When it premiered in 2013, Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air about the series based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of serving time in a women’s prison. She called the show’s Piper, depicted by Taylor Schilling, her “Trojan Horse,” her way through the palace gates of studio television production to ultimately be able to tell the stories she really wanted to tell, about the marginalized, the minorities, the underdogs. Leading with an attractive blonde was her way in.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Then beat ’em.
The fifth season of the women’s prison drama premiered on Netflix June 9, and over the years the show has expanded from Piper’s story of a privileged yuppie serving time for a drug crime to a female-driven ensemble statement piece on the prison industrial complex, racial, sexual and gender politics and, quite possibly, humanity itself.
[Obligatory spoiler alert: mild disclosures ahead!]
Season four ended on a tragic cliffhanger, as the Litchfield prison was on the brink of riot following the murder of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) by a rookie guard who inadvertently smothered her to death. When another guard shirks the system and smuggles a gun into the prison, it’s Daya (Dascha Polanco) who ends up with it in her hands, pointed back at the guards, with her fellow inmates surrounding her.
We pick up exactly where we left off, and the entire season – thirteen hour-long episodes – covers only the next three days of the riot, as inmates, guards, prison staff, families and even local government navigate the chaos that ensues. Within a couple of episodes, there’s so much going on that honestly, it’d be impossible to encapsulate all the various plot lines and developments. A series that’s always thrived on its ensemble nature unfortunately becomes muddled and confusing as it tries to keep the multitude of loose ends from fraying entirely.
It’s shaky territory to insinuate that, with so many stories spinning at once, it’s impossible to keep track of them all and something is bound to get lost in the shuffle. Just remembering every character’s name is difficult, let alone their story and backstory. Which, as that comes out of this reviewer’s keyboard, I realize is likely just the issue Kohan and her writers seek to illuminate. How many nameless, faceless women wake up every morning in this country’s prisons and we never know their stories? There’s a guilt that comes with not being better able to know and internalize these stories, and no one likes to watch a show that makes them feel guilty.
In earlier seasons, each of these characters was defined by sharp, distinct lines in character development, a credit to the team of writers who took Kerman’s memoir and ran with it. We knew the varied motivations of matriarch Red (Kate Mulgrew), rebel Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), proud Sophia (Lavern Cox) and dynamic duo Maritza (Diane Guerrero) and Flaca (Jackie Cruz). A few episodes into season five and all this started blurring so entirely that every character sounds the same. Indeed, every character might have her own story, but they also apparently have the same joke writer, so stale are the one-liners they are all prone to shoot off.
That’s not to say this chaotic season isn’t without its merits. Each episode has moments of sincerity, cheapened as they may be in the forced levity of an otherwise heavy season. We’re dealing with the real grief over Poussey’s death, and it manifests itself in moving ways. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) channels that injustice into leading the negotiations with corporate prison reps, becoming the face of the riot and determined to not let her friend’s death be in vain. Brook (Kimiko Glenn) had just been falling in love with Poussey when she was killed, and her tribute to that budding relationship and its sudden loss via the prison’s library is one of the best moments of the season.
The best part of this sub-par season, by leaps and bounds, is Uzo Aduba and her portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. A character who started as goofy comic relief for Schilling’s first year in the joint has become the most layered, vulnerable and poignant character on the show. Her experience of the riot is at times painful to watch, but stunning in how unique it is. No one is inside Suzanne’s head (for better or worse), and thus she navigates the three long days and nights of the riot in an entirely individual way, separate from the cliques and factions that form in fast order. Aduba balances depth and innocence, pain and joy, confusion and fascination with the skill of a master actor in her prime. She’s already won two Emmys for the role; may this season bring her a lucky third.
By the time the season wraps, Kohan and her team have concluded the riot – at least to some degree. This time-condensed season ends on a cliffhanger of its own, though not nearly as dramatic as the one before it. Netflix announced in 2016 that it renewed the series for three more seasons, so we’ve got at least 2 more to see where all these loose ends – many of which remained frayed and untended in season 5 – all wind up. If, in the grand story arc of the show, this season proves to be just a bridge to bigger and better things, all will be forgiven in hindsight. But as the latest offering of a series once capable of enviable and impressive modern characters, this season misses the mark.