TL; DR(eview) - For a season that takes place over only a few days, Orange is the New Black manages to cram an absurd amount of story into season five. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the chaos of the riot and we get to see so many of those stories play out. With the women running the show, they (and we) get a brief reprieve from the inhumane treatment of the prison system but we, the audience, know all too well that it's not destined to last.
When I first learned that the entire season was going to take place over the course of the riot, I had my doubts. Expecting - somewhat correctly - that the riot would not occur over more than a few days, flashbacks of the final season of How I Met Your Mother rang in my head. The decision to position a full season over the course of a wedding weekend is often derided as one of the reasons for such a lackluster final season. And I I personally never got into 24’s whole gimmick either. So I was left worrying that this season of Orange is the New Black would end up feeling too uniform throughout. So I was pleasantly surprised when I realized how the show was using this framework to play with character interactions and even episode formats.
Spoilers for this season of OITNB to follow.
It’s actually even weird to think of how the season started, with Daya shooting Humphrey in the leg, as that inciting incident for the season wound up being mostly shuffled out of the spotlight in the first few episodes. Daya quickly loses the gun and eventually tries to remove herself from the chaos reigning inside the prison entirely by heading out to the more peaceful inmates camping outside. And Humphreys is quickly dispatched by Kukudio giving him a stroke early on. I’d almost forgotten about both of them when they come back into the picture late in the season because their stories so quickly sparked so many others.
The hispanic contingent, led by an angered Ruiz, take control early on by rounding up the guards and holding them hostage. The african-american block, led by Taystee, try to negotiate for justice for Poussey and better conditions from MCC. Red is on a prescription medication-fueled vendetta to expose and bring down Piscatella. And Chapman and Vause try to avoid the chaos inside by “playing house” out in the yard, before Chapman’s innate personality trait to take up a cause brings her back inside. Some of the season’s more outlandish flights of fancy have Flaca and Maritza becoming celebrating YouTubers vlogging their prison-beauty tips, Angie and Leanne forcing the guards to participate in an “America’s Got Talent”-style talent show at gunpoint, and Suzanne leading a seance in the cafeteria for the spirit of Poussey.
As I look through the show’s expansive cast and think back on the season, nearly everyone comes to mind with some highlight or story thread. Character flashbacks are used more sparingly this season. We learn about Freida’s past as a scout whose father was paranoid of bombs falling on the U.S. and trained his girl to always be prepared (as the present day introduces us to the bomb shelter hideout she has spent year’s constructing in and around the prison’s old decommissioned pool). We get a sense of the anger and awareness of injustice that drives Taystee and Watson with looks back to Taystee meeting and then being immediately disappointed by her birth mother and Janae getting a high school tour of a prestigious private school with a drama program performing Dreamgirls with no regard to the musical’s racial messages as Jane looks on to a young white girl performing “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” in an afro wig. We see young Daya (with Dascha Polanco’s look-alike daughter expertly cast in the role) heading down the path of making terrible decisions fueled by her mother’s input. We even get an attempts to humanize Piscatella by showing him fall for a former inmate when he was just starting as a correctional officer or demonstrate Linda’s history of conniving machinations when she turns a sorority sister’s drunken death to her favor.
As I mentioned earlier, the season isn’t content to just throw new character pairings together or give us a bit more backstory, it also plays around with episode design, with episode nine’s “The Tightening” standing out as in my mind as the Orange is the New Black twist on the horror genre. As Red’s backstory reminds us of her past in a country where people really were disappeared for dissent, the present day story has Piscatella breaching the prison and picking off women one by one through scattered dark halls and isolated scenarios.
In a season where so many different threads are explored and then dropped by the characters within the chaos of the riot, I suspect I’m not alone in finding immense joy and beauty in Soso’s eventual tribute to Poussey, when she gets inmates to work together to honor Poussey’s love of books by crafting an artistic open library in the halls. The site of the inmates enjoying the books hanging from string or stacked along the walls is joyous. So of course it was to be expected that this same imagery would be tragically thrown asunder when the eventual riot police arrive and start making their way through the prison.
The season ends with yet another cliffhanger that with invariably completely shake-up season six. Characters are being split up and sent off to different facilities after the riot. The junkees burnt all of the physical records so MCC is going to be a continued clusterfuck trying to process everyone (it seems like it’ll pretty easy for Linda to set things straight and free herself but she’s still amidst the crowd for now). Pennsatucky has a gun and her CO boyfriend “Donuts” in the guard housing out in the woods. And a batch of our leading ladies have been discovered in their bunker hideout just after the accidental killing of Piscatella. Season six doesn’t seem like it will have much joy as the inevitable fallout continues to hit the ladies of Litchfield hard. But season five gave them a bit of their humanity back amidst the chaos of the riot, if just for a fleeting moment.