The Best Villain of Orange is The New Black
So, Orange is the New Black is over, and I’m sure by now you’ve read precisely ten thousand commentary articles on the show as a whole: the best characters, performances, arcs, seasons, episodes, moments. And quite rightly so – OITNB has consistently, despite some wobbly seasons, proved itself as a dynamic, diverse, woman-centric piece of storytelling with a solid mix of the serious and the silly, as well as providing platforms for a collection of awesome actors to launch their careers off of.
But I want to focus on one character in particular, a character I don’t see talked about very often – and that’s Linda Ferguson. Linda Ferguson first turned up in season four, as played by the inimitable Beth Dover and a collection of just the dopest pantsuits you’ve ever seen. She starts off as an ambitious young pencil-pusher in admin for the central prison of Litchfield where the majority of the story takes place, and ends up working her way through the system to earn significant power over the living conditions of the prisoners she oversees. And the course of her plot over her four seasons on the show has rendered her one of my favourite antagonists on TV this decade.
There are a lot of obvious antagonists in Orange is the New Black – Vee, Madison, the various shitty prison guards who enact violent physical and psychological “justice” on inmates for little to no good reason – but, for me, none stand out as much as Linda.
Because when I picture Linda Ferguson, the show wants me to think of her the way she thinks of herself: smiling, in a smart suit, benevolently overseeing the various positions of minor power that she has wormed her way into. To both herself and the circles she moves in, she’s a success story. Ambitious, hard-working, dedicated, and innovative, she works her way to the top and does everything that’s expected of her when she’s there. She’s not out there beating people with truncheons or starting fights in the yard; she’s posing for staff photographs that look like yearbook pictures of a particularly promising chess club president. In any other show, she’d like be a protagonist, or at least a likeable side character – the hashtag girlboss who just needs to learn to relax a little and maybe meet that man of her dreams, y’know?
But it’s that veneer of decency and dedication that makes her such a viscous antagonist. Her work involves overseeing in Litchfield prison and, later, an ICE detention centre, and her focus is almost exclusively on protecting the interests of the company she works for: she represents, for the show, the grim utilitarianism that puts a capitalistic success above basic human decency. Listening to her discussing the abject torture she inflicts on the women under her care almost sounds like a victory coming out of her mouth: she wears the accoutrements of success as a defence mechanism to stop herself thinking too deeply about the impact on actual, human people that she is having with every decision she makes.
Linda even spends a season stuck with inmates after she’s mistaken for one in the aftermath of a riot, and manages to make it out without any reflection on what she’s doing to the women under her care. In fact, she leverages her own personal suffering as a job opportunity, using it to blackmail her way into a more prestigious position. For Linda, the focus is always on where she can go next, on advancing through the sterile bureaucracy of the workplace at the cost of the people she oversees.
To Linda, the bottom line matters first and foremost, and that career-focused dedication turns her into one of the most formidable villains of the entire show: she’s not forced into this by necessity, she isn’t just trying to survive. She’s doing this because this is what she’s good at. Because she likes it. Because she thinks this is what makes her a worthwhile person – being a functioning cog in a machine that dehumanizes and deconstructs real people. And what’s more terrifying than a bad guy who’s convinced that what they’re doing is actually for the greater good? Circumstances change in the prison constantly, motivations and partnerships ever-shifting and changing, but the presence of a system determined to politely unpick the people it’s meant to care for is ever-present. And that’s why Linda, as the representation of that within the show, is the scariest bad guy Orange is the New Black ever put out there.
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(header image via Elite Daily)