The latest season of Orange Is the New Black, which recently premiered on Netflix, technically takes place within a maximum security prison. While watching, though, you may wonder if the action is actually set in a prison — or in some twisted and immersive video game in which people can exert their power over a group of unwitting and powerless targets.
In order to show the the brutal realities of this new prison landscape, Orange Is the New Black ratcheted up violence against its inmates. The black-and-blue count on this season of Orange Is the New Black begins within the show's first five minutes and continues to climb steadily upward until the action-packed season finale. The women in the show are beaten, bruised, and subjected to the whims of guards whose boredom and discontent pushes them to abuses of power. It is, in a word, unbearable to watch. And yet I kept watching.
The nucleus of Orange is the New Black has always consisted of a few buzzing contradictions, swirling around like haywire electrons. A prison show, but make it quirky! Correctional officers and administrators as main characters, and make them occasionally sympathetic! After five seasons of this precedent, I entered into season 6 of Orange is the New Black ready to keep up my end of the bargain. The show would do its chaotic, idiosyncratic thing, and I would mostly laugh where I was supposed to laugh, and cringe where I was supposed to cringe at the its depiction of a cruel, broken system.
But season 6 broke that cadence for me. By the conclusion of the first episode, we've seen Dayanara (Dascha Polanco) have her ribs broken by two rabid guards; Maria (Jessica Pimentel) and Gloria (Selenis Leyva) hosed down like mangy dogs in a shower and forced to make out; and, most brutally, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) beaten in the stomach and back with a baton for simply saying she didn't want to leave her prison cell for phone time.
So, come season 6, was I cringing at the show's violent content — or was I cringing at the show itself for dramatizing that content so frequently? In season 6 of Orange is the New Black, repeated acts of violence became a crucial conduit of carrying the show's central message forward: The prisoners are voiceless.
Within the confines of Litchfield, guards possess absolute, incontrovertible control over fact and fiction. CO Ginger (Shawna Hamic) is witness to CO Hellman's (Greg Vrostos) unjustified use of force on Taystee. When she confronts him, Hellman responds measuredly, "Oh, she came after me. What was I supposed to do, you know?" Both he and Ginger know this is abjectly false. Taystee had been peaceful and non-confrontational. But a lie out of Hellman's mouth is more valid than a fact out of Taystee's — or any of the prisoners', for that matter. After all, this entire season's action centers around a state-sanctioned witch hunt for prison riot and second-degree murder perpetrators. Never mind the truth that the riot had started spontaneously by many angry prisoners, and that a guard accidentally killed Piscatella. They need names.
So this single incident outside Taystee's ad seg cell, more broadly, speaks to one of season 6's primary concerns: Who controls the narrative, and whose stories do we believe? In every incident this season, the false story wins. After all – we, the viewer, are technically the only civilians privy to the events that occur within the prison. All other events and injustices that occur inside the prison are typically not made public. In order to penetrate the cinderblock and security and reach the outside world, a story needs to be crisis-level — the riot, or the rat prank. Otherwise, MCC, the company that owns Litchfield, can spin a story any way it likes. Linda (Beth Dover) exports a veneer of a Litchfield idyll in her heavily manufactured prison video. During his redemption tour to save Taystee, Caputo (Nick Sandow) recognizes the power of stories in perpetuating MCC's dominion over the truth. By encouraging Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) to go public with a lawsuit, he's trying to chip at the false narrative bolstering MCC and perpetuating its injustices.
Given this context, the guards' prolonged violence is an important narrative tool. The prisoners are trapped within a system designed to squash their humanity. No one's there to listen to their moans of pain, their protests.
At times, though, the season was so profoundly uncomfortable to watch that I wondered: Why am I doing this to my eyes, my heart? It's the same question I had while watching this past uber-violent season of The Handmaid's Tale. Certainly, the shows diverge in terms of premise and tone. Orange is the New Black is meant to be a depiction of the brutality of America's women's prisons; The Handmaid's Tale is meant to be an imagining of what might happen if America's conservative id were unleashed to design autocratic theocracy. Orange is the New Black sprinkles in laughter among the devastation, but you'll be lucky if you laugh once during The Handmaid's Tale. Yet in both shows, women are sorted into restrictive roles and forced to bear witness to stories that no one in power will ever acknowledge.
By enduring Orange is the New Black's violence, you're also acknowledging a reality you might not ever hear of otherwise.