Jun 18, 2020
Orange is the New Black: Why a beloved character didn’t have to die (and why she did)
NOTE: This article will discuss major spoilers from Season 4 of “Orange Is the New Black”. Like, seriously major. If you haven’t finished bingeing this season, please remove yourself from the rock you’ve been living under and find the nearest Netflix account before proceeding any further reading.
Alright, we all know Orange is the New Black is a dark comedy, but man, did this season get dark.
In addition to dealing with overcrowding in prisons, power-abusing guards, white supremacist gangs, and the bureaucratic evils of for-profit prisons, season 4 demonstrated exactly how awful prison is when the Litchfield inmates’ peaceful protest went horribly awry and resulted in the death of beloved character Poussey Washington.
Fan reaction was swift, of course. “I can’t believe they killed Poussey like that!” people typed on Twitter. “Wait, wha?” asked the people who were still on episode 5 and still knew of things like hope and love. “Damn who’s this new porn star?” responded the horny people who were in the wrong tag and still knew of things like hope and love.
“I thought Poussey Riot meant something else. Where’s the naked chicks?”
As it usually does, fan grief quickly turned to fan anger as people began to protest the writer’s decision to kill off Poussey and their handling of the aftermath of her death. However, their protests went beyond petty demands to resurrect a beloved character. People in the “Poussey Shouldn’t Have Died” camp pointed out that her death was yet another frustrating instance of killing yet another lesbian character dying for the sake of plot. Critics of the penultimate episode also accused the writers exploiting the deaths of black and gay people at the hands of the corrupt justice system for the sake of cheap entertainment and a weak attempt at social commentary.
Meanwhile, the “It Sucks Poussey Died But I Respect the Writers’ Decision” camp argued that Poussey’s death was used to draw attention to the serious problems of police and prison brutality and her death was not a cheap stunt for ratings like other shocking show deaths are. Even Samira Wiley, the actress who played Poussey, has defended her character’s death in multiple interviews. In an interview with Variety, she states, “I feel like a lot of people’s anger is directed toward the show; they’re upset at the show. I want people to be upset, but I want them to be upset that this is a thing that happens in real life.”
But, as we all know, creator intent does not necessarily overrule audience response. Yet, the audience of Orange is the New Black is divided as to how to respond. Should they boycott the next season? Should they keep watching? And the fact of the matter still is, did Poussey need to die and did the show succeed in its attempts to make the point about corruption of the justice system?
Personally, I’m of two minds on this subject so let’s walk through the basic arguments of both camps.
Was Poussey’s death necessary for the sake of the narrative?
Poussey Shouldn’t Have Died: Why couldn’t the writers have made it so the prison protest in “The Animals” succeeded instead of killing Poussey off? Although the factions of the prison initially couldn’t agree on the best way to oust Piscatella, the spontaneous protest showed that they would be willing to put aside their differences long enough to fight against the guards. Additionally, Caputo was already becoming disillusioned with the MCC bureaucracy so it was only a matter of time before he fired Piscatella himself. Additionally, if Poussey was severely injured instead of murdered, it would have led to the same effects: it would have created enough of a scandal for Caputo would have been forced to rein in his guards and stand up to MCC. Plus, the prisoners would have still united together to keep from another inmate from being hurt. Maybe Judy King would have finally used her celebrity status to advocate for Poussey instead of just using it to procure MDMA and threesomes. It would have been great character development for her and you know what else is an added bonus? POUSSEY WOULD STILL BE ON THE SHOW.
It Sucks Poussey Died But I Respect the Writers’ Decision: If Poussey hadn’t died, would the season have ended on the cliffhanger of Daya Diaz holding a gun to CO Humphrey’s head? No, it wouldn’t have. Sophia Burset being trapped in SHU wasn’t enough. The Latina inmates being regularly groped and harassed during stop-and-frisks wasn’t enough. CO Humphrey forcing Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren and Maureen Kukudio to fight wasn’t enough. Only the death of a charming, well-liked inmate was what finally pushed all sides over the edge. And it had to be someone who was well-liked, both by fellow Litchfield inmates and viewers. Viewers wouldn’t have cared as much if a minor character was killed and they definitely wouldn’t have cared as much if Poussey wasn’t so close to achieving happiness after prison. Unfortunately, writers make us care about stuff by dangling hope and then snatching it away. Although it’s heartbreaking, it’s effective. The fact that we’re all upset about Poussey’s death proves it.
Is Poussey’s death exploiting black trauma for entertainment?
Poussey Shouldn’t Have Died: Orange is the New Black is billed as a “comedy-drama” but it was extremely disrespectful for them to try to cram in humor post-Poussey’s death. Brooke Soso–you know, Poussey’s girlfriend who just said “I love you” in the previous episode–was barely seen while several scenes were devoted to Leanne and Angie’s various hijinks. Maritza and Flaca practiced crying for any potential news vans and possibilities of fame while Taystee and the rest of Poussey’s prison family actually grieved for their friend. What’s worse, the writers tried to makes the audience sympathize with CO Baxter Bayley, the guard who murdered Poussey. By including flashbacks that portray Bayley as a misguided kid, the writers just lent more weight to the defenders of Darren Wilson, George Zimmerman, and other power-abusing cops instead of the people being abused by cops. The writers could have saved the “Hey, sometimes prison guards are also prisoners of the system!” storyline for another time and not at the expense of a beloved character.
It Sucks Poussey Died But I Respect the Writers’ Decision: Everything about Poussey’s death invoked the most high-profile cases of police brutality against black people–she choked out, “I can’t breathe” just like Freddie Gray did, her body was left out in the cafeteria for hours like Mike Brown’s was, Taystee cried that none of the MCC employees didn’t even “say her name” just like the mourners of Sandra Bland did, and the MCC employees tried to figure out a way to demonize Poussey to avoid responsibility as seen over and over in the media circus. Poussey’s death was symbolic of everything wrong with the current prison system and the decision to have her killed by one of the more sympathetic guards forces viewers to see that even if you’re a “good person”, you can still be complicit in harming others. If she was killed by Piscatella, Humphrey, or any of the other malicious guards, it would have been the standard “Sadistic Prison Guard” trope and taught the viewer nothing. We already know the prison system is bad but when it happens to a fictional character we all love, it becomes a lot more real and forces us to reconsider our apathy for past and future cases of police brutality.
Is Poussey’s death an example of the Bury Your Gays trope?
Poussey Shouldn’t Have Died: Yup. Gay character almost about to achieve a happy ending? Check. Gay character dies tragically? Check. It’s not that gay characters can’t die in fiction but it’s frustrating that gay characters tend to die more often than their straight counterparts. People were rightfully furious when The 100 killed off a prominent lesbian character shortly after she almost achieved a happy ending. How is Poussey’s death any different?
It Sucks Poussey Died But I Respect the Writers’ Decision: When you look at the death toll on Orange is the New Black, Poussey is the only second lesbian character to be killed onscreen. The rest–Vee Parker, Rosa Cisneros, RJ, Aydin Bayat–have been heterosexual, or at least assumed to be. It’s tragic that Poussey died but there are other lesbian and bisexual characters still at Litchfield. Besides, the show is set at a women’s prison. It’d be unrealistic if tragedy didn’t hit the characters, regardless of their sexuality.
No matter which side you’re on, Poussey is dead and we will all have to wait until season 5 to see the rest of the aftermath of her death. Will you be watching?
Which camp do you belong in? Sound off in the comments below!