The third season of Orange Is the New Black primed viewers to hate Charlie Coates (James McMenamin), the manipulative, predatory guard who befriended and then raped inmate Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning).
But, in a return to the Netflix series’s regularly scheduled nuance, it's clear in Season 4 that the rapist is not just a villain anymore. Rather than completely demonize the officer who pinned down a female prisoner and proceeded to rape her in the back of the van where their juvenile flirtation began in Season 3, the new season sends Coates on a wobbly path to some kind of rehabilitation as he reckons with his indefensible actions.
“The character is three-dimensional, and all people are three-dimensional,” McMenamin told Buzzfeed News in a recent phone interview. “It's certainly easy to judge Charlie Coates based on this one facet. Frankly, I wouldn't really want to have lunch with him myself, you know?"
But, he added, "On some levels, I bet Charlie Coates is a nice guy. I bet — that's as far as I'm willing to go. It's tough to even talk about this sometimes. I portray a man who committed an assault.”
The show is less uneasy about Coates than McMenamin, who called the writers “incredibly daring and kind of insane” for taking the character in a somewhat sympathetic direction.
In Episode 4 of Season 4, Coates is visibly shaken when Doggett asks if he’s raping another inmate, realizing for the first time that she calls what happened between them a rape. As the season goes on, Coates grapples with his own actions, particularly when a fellow officer delays taking an injured inmate to medical services. “If she’s telling you she needs something, you need to listen to her," Coates says, angrily rebuking his colleague. "They’re people, for Christ’s sake. It’s our job to take care of these women. Do your fucking job.” It's a criticism of the other guard, but also of his own conduct: “I'm going through [the rape] internally at that point — it's clearly what's happening,” McMenamin said. Toward the middle of Season 4, Coates apologizes to Doggett, saying if he could go back in time, “I would have treated you like a person, not like … a thing"; she subsequently decides to forgive him. And in a tense interaction in the Season 4 finale that reveals Coates is still capable of violence, he restrains himself and tells Doggett, “I don’t want to be what I was to you.”
McMenamin said he's always tried not to vilify Coates. “If I judge the character as being evil or wrong, there's nothing for me as an actor there to explore," he said. "But if I just say, 'This is what the guy did, this is his action: His action is that he assaulted this woman,' and I start to question why he did that, then there is value there.” McMenamin's approach was even simpler when he was hired for the part before Season 3, because he didn’t know Coates would rape Doggett. He started shooting two days after his callback audition and “the storyline was developing as we went,” he said. “In the breakdown, it said, ‘He may take advantage of his position of power,’ something like that. But I wasn't privy to the arc of the season.”
McMenamin believes Coates became a rapist only within the context of a prison power structure, which seemed to be confirmed in Orange Is the New Black Season 4. Coates is not depicted as a “bad apple,” but as a predictable product of a system that enables abuse. As McMenamin put it, “being in that position of power corrupted him.” In their final scene together, Coates tells Doggett menacingly, “It’s taking everything I got not to throw you down and fuck you right now,” in a moment that McMenamin said “could have gone either way.” But Coates restrains himself. The show hasn’t condemned him, but has it redeemed him?
Coates “made a horrible, horrible mistake that may be unforgivable,” McMenamin said — indeed, Doggett’s friend Boo (Lea DeLaria) sees him as completely irredeemable throughout the season. Because of that horror, any kind of understanding or context for a rapist is not something that's often seen on television. But in a country where the CDC reports that 1 out of 5 women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, the relatable rapist undermines the fiction that rape only happens when evil men chase innocent women into dark corners, making the OITNB storyline quite relevant.
As McMenamin noted, people are usually assaulted by someone they know and trust, not by strangers. “These people are walking around,” the actor said. “There's people that have been harmed that are walking around, of course, and there's people that have done harm. It is part of our culture.”
McMenamin said he doesn't know if Coates is “forgivable.” “But I do think that we have tried to portray the thing in an honest manner, and I think there's value in that.” He paused. “Right?”