Welcome back to Litchfield! In case you're worried about spoilers, this will be a general overview of the fourth season and therefore relatively light on plot details.
This fourth season kicks off where the third left off, which allows the show to both wrap up Alex's (Laura Prepon) plot with the hitman sent into the prison and kick off a story that will run through the remainder of the episodes this year. OITNB has looked to find a balance between the comic and the dramatic, and can't always pull it off (Season Two veered more towards the darker side of the prison, whereas Three tried a little too hard to be comic in reaction to that). In Season Four, however, the tone is struck well, with a more usual slow build towards some very traumatic events.
As the company running the prison starts to fill the place with new inmates, and hires combat veterans as replacement guards for those who walked out last season, the dynamic quickly starts to shift to that of a more dangerous facility. Overcrowding brings tension, and the various races start to cause friction. Especially as Piper (Taylor Schilling), almost always the most annoying character on the show, even when she's trying to be thoughtful towards others, starts a group that has huge ramifications down the line. At least, thanks to the blowback from her actions this time, she starts to have a little more understanding of her own faults.
Uzo Aduba's Suzanne continues to be a tragic delight; a mix of semi-profound chatter and the moments where even her peaceful nature are put to the test. Jessica Pimentel's Maria Ruiz steps to the forefront in a more commanding position, even if it's not one she'd necessarily choose. And the arrival of celebrity chef Judy King (Blair Brown) is mined for all the comic potential you might expect, and some you might not.
As for the other new arrivals, a standout is Brad William Henke as new captain of the guards Desi Piscatella, a no-nonsense type who will generate little good feeling within his charges, even as he briefly displays hidden depths.
Orange's continued exploration of social issues, injustice, racism, corporate America, prison overcrowding, sexual assault and abuse is handled as sensitively as you've come to expect from the show, though one example of a power trip by new guard Humphrey (Michael Torpey) pushes the boundary further than usual.
The main problems this year include juggling that expanded cast – some, such as Laverne Cox's Sophia, wilting away in the SHU (Special Housing Unit), AKA solitary, is barely given any screen time at all, though her plot line still works. Not all of the flashbacks – especially Soso's (Kimiko Glenn) – work that well, though you can tell that the team have decided to be a little more judicial this year in how they're used, lest they become a crutch.
On the whole, however, this will stand up as one of the best seasons off the show to date, able to make you smile one minute, worry the next, and then break your heart, leading to anger on these innmates' behalf. It ends on a big dramatic moment, and we're fascinated to see where Jenji Kohan and her team take the story next year.