Despite recent reviews, season 5 of Orange Is the New Black isn’t a mess. It’s a culmination of the series’ entire journey.
This post contains spoilers for Season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.
"“I’m scared that I’m not myself in here, and I’m scared that I am. Other people aren’t the scariest part of prison, Dina. It’s coming face-to-face with who you really are.”"
That’s what Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) tells a sullen Scared Straight teen in “Bora Bora Bora,” an episode of Orange Is the New Black‘s first season. It’s one of the show’s defining pieces of dialogue and probably the defining dialogue of season 1. It’s also the Netflix series’ thesis statement, as the recently released fifth season made clear.
The new season of OITNB picks up right where season 4 left off: Daya (Dascha Polanco) points a gun at the sadistic CO Humphrey’s (Michael Torpey) face while most of the prison egged her on, Poussey (Samira Wiley) has just died and Caputo (Nick Sandow) just publicly supported the CO who killed her. Basically, the racial tensions at Litchfield have finally reached a boiling point.
All 13 episodes of season 5 take place during the riot and its aftermath, covering a span of just a few days. And it’s amazing.
Many critics don’t agree with me on this. Vox called this season “staggeringly ambitious” but “borderline unwatchable.” The A.V. Club argues that it “ends up stifling its ambitions with clutter.” According to Salon, the season is so jam-packed that “there’s simply not enough time for subplots to meaningfully develop.”
I disagree. I think this season is where OITNB has been headed all along. For four seasons we’ve craved a little freedom for the women of Litchfield. Season 5 gives us what we wished for.
Taystee & Co. come into their own
I think most of us can agree this is the season of Taystee (Danielle Brooks). In the wake of Poussey’s murder, Taystee’s heart was broken and her purpose was found. In order to cope with her grief, she spearheads prison reform negotiations and finally gets someone in power to see inmates as people. Taystee (duh) shouldn’t be in prison; she should be a lawyer or activist or both. It didn’t end up working in her favor, but Taystee’s determination to get justice for Poussey is moving and her willingness to fight for her fellow inmates is inspiring.
Taystee isn’t the only character to rise to the occasion this season. Sophia (Laverne Cox) uses her skills as a firefighter to prevent Humphrey from bleeding out. She ends up spending several episodes helping the swoon-worthy nurse on duty (Gerrard Lobo) treat his other patients. Instead of raiding the pharmacy for any and all highs, Nicki (Natasha Lyonne) helps dispense drugs to those who actually need them and listens to inmates who just need to talk. And she finally lets go of Lorna (Yael Stone), and selflessly convinces Lorna’s husband to fully commit.
Revenge fantasies are fantasies for a reason
After seeing these women be humiliated, belittled, and abused for four seasons, their finally giving the guards what’s coming to them should have been great, right? Well, not really. Seeing the inmates treat the guards like prisoners isn’t cathartic, it’s stomach-churning. The hostages are forced to perform in a talent show, subjected to public cavity searches, and locked in Port-a-Potties when they piss someone off. Not to mention they are denied food, clothes, and privacy. The hostages’ plight is as disturbing to me as anything I’ve seen on this show. And that’s saying something.
Orange Is the New Black has always been adept at showing empathy for everyone, no matter their background or reason for being at Litchfield. But I’ve never cared about the guards as much as I did throughout season 5’s episodes.
Actions have consequences (eventually)
Let’s start with the obvious: there was never going to be a happy ending this season. OITNB is too politically and socially engaged for that. The riot had to end and it did so without any prisoner demands met, without mercy, and with several of our favorite characters’ fates up in the air. The rest of the inmates were dragged out of prison, separated from their friends (long live Floritza!) and makeshift families, and loaded into buses with an unknown location. As Nicky would say, it was a major Suicide Sunday.
Ramifications abound on the micro level as well. Daya acknowledges her own culpability in the riot, confesses that she shot Humps without a second thought, and is carted off to max in handcuffs. Red’s obsession with taking down CO Piscatella (Brad William Henke) leads to her daughters being hunted down and tortured. Taystee — and everyone else — will have to live without any prison reforms because she put her own rage and grief about Poussey above the needs of the women as a whole. The characters’ poor decisions brought them to Litchfield and will keep them in Litchfield for a long time to come.
Five seasons in, it’s understandable that Orange Is the New Black doesn’t have as much shine to it as it did in the beginning. And it’s inevitable that some viewers will bow out –that occasionally happens with TV shows. However, my take on season 5 isn’t that OITNB is running out of steam or is biting off more than it can chew. I believe it’s a culmination of what the first season set out to do.