Warning: major spoilers ahead.
Following the tragic and controversial season finale of Orange Is The New Black last season, it’s clear that the show had its work cut out for it. Not only was a prison riot unfolding, but there was pressure to justify the murder of Poussey, which alienated many fans who accused the show of capitalizing on real black pain to advance the plot. While some argued that the point was to address racial discrimination and police killings of unarmed black civilians, the fact that OITNB had no black writers on staff did not exactly help its case.
OITNB’s fifth season is an immense followup. It further explores family loyalty and relationships, prison life, and the question of whether or not the ends ever justify the means in a revolt. The fifth season takes place over about four days, all during the riot that broke out at the end of last season. It’s an insanely complicated sprint that involves murder, deception, at least three separate hostage situations, prison reform, a dick pic, budding and dying romances, a number of ethical thought experiments, extortion, pregnancy, cheesy tattoos, and a literal search for heaven. Unfortunately, the season ends up scattered and disjointed, despite its ambitions and clear mission to honor Poussey.
OITNB is already incredibly good at conjuring drama, and by plotting the entire season in such a tight timeline, it really intensifies what’s at stake. We get a concentrated version of what we normally love: the constantly shifting dynamics of power, the imaginative-bordering-on-deranged activities the prisoners get up to when left to their own wits, the mundanity, and the little things that bring Litchfield together. But the show doesn’t quite get the rhythm right in juggling these themes, and continues to drop the ball with its less-than-nuanced racial discourse.
Orange Is the New Black is notoriously self-aware, so the more the characters ask if the ends of this riot justify the means or if they really got justice for Poussey (which was the whole point of the riot), the more it feels like the show is asking the same. As Piper so forebodingly says when Alex asks if the riot was worth it, “We can’t know that yet.” Not a great answer for either a prison riot or a bombastic and disorganized season of television.
The first half of the season is kind of a hodgepodge of scenes that don’t seem to plant actual roots. As Taystee attempts to crowdsource a list of demands for prison reform, Daya struggles with having shot CO Humphrey and whether or not she actually wants to lead the revolt. The inmates force the COs they have taken as hostages to perform in a talent show that features a very committed Stratman performing a Magic Mike-inspired strip tease number. While it’s clearly meant to be a sexy and funny role reversal of officer and prisoner, it’s also uncomfortable and pushes a little too hard for the laughs considering the circumstances.
Another instance of the season’s cumbersome humor is the slave auction scene. After photos showing some prisoners holding the Paula Deen-type celebrity Judy King hostage are misinterpreted as Islamic terrorism on the news, Brandy the neo-Nazi, who has a Confederate flag tattooed on the back of her neck, auctions a collared and leashed King off like a slave. She refers to King as a “fine-looking piece of chattel,” urging her to show off her teeth. It’s supposed to be funny, because she’s white and rich and racist and I guess who wouldn’t jump at the chance to degrade Paula Deen? But the scene is reductive, crude, and left sitting there unpacked, making you wonder if anyone thought this might not be a great idea. The assumed empowering comic payoff—Judy King giving Black Cindy a pedicure—is brief.
The show’s penchant for quirky bits and stark visual choices do lead to some standout moments—like Boo’s brilliant Saved By The Bell-themed cross examination of Angie, Freida’s incredible and game-changing secret bunker, and the piercing shot of Soso being carried out of the living library she built to honor Poussey.
But overall, the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy that OITNB has always nailed feels uncoordinated. And though women like Danielle Brooks’ Taystee and Selenis Leyva’s Gloria get sensational showcases, characters who were allowed some depth in previous seasons—like YouTube sensations Flaca and Maritza, or the idiomatically inept Leanne and Angie—are largely relegated to comic relief. It makes sense logistically—there’s only so much time in such a compressed framework—but it robs the show of some of its depth.
In the final episodes, the show becomes truly agonizing, anchored in CO Piscatella’s violence and sadism. (Red and Flores uncover Piscatella’s history as a CO at a men’s penitentiary, which he left after killing an inmate by leaving him in a scalding hot shower, another cruel death on the show that appears to be ripped from the headlines.) A scene featuring Leanne orgasming while being fingered by Stratman suddenly jumps to Piper and other women shrieking in horror, tied up in a utility closet as Piscatella nearly scalps Red. It’s all pretty rough to take, especially considering how uneventful the first half of the season is. The show leaves us on one hell of a cliffhanger, with ten major characters standing arms linked as the SWAT team blasts open the door to the bunker.
Perhaps the utter chaos and disorganized collage of emotions we get in this season is the exact point. After all, this is a prison riot. Terms are constantly changing, morale is all over the place, and everyone is trying to exert power, whether it’s over each other or themselves. But unfortunately, Orange is the New Black, known for its groundbreaking and innovative storytelling, bit off more than it could chew this season.