Netflix

For the fourth season of Orange Is the New Black, Spencer Kornhaber and Sophie Gilbert are discussing the series via recaps, taking turns to analyze one episode at a time. Spoilers abound; don’t read further than you’ve watched.


Episode 1, ‘Work That Body for Me’

Orange Is the New Black’s third season ended on one of the most joyful television scenes ever, with Litchfield’s women splashing together in a lake and enjoying a fleeting moment of peace and freedom on a show normally defined by conflict and confinement. If it were on a traditional network, perhaps facing threat of cancellation for being too racy or weird, you might have wondered if the scene was insurance of sorts: The series could have ended after that episode and been considered a classic.

But Netflix’s business model may dictate that Orange keeps going until the sun burns out or at least the American correctional system is totally overhauled (ugh, is the former more likely imminent?). The season four premiere therefore had two tasks: orchestrating a comedown after all the lakeshore euphoria, and demonstrating how the show can stay fresh after three years in one confined setting. “Work That Body for Me” overdelivered on both fronts—it was a gloriously brutal comedown, and an excitingly major reset.

Alex’s saga—being barely saved from strangulation, having to deliver a coup de grace to her incapacitated attacker, and then chopping him up—created some of Orange’s darkest scenes yet. But there were smaller moments of grim emotional whiplash after the lake, too: Suzanne’s unraveling romance with the loopy Kukudio, the arrival of unfriendly C.O. Desi Piscatella, Piper’s infected tattoo, everyone else’s infected post-swimming flesh. Orange Is the New Black has always, like all great modern TV shows, embraced emotional duality. But the image of sunflowers disguising a decaying corpse—set to the joyfully ridiculous aggression of Papa Roach—suggests the show is embracing that duality with more enthusiasm than ever.

It's also looking for ways to reinvigorate its formula. The old Litchfield inmates looked at their new neighbors in fear and trepidation (well, except for Big Boo, hyped for the incoming “mandala of pussy”), but there’s reason for viewers, at least, to be excited at the fresh cast. It means a whole batch of new stories and characters that should have no reason to be less fascinating than the old ones. Though the newbies mostly remained blank faces for this episode, a few stood out as possible sources of intrigue: a soft-spoken but sharpminded Polynesian roommate for Piper, a properly face-tattooed rival for Piper, and a celebrity homemaker in possession of even more privilege than Piper.

Ah yes, Piper, the onetime protagonist turned roaming, glassy-eyed troll. Once upon a time, her character was defined by her smarts as much as she was by her obliviousness. But the ratio of those traits is totally out of whack at the start of season four, with her mistaking the clamor about the lake to be fearful scurrying due to her cold revenge against Stella. Her confusion (and FOMO) is a joke, but it's also serious. If she so gravely misjudges the women who’ve been her company behind bars for so long, it’s likely she’ll make even bigger errors when dealing with the new arrivals.

Despite all this change—including the fact that this kickoff episode featured no flashbacks—the main appeal of the show seems to remain intact: the banter. The kind of zingers viewers have come to expect came from familiar jesters like Lolly (“What’s your friend’s name? Stout? Cylinder?” “Piper”) and Cindy (“I’m bored! Can’t we have a race war?”). But it was the new arrival Judy King who showed the most surprising amount of comic potential. Beneath her southern-belle schtick she boasts nontraditional views on monogamy and the guts to joke about her predicament (“I’m in prison now, it’s hardened me,” she quipped to her boytoy before even being fully booked). “Look at you!” Luschek exclaimed upon realizing who exactly he’s dealing with. “Just don’t look too close,” she replied, intriguingly.

Best line: The interstellar being Lolly, discovering emojis at an inopportune time: “I like the kitty with the heart eyes. And the alien. But that’s not how aliens really look.”

Questions: What kind of characters should we hope to see in the new group of inmates? Can C.O. Piscatella be as awful as he seems? Any theories on what in Kukudio’s file shocked Caputo? What's with the sunflowers motif? And, given the arrival of Cindy’s headscarfed roommate, does this show really need a plotline about Jewish/Muslim relations?

Read the review of the next episode here.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.