If there’s any TV show that knows exactly how much consent can change an interaction on a dime, it’s Orange Is the New Black.
Every single thing the incarcerated women of Litchfield do is either under the direct watch and command of a guard — with seemingly unlimited powers, especially when unsupervised — or it’s a direct act of defiance against that kind of blanket authority.
This isn’t exactly new territory for the show. Other seasons of Orange Is the New Black have waded into the waters of what consent means inside the walls of a prison.
There was Daya’s relationship with guard Bennett, which was often sold as a fairy-tale love story, with twinkly music and starry-eyed makeout sessions in broom closets. But then Daya got pregnant and Bennett took off for good, leaving her stuck in an impossible situation and reminding us that the power imbalance between prisoners and guards is vast.
But season four has some of the most explicit and complex discussions of consent I’ve ever seen on television. And in a time when there is still so much confusion surrounding consent and anger when it’s violated — as demonstrated recently with the Stanford sexual assault victim’s powerful letter to her assailant spreading like righteous wildfire — this isn’t just a conversation worth having but one that’s urgently necessary.
"There is no such thing as a consensual relationship between a prisoner and a guard"
The moment I knew things would be different came in season four’s fourth episode ("Doctor Psycho"), as Red (Kate Mulgrew) hisses at hangdog guard Healy (Michael Harney), "There’s no such thing as a consensual relationship between a prisoner and a guard."
Though Red and Healy get along fairly well, all things considered, Healy and other guards like him constantly forget that the women they’re overseeing aren’t doing things for them because they want to, but because they have to.
In that same episode, the show’s handling of Pennsatucky’s rape unfolds in a surprising way — not because it’s unrealistic but because television rarely approaches the aftermath of sexual assault in such a personal, complicated way.
When, after unsuccessfully trying to avoid Coates, Pennsatucky finally tells him she’s trying to get over the fact that he raped her, a visceral horror creeps over his face. (It’s worth noting here that both Manning and McMenamin are astonishingly good in this scene, which requires such specific, layered reactions.)
"But I love you," Coates sputters. "That makes it different." But even as he says the words, he knows they’re not right. They glance off her wincing face.
"It doesn’t feel different," she says. As she walks away, Coates struggles to understand what just happened — and it becomes clear that he’s never had to think about consent any harder than he has at this exact moment.
Throughout the season, Coates grapples with the weight of what he did, what it means about him, and what it means for Pennsatucky. Giving a rapist so much screen time to parse his feelings might seem like a jarring choice, but Orange Is The New Black finds a way to make his disgust and confusion a vital part of the conversation, without letting it take over completely.
Coates’s acceptance that he crossed a major line in a moment he can never take back — even if he didn’t realize what he was explicitly doing — is huge. Media is so full of rapes that happen out of nowhere, rapes that end in immediate death, rapes committed by remorseless monsters. When someone commits sexual assault in any situation more complicated than those incredibly basic, facile scenarios, they become fraught with pedantic bullshit.
It’s significant that Orange Is the New Black doesn’t just show Pennsatucky’s reaction to her rape. Instead, it forces Coates to reconsider everything he thought was true, to confront the ugliness inside him and surrounding him that pushed him to a place where he could ignore a woman’s needs for his own basic pleasure. He didn’t think he was raping her, but that doesn’t matter.
And now he knows it.
In this fourth season, almost every major conflict concerns matters of consent
Even outside of Coates and Pennsatucky, Orange Is the New Black shows us in season four just how bad things can get when someone doesn’t understand how consent works.
We see the more immediate ramifications of guards giving prisoners drugs in exchange for sexual favors. We see the inverse, with cooking personality Judy King (Blair Brown) using her powerful lawyers to help get someone out of maximum-security prison as a favor for a guard, only to blackmail him into sex herself.
And as the season heads toward its devastating climax (click that link at your own risk of spoilers), we see just how much damage unchecked power can cause, as Litchfield’s new set of guards impose a zero-tolerance policy that often takes the form of actual torture.
Defiant prisoners are told to stand on a cafeteria table for hours as the guards wait for their "knees to give out," and anyone who tries to give them food or drink gets to "crawl back to their bunks." Twisted new officer Humphrey (Michael Torpey) prefers mind games over physical, forcing Maritza (Diane Guerrero) to make a horrifying choice in a sick game of "would you rather?" in one of the series’ most disturbing scenes to date. Eventually he makes the prisoners fight one another, Gladiator style, just because he got bored.
Crucially, none of these things happens lightly. Maritza loses some of the snappy sparkle we’ve come to expect from her, holding her trauma and shame to her shaky chest. All the prisoners both involved in and surrounding Humphrey’s Hunger Games machinations recognize his actions as something particularly disgusting, and band together despite their previous differences to push back together against him and the guards who stood idly by.
Many shows stumble while portraying issues of consent, power, and the abuse of both. But by giving the aftershocks of these seismic events enough time to unfold, Orange Is the New Black sifts through the wreckage for all the messy nuances in more depth than another show could — or, more likely, ever would.