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Let’s talk about that heartbreaking death on ‘Orange Is the New Black’

Scenes from Season 4 of “Orange Is the New Black.” (JoJo Whilden/Netflix)
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Warning: This contains major spoilers for the fourth season of “Orange Is the New Black.”

The penultimate episode of “Orange Is the New Black’s” powerful fourth season features the death of a major character. Many fans are still grieving (and yes, grief is the right word) after the murder of Poussey Washington by a correctional officer at Litchfield, the show’s fictional prison.

Poussey, played by Washington native Samira Wiley, has been a fan favorite since “OITNB” premiered in 2013. The death of the character — who is black and lesbian — comes amid increased attention to the deaths of LGBTQ characters and characters of color on television, who are killed off at a disproportionate rate in comparison to their straight, white counterparts. Vox estimates that about 10 percent of the character deaths occurring in the 2015-2016 season were women who identified as LGBTQ. Some fans have protested Poussey’s death on Twitter and Tumblr with the hashtag #PousseyDeservedBetter, which fans planned to use in a coordinated effort to get the topic trending Thursday afternoon. It’s a variation of the hashtag that surfaced in March when CW’s dystopian drama “The 100” killed off a prominent lesbian character.

TV keeps killing off lesbian characters. The fans of one show have revolted.

It’s a somewhat paradoxical source of controversy for “Orange Is the New Black,” a show that prominently features women of color and characters who identify as lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Despite that representation, some fans still see Poussey’s death as a reflection of harmful tropes that see LGBT characters die shortly after finding love or general happiness. Poussey, who was so depressed last season that her frequent drinking (of DIY prison hooch) became a cause of concern for her friends, spent much of this season falling in love. In the same episode that featured her death, Poussey and her girlfriend, fellow inmate Brook Soso, share a beautiful and tender moment — slow dancing to no music, and discussing their future together. 

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There are layers to Poussey’s death that complicate the discussion. “Orange Is the New Black’s” fourth season has been generally well received (it boasts a favorable score of 86 on Metacritic), and praised for powerful social commentary about the prison-industrial complex, race and privilege. Poussey is killed after correctional officers violently dismantle the inmates’ peaceful demonstration, pulling them off of the cafeteria tables where they were standing defiantly in protest of unfair practices by the prison guards.

The “Orange Is the New Black” writers weren’t subtle in drawing connections to the deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of police and the ensuing Black Lives Matter movement. Poussey tries to calm Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), who is traumatized from being forced (by a correctional officer) to fight another inmate. Baxter Bayley, the prison’s youngest and most naive guard, throws Poussey to the ground, with his knee placed firmly into her back and his hand against the back of her neck. As guards forcibly remove inmates from the tables, Bayley fails to realize that Poussey is struggling to breathe. It isn’t until her close friend, Taystee (Danielle Brooks), calls out to her from across the room that another guard pulls Bayley off of Poussey. By then, it is too late.

Poussey’s body remains in the cafeteria for hours after she is killed. The following day’s breakfast is served outside because prison administrators have yet to remove her body or call the police to report her death. MCC, the corporation that owns Litchfield, brings in a PR consultant, who tries to spin the series of events in a way that makes Poussey, estimated to weigh about 90 pounds, the aggressor. MCC goes through her social media accounts to try to find a menacing picture. When that doesn’t pan out, they focus on painting Bayley as an untrained prison guard who went against orders. In the end, Caputo, the prison’s generally well-intentioned warden, chooses to publicly defend the guard’s actions, angering the inmates who have barely had time to mourn Poussey.

Done with ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 4? Let’s talk about it.

“OITNB” follows a number of shows — “Scandal” and “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” among them — that have pulled from police-involved killings in crafting storylines. For some “OITNB” fans, the Black Lives Matter storyline is overshadowed by the show’s decision to kill off a beloved black, lesbian character. For her part, Wiley told Vulture that she thinks the show succeeded in conveying a powerful story and that she feels “honored” to have been instrumental in telling it.

“Some people who love ‘Orange Is the New Black’ don’t know what ‘Black Lives Matter’ is,” Wiley said. “They don’t have a black friend and they don’t have a gay friend, but they know Poussey from TV and they feel just like you said — you feel like you knew her.”

“Orange Is the New Black” has already been renewed for three more seasons, and it is hard to imagine the show without Poussey, who was featured heavily through flashbacks in the Season 4 finale. Fans of Wiley can find some solace in an announcement this week that the actress will have a recurring role on the next season of FXX’s “You’re the Worst,” which returns Aug. 31. She’ll play therapist to Gretchen, who memorably revealed last season that she suffers from clinical depression.


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Recap: Season 4, Episodes 1 and 2

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Recap: Season 4, Episodes 8-10

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