Take a vacation from Westeros via a show confronting complex human politics head on.
Game of Thrones is over for another year, and as we all pick up the pieces of our shattered lives in the glow of our high definition television screens, we begin to wonder which show is going to fill the void left absent by everyone’s favourite fantasy. Will we turn to the Gothic styling of Penny Dreadful? Or perhaps we should go looking for something a little more contemporary.
After a couple of episodes it becomes apparent the conceit is merely a window for us to view a microcosm of society
As popular television moves further into the realms of fantasy, science fiction and super-heroics, it is becoming more difficult to find an engaging show which tackles modern, domestic issues. Orange is the New Black is not only casting an eye over the 21st century human condition, but it is not as dissimilar to Game of Thrones as one might think, which makes for an easier transition from the fantasy world of Westeros to the harsh reality of Litchfield Prison.
On the surface, Orange is the New Black completes the high concept formula that every show seems to have these days, but after a couple of episodes it becomes apparent the conceit is merely a window for us to view a microcosm of society. Even the central character of Piper is becoming no more or less important than the other inmates and staff of the prison, who have come to represent the social, racial and gender divides we experience in our daily lives.
Whereas Westeros has the Seven Kingdoms and a rigid class structure, where various Houses jockey for a position to rule over the populace, Litchfield has various facilities dedicated to running the prison allocated to different racial or social groups. The kitchen is run by the Spanish-Americans, custodial by the African-Americans, the electrical department is run by the Caucasians and the greenhouse by the senior citizens.
The women of Litchfield embrace their outsider status and regain power in prison, a place designed to engender powerlessness
These relationships open up a conversation about the way society pigeonholes people by their position in the social pecking order. Stereotypes dictate that African-Americans are janitors and that being elderly means they have “outgrown their usefulness”, so they must be annexed from society. The way the women of Litchfield undercut this is by embracing their outsider status and regaining some power within the prison, a place designed to engender powerlessness.
Like the various Houses in Game of Thrones, these self-described families conduct power plays amongst each other and the rest of the prison to corner the market of smuggling in contraband. Unlike the population of Westeros, it is not territory or riches that these women crave, but pantyhose, lip gloss and a cigarette or two, exploring the idea of forging our own identity beyond the sum of our material possessions.
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In Westeros, those who sit around the Iron Throne try their hardest to manipulate the course of events to their advantage, proving the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In Orange is the New Black, those staff members who are subordinates of the prison’s Warden (a character who is noticeable by their complete absence) range from the dictatorial to the outright inept. However, Litchfield is not a monarchy, as much as Assistant Warden Figueroa would like it to be. Instead, it is a barely functioning bureaucracy.
This bureaucracy brings into focus the real strength of Orange is the New Black, and another similarity it shares with Game of Thrones: the characters. Both shows share a real knack for complex characterisation. If a character first appears to be a villain, there is always a clear motivation or an insight into their life that allows for a least a little sympathy. Conversely, if a character is presented as heroic, there will always be a tiny flaw that humanises them.
OITNB doesn’t provide an allegory for human politics through a fantastical lens, but rather confronts them head on
This particular characterisation is personified in Sam Healy, the prison’s chief Corrections Officer. He does not do anything to actively harm the inmates, but his commitment to complete inaction is almost as devastating. Healy can come off as a villain in the women’s day to day lives, but we come to learn that his once youthful idealism has just been so utterly crushed by decades of bureaucratic mismanagement that he has almost given up. However, over the course of two seasons, he is returning to that earlier idealism and finding that he can still make a difference. He is a very flawed but also very human character.
If you are bemoaning the thought of a post-Game of Thrones life now that the show is over for another year, Orange is the New Black has exactly what you need. Both of its seasons are available in full on Netflix and provide that fascinating interplay of narrative and character that defines the best serialised drama. Except Orange is the New Black doesn’t provide an allegory for human politics through a fantastical lens, but rather confronts them head on in all their bittersweet and complicated glory.
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All images: Netflix