Previously, on Orange is the New Black
Following the mostly aimless and rather tedious season four, which was capped off by the senseless death of Poussey – an event that felt tactless and primarily in service of stringing viewers along for another round – Orange is the New Black was on my Shit List. I really wasn’t sure if the show was worth giving another 13 hours of my life. As the year between seasons went by, though, the buffer provided by time was enough to at least lessen the anger I had been feeling. So, I decided to commit to just one review for the new season, and tried my best to watch it with an open mind: even the best shows in TV history have made a few mistakes along the way.
After watching season five in its entirety I was left with very mixed feelings, which perfectly reflected the overall material. These 13 episodes saw the show at its most uneven. There were series best performances, particularly from Danielle Brooks and Selenis Leyva, yet there was an added focus on characters that not only didn’t warrant the development, but also couldn’t carry the weight. The slowed down timeline made it difficult to believe just how much was going on inside Litchfield during such a short period, and it wasn’t always easy to understand exactly when events were taking place in relation to others. However, it also provided the most tightly focused season-long plot Orange has had since its second outing.
While this season didn’t make a strong enough argument for me to continue thinking critically about the show – I may still watch, but it will be relegated to background noise – I can understand why some fans have come away from it with a renewed sense of investment for the ladies of Litchfield. At the very least, it’s worth applauding the show’s ambitious attempt to offer something completely distinct from its previous seasons. These 13 episodes may not have always hit their mark, but there is something to be said about a show that swings and misses rather than a show that never swings at all.
Here’s a look at some of the highs and lows from season five.
High: Taystee. In addition to giving Brooks the screen time she deserved, Taystee’s character arc was by far the best of the season. She never wavered from her goal of getting justice for Poussey, even when that meant throwing away the progress she had made during negotiations with Fig. The complexity of that decision proves Orange is still sometimes willing to take the more difficult route with its characters, giving them the depth and nuance that brings them to life. Her speech to the media outside of Litchfield at the end of episode five remains the best moment of the season. It felt real, it made a powerful statement, and it was deeply emotionally affecting. Everyone and their mother has acknowledged that removing Piper from the spotlight and allowing the show to become an ensemble piece was a necessary move. If there was one character that could take the show back to having a more singular focus, though, Taystee would be that person, without a doubt.
Low: The slow start. The first four episodes were really tough and only compounded the anger I was harboring from season four. I kept wondering when the riot was going to be over – joke was on me, I guess. And though I eventually warmed to the very short timeline of season five, the first four episodes suggest Orange may be better with only 8-10 episode seasons going forward.
Low: The flashbacks. This original mainstay for Orange hasn’t been as successful as it once was for quite some time now. The character backstories used to merge so effortlessly with the main plot of an episode, always revealing thematic importance at the perfect time, and leaving us with a much better insight into the character of its focus. The backstories of season five were mostly unnecessary, only somewhat enjoyable, and rarely made a worthwhile connection to the present day.
Of the nine backstories in this season, a mere four of them were entertaining, and only one of those four had any significance in the main plot. Was it nice to see the moment Taystee and Poussey met? Absolutely, but it was mostly fan service. Learning more about Alison was great, too, but she was otherwise absent from the episode (and the following three episodes dropped her storyline altogether) making it difficult to understand the overall purpose. The actress who played a young Janae perfectly conveyed her frustration with white privilege and ignorance, and the heartbreak of childhood disillusionment, but it seemed all in service of putting Taystee in the spotlight and not Watson herself. Frieda’s flashback did manage to have relevance to her character’s present day arc, but it was retroactively undercut when her bunker was revealed. The implausibility of it all was enough to pull you out of the moment and start asking the kinds of questions that pull a plot completely apart.
The rest of the backstories ranged from uninteresting to maddening. I refuse to believe anyone asked for some insight into Linda’s sorority days, and I know for a fact no one cared to get yet another look back on Piper and Alex’s relationship issues. The most offensive, though, was seeing how Piscatella became the monster he is today. Perhaps if this had come before Poussey’s death and the subsequent attempt to humanize C.O. Bayley, it might be more tolerable. But enough is enough, Orange; white men are given this treatment in pretty much every other show ever. Knowing the loss Piscatella suffered did nothing to garner him sympathy or understanding, and most of all, it was a waste of time.
High: Red & Blanca. Having never seen these two actresses share any notable screen time in previous seasons, it was anyone’s guess as to how their storyline would fair. While their speed-fueled hijinks were a little over the top at times, their chemistry made it work overall. This season had a great deal more humor than Orange’s past, and these two provided a lot of it. Perhaps their best moment was in deciding how to ambush Piscatella when he arrived inside the prison, which led to some great references to Home Alone. Just imagining the kind of traps they might set was hilarious enough, and seeing Blanca attempt to make good on their plan later was a nice little bonus.
Low: Pennsatucky & “Donuts.” Perhaps there is some truth to this story. Sadly, we know that women often go back to their abusers for a variety of reasons. The problem is that Orange doesn’t seem interested in exploring any of this, and plays Penn and Donuts as if they’re in a romantic comedy. It’s really, really gross.
Low: Using deplorable characters as comic relief. While most of the women of color in Litchfield spend the season in pursuit of what they believe will bring change to the prison, most of the white women spend the season messing around and taking part in storylines that wind up being largely inconsequential. Now, the accuracy of this is not lost on me, but the egregious part is that these white women are played as the comic relief. And we’re not meant to be laughing at them, but with them. Nope, no thank you. I don’t need to see the attempted humanization of Nazis and racists through “humor.” If lines like “Dr. Curry” in reference to an Indian doctor weren’t bad enough, we’re also supposed to buy that a few of the Latina women would join forces with the Nazis against the riot guards. Where’s the credibility in that? These women are an example of how the show spent far too much time on characters that made zero impact to the plot and couldn’t carry the necessary weight to make it a worthy exercise.
High: The Ending. In stark contrast to last season, this cliffhanger ending doesn’t feel manipulative in the least. The riot may not be technically over until the bunker women surrender, but the inevitability of that fact allows the season’s story to feel properly concluded. The building blocks of season six are already in play, too. Where are the inmates being taken and what will these split groupings mean for the show going forward? It’s certainly no Vee getting run over as she attempts an escape, and it’s not even as emotionally fulfilling as the women taking a dip in the nearby lake, but at least it’s more authentic than Daya holding a loaded gun.
Orange is the New Black - S5