s an obvious attempt throughout the episode to comment on not only the ever-growing Black Lives Matter movement, but police brutality and corruption.

Photo Credit:  JoJo Whilden/Netflix
Photo Credit: JoJo Whilden/Netflix

The hamfisted, overbearing political narrative woven throughout episode not only completely ruins the experience of watching the episode, but it completely contradicts the context of the story when you consider that Poussey’s death was accidental. It is absolutely pitiful that the delivery is so wholeheartedly one-sided. It’s become obvious throughout the last portion of the season that these new COs are corrupt and proud of it. I guess what we didn’t know is that somehow these COs represent all federal prison guards. The narrative makes no sense however you spin it. Obviously the political and social commentary in the episode is meant to be provocative, and on that ground, it succeeds. It’s just too bad they didn’t take their lessons of reality and context, as I mentioned before in the previous paragraph, and apply it here. Instead we get hyperbolic, driveling nonsense.

The episode’s politics and story finally tie together at the end when everything gets turned up to 11 in the a blink of an eye. The Litchfield inmates stage a full-scale overthrowing, inciting physical violence on the COs for what they have done and the aftermath that followed. It all starts when Caputo gives into MCC pressure and tells the media that Bayley was “a victim of circumstances” and that he stands by his actions. A twist like this is usually what can turn a mediocre episode into a good. Yet, in the case of “Toast Can’t Ever Be Bread Again,” the chaos and mayhem that make up the final scenes bring the episode from mediocre, unexceptional status into totally reprehensible and abominable territory.

Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden for Netflix
Photo Credit: Jojo Whilden for Netflix

There are two things that prevent the ending from being not only credible, but believable. The first is character perspective. The episode switches back and forth between the inmates, the COs, and Caputo at a steady enough rate to show us every side of the story. But, when the ending hits, it falls prey to its own actions. From whose perspective are we supposed to seeing this full-scale overthrow of the prison? It’s impossible to sympathize with anybody stuck in the situation.

The second, more prominent problem with the ending is buying into the twist. For so long Caputo has been a sympathetic character to these women, and now, without any explanation, he decides it’s in his best interests to go with the corporate agenda. It doesn’t make any sense that Caputo would take this leap so abruptly. It’s an obvious attempt by the writers to take an episode that was going nowhere and bring it to some sort of desperate, predictable conclusion. Seriously, I could’ve seen Caputo’s turn around coming even if I was watching with the sound off.

And Daya (Dascha Polanco) grabbing Humps’s (Michael Torpey) gun and threatening to murder COs was even more predictable and even less believable. Of course it’s impossible to fathom. But, of course it’s going to happen because she’s supposed to be behaving now that her mother is free. How convenient, right? It’s almost an admirable attempt at what can almost be classified as shock value. Almost.

But let’s bring it back and look at the big picture. Despite the crazy ending, and despite the artificial politics, the biggest problem with this finale is the tone. It’s not that the tone is unfitting or inappropriate. It’s that…there isn’t one. It’s just kind of neutral. I wouldn’t exactly label it as boring, so much as uninspired. Even when long withstanding plot threads are being tied up or people are arguing, it never really feels like there’s any reason to care. Even in this season’s premiere when there was essentially nothing happening, the throughline keeping it all together was still interesting enough to keep the audience invested. Here, it’s like looking at a rock and waiting for it to move. A tonal plateau, if you will.

“Toast Can’t Be Never Be Bread Again” feels like total and outright middle finger to every single episode that came before it not just because of what happens, but how and why it happens. This is likely the worst episode of Orange Is The New Black, which is a huge shame when you consider how (mostly) great this 4th season has been.

I haven’t yet mentioned the episode’s flashback sequences. The episode is bookended by, as well as frequently intercut with more of Poussey’s already established backstory. The first scene begins by easing our pain, reintroducing her on a bus with some friends, essentially going wherever it will take her (“Is this the bus to the underworld?”). Later, we see her spend time in an off-beat dance club with a group of drag queens just so she can use one of their cell phones. Towards the end, she runs into a bushel of monks and starts pontificating on life. But alas, they’re not actually monks – just participants of Improv Everywhere posing as monks. They continue to pontificate anyway. At the very end of the episode, after all of the madness at Litchfield ensues, Poussey stands near the edge of the ocean by herself. Suddenly, she looks in the direction of the camera, cracks us a playful, innocent smile, and the episode ends with the traditional orange flash to black fade.

What this Poussey Washington Variety Hour is supposed to add to the episode other than eating up runtime is beyond me, but it brings to mind the series finale of HBO’s The Newsroom, in which the character of Charlie Skinner’s history was further explored after his death, which occurred – also by accident – just an episode earlier. It came across in that show as meandering and pointless, and the same effect occurs here in spades. It is a complete and utter misfire, to put it plainly. I think the roller coaster is stuck again, and I’d like to get off now.

OVERALL RATING: 4/10