The Postsecular Spiritual Turn In “Orange Is the New Black”

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Spoiler Alert: Plot details from season four of Orange Is the New Black appear below.

Jenji Kohan’s acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black released a much-anticipated fourth season on June 17. Where religion has heretofore served as a primary thematic emphasis for the program, in its most recent iteration religion recedes to the narrative edges.

In earlier seasons, Orange Is the New Black addressed richly detailed and widely varying accounts of religion. Over the course of season three, for example, Norma Romano (played by Annie Golden) cultivated a new religious movement dedicated to her own veneration; Cindy Hayes (Adrienne Moore) pursued religious education and eventually converted to Judaism; and Suzanne Warren’s (Uzo Aduba) serial fiction garnered a fandom that Kohan presents as at least a quasi-religious formation. Even minor characters like Leanne Taylor (Emma Myles) received significant treatment in relation to religion, with the revelation that she grew up in an Amish community and found her way to prison after a Rumspringa misadventure. And where the season concluded with mass escape into Litchfield Penitentiary’s adjacent lake, its depths served as a mikveh to seal Cindy’s adoption of Judaism with ritual immersion. Religion, in other words, has been a consistent preoccupation for Orange Is the New Black.

In its fourth season, however, Kohan employs religious symbols and practices as background elements that function in service of other themes. The season emphasizes the role of racial and ethnic prejudice at Litchfield and the hierarchies and inequalities of wealth and social class, underscoring tensions created in the assertion of collective identities. Kohan has explained that, in the fourth season, “[w]e start with political agendas, the corporatization of the prison, the stratification of people into their little mosaic groups.” This includes “all the fun stuff like race and hate and some things from current events that we wanted to filter through our lens.”

Skirmishes over identity indeed supply much of the season’s narrative fodder. Dominicans denounce Puerto Ricans. African-Americans, Latinas, and Euro-Americans all brook conflict with one another. The massive Management & Corrections Corporation disregards the local needs and human rights of Litchfield’s residents, pitting tribes of correctional officers and inmates against one another. And the variable treatment of inmates within and between minimum security, maximum security, and solitary confinement stratifies wealth and privilege behind Litchfield’s walls.

In this conflictual mélange, religion plays a secondary yet significant role. Without entirely erasing religion, the show’s new installment holds in tension religion’s role in facilitating violent political forms with individual expressions of religion imagined as spirituality.

Where earlier seasons represented the religious vibrancy and innovation among Litchfield Penitentiary’s inhabitants, its recent episodes reveal forms of disenchantment and the trivialization of religion. As the season begins, for example, and a horde of new inmates are introduced to the population, the newly converted Cindy is assigned a Muslim bunkmate, Alison Abdullah. The two are initially portrayed as locked in a microcosmic emulation of conflict between Judaism and Islam. Kohan bluntly establishes the terms of their engagement, depicting Cindy’s installation of a handicraft mezuzah on her bunk wall, and drawing attention to Abdullah’s headscarf. Here, the program makes recourse to perceptions of religion as a source of violence and division by referencing obvious religious objects and garments. But this squabble is ultimately shown to be superficial: by the sixth episode, the bunkmates share jokes about the absurdity of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, and Abdullah’s veil is shown to be a convenient cover to hide a contraband smartphone.

Such trivializing portrayals of religion come alongside more profound expressions of disenchantment. Midway through the season, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) falls out with a faction of Latina inmates with whom she has competed in a contraband-profit enterprise. In order to protect her profit-making operations, Piper exploits Litchfield’s racial tensions, pitting her Latina business rivals against a racist white nationalist faction of inmates. Taking revenge, Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) oversees the capture of Piper, holding her forearm over a stovetop burner in the prison kitchen and searing a swastika brand into her skin. In episode eight, Piper’s friends return with her to the kitchen in order to disguise the brand by burning additional marks around its edges to form the shape of a square window. Presiding over this ritual of rectification, Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) pronounces: “When God gives you a swastika, he opens a window. And then you remember, there is no God.” Here, Kohan turns to the question of theodicy by depicting her characters’ grappling with belief in a god when confronted by obvious evil, exemplified in Piper’s torture and amplified by the allusions to Nazism in her brand and to communism in Red’s Russian heritage, unmistakable in Mulgrew’s thickly pronounced accent. Through Red’s incantation, recited alongside images of Piper’s scarred flesh, Kohan gestures to the experience of disenchantment, of the loss of faith in traditional religious beliefs and practices in the face of political violence and human cruelty. If Orange Is the New Black has previously given voice to the creativity and vitality inspired by religion, in this scene, it ponders the futility of religion.

Despite the gravity of Red’s reflections on theism, recognizably religious elements appear infrequently in season four. But Kohan introduces a subtle depiction of spirituality, increasing in prominence as the episodes proceed, that represents an important shift in the program’s contemplation of religion. Even though Red announces a weighty negation of religion, she also exemplifies season four’s spiritual turn.

In the concluding episode, as Litchfield’s community reels from the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), Red gathers the members of her chosen prison family to recite a passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Supported by quiet music, Red reads:

The garden is one of the two great metaphors for humanity. … [T]he garden is about life and beauty and the impermanence of all living things. The garden is about feeding your children, providing food for the tribe. It’s part of an urgent territorial drive that we can probably trace back to animals storing food. It’s a competitive display mechanism, like having a prize bull, this greed for the best tomatoes and English tea roses; it’s about winning, about providing society with superior things, and about proving that you have taste and good values and you work hard. And what a wonderful relief every so often to know who the enemy is—because in the garden, the enemy is everything: the aphids, the weather, time. And so you pour yourself into it, care so much, and see up close so much birth and growth and beauty and danger and triumph—and then everything dies anyway, right? But you just keep doing it. What a great metaphor!

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SOURCE: The Revealer
Geoffrey Pollick

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