SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses scenes from the current season of Orange is the New Black, now out on Netflix
Race is a central concern in the new episodes of Orange is the New Black. The colour of your skin determines your prison family, what jail jobs you can get, and, most importantly, who you can take into the shower for some steamy lesbian sex. But the highly-politicized new season is far from just black and white (and Latino). The show’s fourth installment is all about exploring the shades of grey.
True to form, Orange’s latest episodes end in carnage. A peaceful inmate protest descends into chaos as inexperienced guards use punishing tactics to supress the uprising. At the centre of the fray, black prisoner Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) is pinned under the knee of a young white officer, Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg). With his attention directed elsewhere, the guard slowly squeezes more and more air out of Poussey’s slight frame.
As the commotion subsides, Bayley slowly stands up—but Poussey does not.
“Did you finish the season?” Samira Wiley asks the Straight by phone from her Toronto hotel, with a laugh. “How are you feeling? Are you okay?”
Written as a deliberate nod to the Black Lives Matter movement, the poignant scene draws parallels to recent police killings of Eric Garner, who was asphyxiated by a chokehold, and Mike Brown, who was just a child when he was shot by an officer. Like Orange is the New Black’s prison guard Bayley, neither law enforcement official faced any criminal charges.
“I think the scene was conceived really beautifully,” Wiley says. “It’s so unsettling because it happens in such a disturbingly quiet manner amongst all the chaos. And having Bayley kill Poussey is a genius choice by Jenji [Kohan, series creator]. He’s such a relatable character—he’s the officer that everyone likes. It would have been so easy to make one of the asshole guards do the crime. But life is complex, and I think we did a good job of showing that.”
“Some fans are frustrated that the show killed off a black, gay character,” she continues, “particularly because Poussey broke down so many of those stereotypes. But the fact that we’ve been able to contribute to the discussion about Black Lives Matter is the most important thing. I don’t know if there’s a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ response to the scene, but the fact that we’re raising the question makes me feel that we’re doing our job.”
Wiley has achieved that aim. Poussey’s death has opened a discussion about racial prejudice that’s already spread around the world, with Orange devotees taking to Twitter to vent their dismay at the popular inmate’s story. But the fans are not the only ones reluctant to say goodbye to the character.
“I haven’t watched the episode,” Wiley admits. “I don’t know if I ever will. The show has been such a huge part of my life for the past four years, and I don’t think that I’m completely ready to end it yet. I know that once I watch it, that’ll be me saying ‘Okay, it’s over. There’s nothing left.’ It’s silly, but the more I prolong it, the more time I have to feel that it’s still a part of me.
Elevated from an outgoing inmate to a prison martyr, Wiley’s character may not be featured in series to come, but her death will doubtless mould the future of the hit show.
“Poussey is a really huge part of Orange, and I’m sure her name will always echo through the halls of Litchfield, dead or alive,” Wiley says with a laugh. “That’s something poetic for you right there.”
Season 4 of Orange is the New Black is out now on Netflix.
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