Here’s how the first season of Netflix’s new show, “Orange is the New Black,” ends—so stop reading here if you don’t want to know: Piper Chapman, an upper-middle-class Smith graduate who has found herself in prison, is sitting in the chapel watching the inmates’ Christmas pageant, listening to “Amazing Grace.” Her life—both inside and outside of prison—has fallen apart. She has lost all of her friends. Another inmate, a religious zealot nicknamed Pennsatucky, is trying to murder her.
A little after “Amazing Grace,” Chapman is overcome with despair and runs outside. Pennsatucky pursues her and attacks her with—of all things—a cross. Chapman strikes back and pounds Pennsatucky into the ground, beating her for all appearances to death. A choir cheerily sings “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and the show cuts to credits. Have fun waiting for season two, everybody.
It’s an ending that, in addition to being brutal (and brilliant), highlights the show’s incoherent approach to religion. “Amazing Grace” is played against the hopelessness of the prison. One character declares herself “an Angel of the Lord” and tries to stab another to death with a cross. These moments are heavy with intimations of greater meaning, yet they never quite seem to mean anything at all.
Much of this incoherence derives from Pennsatucky’s character and place as the show’s main antagonist. Uneducated, poor, violent, and passionately committed to a charismatic fundamentalism, Pennsatucky concentrates all the fears of the secular upper-class into one terrifying caricature.
She is in prison for shooting an abortion doctor, and is a pro-life hero for it. But she shot the doctor because, after getting her fifth abortion, the doctor made a quip at her expense: “We should give you a punch card, get the sixth one free.” Pennsatucky’s religious belief was initially faked in order to gain a more lenient sentence, but at some point her fake faith became real. We’re never really told how or why that happened, even though genuine faith arising from such a cynical beginning would represent something rather surprising.
No other character is as flat or lacking in humanizing qualities, in a cast that includes a predatory corrections officer who extorts sex from inmates and sells them drugs. In fact, Pennsatucky is such an aggressively terrible character that even the Onion AV Club, when reviewing the show, singled her out as its big weak spot. As the show moves toward more abstract questions of justice and punishment in its final episodes, the conflict between Piper and Pennsatucky becomes uglier and more explicitly religious: Pennsatucky becomes murderous when Piper refuses to be baptized by saying, “I believe in science” and rejecting the comfort Piper believes religion provides.
Even though Pennsatucky is entirely defined by her religion, her faith is neither well-understood nor well-drawn. In one scene, for instance, she speculates about how aborted babies will go to heaven, despite not having received the sacrament of baptism. But that’s the very sort of technical concern that would be unlikely to appeal to a character of Pennsatucky’s vaguely Pentecostal background. There’s a Catholic nun in the prison, too, so why not give that line to her, where it might actually make sense?
In another scene, Pennsatucky explains the difference between the “spiritual” rapture and the “physical” rapture, a concept of baffling obscurity. It turns out to be a Harold Camping joke. Which is a pretty good description of Pennsatucky: she’s a Harold Camping joke. Indeed, Pennsatucky is every possible negative stereotype about rural Christians brought to life, even if those stereotypes don’t hang together.
If she were merely a background annoyance, all of these flaws could be waved away. But Pennsatucky is the most important character in the show after Chapman herself. It’s the conflict between Pennsatucky and Chapman that gives the show its plot, and the final episodes revolve almost entirely around that conflict—a conflict that does, in the end, come down to religion.
So why would the writers pay so little attention to this part of the show, and then hang so much on it? The answer is probably that nobody behind “Orange is the New Black” was writing for an audience that might be religious, or even religiously informed. The show is not really meant for Pennsatucky, or even anybody who might know her.
Instead, the show seems aimed at an audience of Piper Chapmans: upper-middle-class, very educated, largely secular. They aren’t friends with Pennsatucky; they don’t know anybody like her. Pennsatucky might be their waitress, or sell them some snacks at a gas station. But that’s about as close as their world and hers will ever come to touching. So it doesn’t matter, really, that none of these things about Pennsatucky make sense. They aren’t meant to make sense. They’re meant to be frightening.
What makes Pennsatucky so threatening, as a character, is not even necessarily her religious belief as much as her lack of education. Countless jokes are made at her expense on this score, and the few interactions Pennsatucky has with the Catholic nun—a very minor character—serves to highlight how sophisticated the nun is, and how stupid Pennsatucky is. She is very stupid, we’re told, repeatedly. So stupid, she believes in faith healing. So stupid, she doesn’t know what a “rhetorical question” is. So stupid, she mixes up the first and third amendments.
You might notice that none of these are signs of actual stupidity. They are signs of class and education. And yet, an uneducated nature here is a kind of moral failing—the prison library is always there, and practically every other character reads, but Pennsatucky sticks to her Bible. She refuses to try and raise herself up in a comprehensible manner. And that refusal, too, makes her frightening.
“Orange is the New Black” tries to have it both ways with religion: it depends heavily on the residual weight that religion’s cultural trappings can give a scene or a conversation. Most of the important scenes are set in the prison chapel. “Amazing Grace” is heavily leaned upon. The show opens with Chapman talking about how much she likes to take baths and become clean, strongly evoking baptism. Talking about justice simply can be dry, but talking about whether or not there is a God who dispenses justice is more dramatically interesting. So it relies heavily on that intellectual and cultural inheritance.
But the show is not interested in the substance of that inheritance, since its society is essentially secular. There’s no religion represented in the show that’s not a kind of Christianity—there are Jewish characters, but they’re entirely secular—because religion is just something that exists to oppose science, a psychological force for comfort that disguises facts, a kind of refusal to be educated. There’s no serious engagement with anything a person might really believe. Actual faith is in some sense beyond engagement: there’s just the nun, who is barely in the show, and the zealot, who’s barely a human being. The religious symbols that it does choose to use are almost entirely emptied of meaning through artistic neglect.
Don’t get me wrong: “Orange is the New Black” is a good show. It has a great deal to say about race and gender, and is otherwise sensitively written. But it could be a great show, and the distance between “good” and “great” is hard to ignore. Still, there will be another season; we’ll hold out hope, and perhaps say a prayer that “Orange is the New Black” can yet be saved.
B. D. McClay is a graduate of St. John’s College and a Junior Fellow at First Things. Elsewhere, she has written about how to use a liberal education.