In what are easily some of the most tragic, heartbreaking, and powerful scenes ever filmed for Orange Is The New Black, the Season 4 finale (and devastating penultimate episode) gave us chaos, protest, and dark misfortunes. SPOILERS AHEAD. Following the death of Poussey Washington, a widely adored fan favorite, Litchfield Prison is overrun by an inmate revolt in response to the irresponsible manner with which the authorities were handling her murder. These scenes were incredibly empowering from a fan perspective, but there was also something else happening in the episode: Poussey’s mysterious backstory flashback. Ending the finale with an uncharacteristic fourth wall break, the character is shown enjoying an exuberant yet bizarre night in Brooklyn before stretching a peaceful, contented smile at the camera. It’s an odd choice of an ending, and enough to make the audience ask: Yeah, but seriously, what happened to Poussey in the OITNB finale?
Well, I think I have the answer, and it’s loosely tied into Lolly’s time machine and some stylistic choices in the episode. But first, we need to look at the crime which put Poussey in prison in the first place. In the finale, MCC’s callous PR team are shown frantically attempting to dig up dirt on the murdered inmate so that they can spin the story of her death into an act of self-defense against a violent inmate. However, they struggle to find anything bad about her at all, with one of them discovering that she was “a nonviolent offender, picked up in Brooklyn for trespassing and possession with intent to sell," and that even this was hardly anything worth imprisoning her for, as she was found with “not even half an ounce” of weed on her person.
The tragedy here is implicit. Poussey was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The fact that she was both nonviolent and imprisoned in the place where should would eventually be killed based on such a light misdemeanor is gruelingly heartrending. As viewers continued to follow her flashback adventure, we’re met with an escalating set of circumstances which evolve through impulsive choices, random mistakes, and an odd sense of serendipity. The episode focuses on the great impact of small decisions, and how seemingly insignificant and mundane actions can snowball into gigantic consequences, showing the character plagued by indecision and troubled between her options throughout.
As such, Poussey mistakenly goes to see the wrong band with her friends, she chooses to chase the man who steals her phone, she decides to party with drag queens when she gets lost, and she decides to accept a lift from some Improv Everywhere monks rather than try to find her own way back to her friends. At all of these crossroads, there’s the potential for a widely different result, and, as such, all of them could have ended with Poussey not being discovered trespassing with marijuana on her.
What’s most interesting about the “flashback,” though, is that we don’t actually see her getting caught and arrested. Instead, Poussey on what may or may not be private property (she’s shown climbing over a fence with the Improv Everywhere monks, but a fence doesn’t always automatically imply private land), and is simply smiling at the camera. Prior to this, she’s talking about how she wants to get rid of (and smoke) the last of her stash before she goes to live in Amsterdam, and is shown eager to share it with anyone and everyone. Earlier in the episode, when she’s partying with the drag queens, she’s shown being incredibly generous with her stash, happily sharing it with the rest of the party guests. Could it be that she got rid of more of her stash in this flashback than what actually happened in her real life?
There’s a certain dreamlike element to Poussey’s flashbacks, as though she’s controlling the narrative with her own mind. It could be that we weren’t seeing the actual events of her backstory, but instead a version of them wherein she’s gone back and tried to fix the mistakes which led to her being arrested. Following her phone being stolen, it could be that she originally never accepted the drag queens' invite to party with them in return for use of their phone, and instead found herself lost and alone in Brooklyn. Or perhaps she never accepted the Improv Everywhere guys’ invitation, and was instead discovered by the police while prowling around a property which she mistook for her friend’s place.
Poussey’s backstory, and the tragic events which led to her death, all seem to be framed by this idea of cause and effect. As an audience, we were made to expect to see a scene wherein she’s arrested and all of these decisions are given a horrifying weight. But OITNB subverts this idea by giving us serenity where tragedy should be. I'd argue that this was not your average backstory; this was a character mysteriously being given a second chance and fulfilling all the wishes that she may have been storing up during her prison sentence.
Thematically, this definitely works when you consider the “time machine” which Lolly built and which has been a prominent location for much of the latter part of the season. Though I’m not implying that Poussey has somehow stepped into the tinfoil and cardboard construct and been able to miraculously travel back in time whilst leaving her dead body in Litchfield, I would like to think that the version of events that we see are ones which instead simply utilize this theme to give the character a chance at an alternative path.
When Poussey stares straight into the camera, looking harmonious and even victorious, it’s like she’s saying, "I did it. I fixed it." And there’s something intensely gratifying about that idea. It would also be a magical sendoff for a character who lived for all the fictional worlds that could be found in her library, giving Poussey the chance of authorship over her fate and allowing her to rewrite her history.
Images: Netflix (3); Anothergayshark/Tumblr