Since last November, we’ve been asked to understand, if not necessarily sympathize with, the furious resentments of the racists, misogynists, homophobes and plutocrats who have brought us to this point of political calamity. The fifth season of Orange Is the New Black (Netflix) appears to be its own kind of disaster, but at least here the fury comes from those who have actually been wronged.
Season 4 of Netflix’s women’s prison drama ended with a brewing riot and inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco) pointing a gun at sadistic guard Humphrey (Michael Torpey). Black prisoner Poussey’s (Samira Wiley) accidental killing last year by a white correctional officer (Alan Aisenberg) — and the latter’s apparent impunity — was the final straw for an incarcerated populace already on edge after Litchfield Penitentiary’s privatization took conditions from grueling to dehumanizing. At its best, Season 5 is a meditation on rage: how easily it can be ignored, how instinctively it seeks revenge, how arduously — but satisfyingly — it can be turned into something productive.
Unfortunately, Orange’s fifth season is rarely at its best. Not since the infamous final season of Roseanne, which found the working-class Conners winning the lottery and living in luxury (in what turned out to be a yearlong fantasy sequence), has a TV series so completely betrayed its roots. Shows change course all the time, sometimes drastically so. But Orange’s writers seem to have forgotten everything that once made the series unique and extraordinary.
Celebrated for its cast and its mission to showcase the racial, sexual, economic, and generational diversity of women, Orange has always risen or fallen on the strength of its scripts. The dexterous tonal shifts, searing social commentary, and insightful cultural specificity — all of which come from the writers’ room — are the advantages that have made the series feel like nothing else in a crowded pop-culture landscape. But those qualities are nowhere in sight in the new season’s first six episodes. And the series’ former calling card — its radical inclusivity — has become its biggest detriment. There are now so many characters to keep track of that they might as well be Pokémon. Perhaps that’s unfair. Pokémon get to evolve.
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Orange had previously derived enormous potency from observing how individuals survive in brutal systems — cycles or situations that are difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. In addition to prison privatization and harsh budget cuts, the characters have endured poverty, addiction, sexual assault, homelessness, foster care, exploitation, mental illness, and the sundry other ways the downtrodden get flattened further, until they’re considered dross to be scraped off the streets. Season Five turns Litchfield over to the inmates, who take Warden Caputo (Nick Sandow) and most of the guards hostage while shouting “Attica! Attica!” — and then get into debates about carpets versus hardwood floors and the joys of paddleboarding. The season premiere is simply bewildering in its silliness. Poussey’s Black Lives Matter-inflected death and a bullet from Daya’s gun into a correctional officer lead to a slapstick slip in his pooled blood, while unlikely pals Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) binge on junk food in the commissary, and the meth twins, Leanne (Emma Myles) and Angie (Julie Lake), gleefully beg for stolen Oxy after the prison pharmacy is raided.
In an admirable but ultimately unsuccessful gambit, the first half of the season takes place within 24 hours or so. (The remaining episodes reportedly transpire only a couple of days after that.) We see how disparate characters react to the riot, with nonrebellious inmates Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) willing to sit out the violence and Poussey’s pals Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Janae (Vicky Jeudy) negotiating for better conditions within Litchfield and an acknowledgement that their friend’s death was wrongful. (Piper and Alex have never felt more like sixth toes; it’s clear that the writers are struggling mightily to make the characters feel relevant to the series.) There is some fun in watching the inmates scarf down Takis and Hot Cheetos — their one big concession from the governor, who drowsily dismisses the riot in the minimum-security women’s prison as “a Take Back the Night rally, [with] maybe less armpit hair.”
Creator Jenji Kohan likely wanted to take us inside a riot, where anger and power overwhelm the brain so that long-term, strategic thinking — maybe even the instinct for self-preservation — temporarily disappears. Separated from her mom, her ex-boyfriend and her baby, Daya doesn’t seem to realize or care when she pulls the trigger that her act of uprising means an automatic transfer to maximum security and possibly a life sentence. Orange has offered reprieves from the gray dread of Litchfield life before, as when a hole in a fence allowed the inmates to splash around in a lake for a couple of hours in the Season Three finale. But this year’s disjunctions from reality multiply into a pervasive sense of unrealness — and, subsequently, a baffling disloyalty to the characters and their situation.
The confiscation of the guards’ phones lead to the inmates’ losing themselves online, where Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) finds herself turned into a viral meme and the Latina airheads Maritza (Diane Guerrero) and Blanca (Laura Gomez) attempt to become YouTube pinups — cute storylines that have no bearing on prison existence. (Similarly, Orange’s former compassion for imprisoned mothers separated from their children is nowhere in sight; none of the phone holders use their new devices to connect with their families.) An earnest striptease from one of the kidnapped male guards for the hooting inmates, and the slave auction of Paula Deen-like celebrity chef Judy King (Blair Brown) — complete with comments about the TV star’s teeth — round out the near-Lynchian levels of surrealism. And yet most offensive is the imbecilic fantasy of karmic retribution, as the correctional officers and a couple of Litchfield’s corporate execs finally understand how hellish it is to be trapped in their institution. I feel their pain.