(No, seriously, don’t read any further than this line if you don’t want to spoil yourself on the end of Orange Is the New Black season four.)
If you’ve already made it through all 13 episodes of Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season — which dropped on Netflix in its entirety on Friday, June 17 — chances are you need to process the shocking events of the penultimate episode, which featured one of show’s most tragic turns to date.
Poussey (Samira Wiley) is dead, and the effects of that death will undoubtedly reverberate throughout Litchfield for seasons to come — as well they should.
Season four builds to a catastrophic altercation between the prisoners and the harsher guards brought in by Litchfield’s new for-profit overlords. And in “Animals” — the season’s 12th episode — things come to a head when the women stage a peaceful protest against the policies of tyrannical guard Piscatella (Brad William Henke).
As Piscatella directs his guards to break up the protest, they react more and more aggressively, dragging the prisoners out by any means necessary. As the attempt to shatter the protest gets more frantic, young and inexperienced guard Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) tries to fend off Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) while holding the far smaller Poussey down on the floor at the neck.
A minute later, she’s dead.
Everything about this death is a purposeful commentary on both Litchfield and the very real world outside of it
Killing Poussey can’t have been an easy decision for the show’s writers to make. Both she and Wiley are fan favorites, and the eternally optimistic Poussey has always been a (relative) shot of sunshine in otherwise bleak conditions.
That, of course, is part of the reason why this character’s death stings so badly. But there are several other factors to understand about the significance of Poussey’s death, which the show subsequently — and unabashedly — underlines in the season finale.
Poussey’s death nods toward several high-profile killings of black Americans by those in law enforcement, as well as the aftermath of those deaths. Poussey is restrained and suffocated, like Eric Garner in New York City. Her body is left on the floor for hours and hours, like Michael Brown in Ferguson.
And when the prison’s statement to the press on Poussey’s death chooses to focus on Bayley’s innocence, rather than what he did, all of the women in the prison storm out of their dorms in outrage, with Poussey’s best friend, Taystee (Danielle Brooks), screaming in anguish that they didn’t even “say her name” — the same rallying cry that emerged after Sandra Bland died while in Texas police custody.
Even outside these very obvious markers, Orange Is the New Black makes a point of showing exactly how screwed up the system is, and how little say those in custody, especially people of color, have when it comes to wrongful deaths.
Overwhelmed warden Caputo (Nick Sandow) is horrified at how the company that owns Litchfield starts digging through Poussey and Bayley’s backgrounds to find “an angle” that will absolve it of any responsibility, yet he does little to stop this search.
The guards adopt an “us versus them” mentality that makes it far too easy for them to divorce the prisoners from their humanity. When Poussey’s friends try to find out what’s going on, they’re brushed off without any consideration for the fact that their friend is lying dead on the floor, just around the corner.
Season 4 was building up to this moment. Season 5 will be about unraveling the furious aftermath.
Though season four has many, many competing storylines, just about all of them collided the second Poussey took her last, stuttering breath. The guards’ inhumane treatment of their prisoners, the women’s frustration, and the systemic bullshit that forced drastic measures (like the prison’s privatization and subsequent overcrowding) to save money all merged to become one giant mess.
Poussey became collateral damage, in the most senseless and demeaning way possible. And as sad and infuriating as it is, her death set off the powder keg of tension that had been building all season. When the prisoners sifted through the rubble, they found grief — but also, defiance.
The final shots of season 4 are a literal whirlwind, as the camera spins around Daya (Dascha Polanco) holding a particularly awful guard’s contraband gun to his head while the rest of the prison cheers her on. Whether or not she pulls the trigger, though, the season finale makes it clear that Orange Is The New Black won’t be moving on from this any time soon.