Pop culture has an unfortunate history of killing off both Black characters and lesbians as plot devices. So how did Orange is the New Black manage to violently kill a Black lesbian and make it the complete opposite of gratuitous? Which is to say devastating, and a tragedy in the true Aristotelian sense.
I took some mental notes as I was watching/sobbing, and I’m writing them down because I think they’re relevant to anyone who cares about narrative and social justice, and narratives that advocate for social justice without feeling like a Very Special Episode (see: The L Word, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman).
- The show doesn’t introduce a character solely for the purpose of killing her. We got to know Poussey over the course of fifty episodes. We witnessed her hilarious and complicated friendship with Taystee, her overreliance on some nasty-looking hooch and her unexpected romance with Brook Soso. Thus Black lives matter, not just Black death.
- The system is the bad guy, not Bayley. The lawyers that the prison brings in to sweep the crime under the rug are slick and ruthless, straight out of an episode of Nip/Tuck. But everyone else, all the way up the chain of command, is pretty human (minus that one psychopath guard…but I guess we’ll be dealing with him in Season 4). OITNB is not the first work of pop culture to effectively convey this idea, but when Caputo throws Poussey under the bus to save Bayley, it drives home the personal fallout of such a system. “White privilege” is rapidly on its way to becoming an overused phrase, although that’s largely due to the fact that it’s an overly pervasive reality—but this event is a perfect example of it, with some hetero privilege thrown in. Bayley and Poussey had different childhoods—hers global, his provincial—but they both did okay. They were both essentially nice people. Poussey’s race and sexuality made her a target, though, and Bayley’s gave him power.
- We have to watch Taystee and Soso mourn. In Ghettoside, Jill Leovy writes about the chronic, deep-rooted grief that pervades communities in which violence is the norm. But if the people on the news who get killed don’t look like your loved ones, it’s easy to forget that they’ve left people behind (and here queer invisibility is relevant; consider all the generations of men and women who couldn’t attend their partners’ funerals, or had to do so as a “friend” or “roommate”). Taystee’s devastation is particularly palpable. “People keep saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ but she wasn’t my 80-year-old granny,” she says. (Someone give Danielle Brooks an Emmy, please.)
- The final episode flashes back to a magical night in which Poussey wanders New York, sharing cigarettes with drag queens and a bike ride with apparent monks, the city twinkling into infinity. It’s a beautiful visual poem, capturing how a life is created through a mix of randomness and connection. And those same factors can eventually beget death. But at least we got to send Poussey off with dignity. She’s not a martyr for a cause. She’s a person.