Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” has always struck an astoundingly beautiful, delicate balance between comedy and drama, but season five felt a little skewed. Nevertheless, while the dense format and incredibly large cast of characters left the season messy and skin-deep, it did have some tender and some polarizing moments that still continue the beautiful chaos that viewers everywhere have fallen in love with. Leaving off after season four’s cliffhanger in which Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco) points a gun at the brutal, sadistic CO known as Humps (Michael Torpey), inmates gathered around her and screaming, the show takes a deep dive into the riot that ensues.
It was an interesting, albeit risky, choice to make the entire 13-episode season take place over the course of the three-day riot. The inmates, taking all the guards hostage, essentially take over the entirety of the prison, but complete anarchy doesn’t reign over Litchfield like I expected. Numerous leaders quickly emerge, most prominently Taystee (Danielle Brooks), completely distraught over the death of Poussey (Samira Wiley), her best friend. Hot on the heels of her untimely, accidental death at the end of the last season, the inmates are allowed to roam almost completely free while a select few—most specifically Taystee and Red (Kate Mulgrew) — take charge in a variety of ways.
Thanks to the riot, the inmates now have access to smartphones and the Internet. The Maritza-Flaca (Diane Guerrero and Jackie Cruz) relationship blossoms wonderfully as they create a YouTube beauty vlogging channel that makes for both fantastic comedic relief and a sort of sweet, mutually-supportive and non-toxic relationship that this show needs. Now jointly dubbed “Flaritza,” their story may not travel far, but they stick together through the entirety of the riot and never let anything get in their way. Somehow Flaritza is in fact more compelling than the Piper-Alex (Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon) ship “Vauseman,” which culminates in a rather sappy speech. Through the course of the riot, Alex turns into the accidental leader of a group that camps outside of the prison, yet this storyline cuts out as quickly as it begins and as Alex retires under the wings of Red and Alex. Similarly, Maria Ruíz (Jessica Pimentel) and Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) have promising stories yet they are never given a chance to develop enough before the season has comes to an end.
I personally blame the very shallow narrative development on there being too many characters. At the beginning of this show, this was a huge selling point for me — it allowed the exploration of multiple viewpoints, backgrounds, stories and so much more. But now, from the character flashbacks to present-day antics, there’s simply too much going on. The side stories of the meth-heads, the white nationalists/Nazis, some of the secondary Latina and other minor characters began to turn into a mush of attempted humor amidst a storyline that already provided for great comedy from within its strong existing plot lines. Even Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), Poussey’s girlfriend, is given only a couple episodes and brief appearances to grieve before she disappears of the map. While OITNB can still be considered an ensemble show, it doesn’t need to rely on providing completely even footing for every single character, and could have significantly benefitted from giving more screen time to devote to relatable characters and heartfelt storylines that viewers like me so desperately clung to while binge-watching.
“Orange is the New Black” only raked in two Emmy nominations this year for season four, one for Uzo Aduba as Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren and Laverne Cox as Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for the character of Sophia Burset. Many argue that Danielle Brooks should be nominated for her work as Taystee, both for season four and subsequently next year for season five, and I would have to agree. Even after everything, the most compelling narrative of is that of Taystee. She sees the riot not as a chance to muck about, but rather, a chance to enact change, beginning with justice for Poussey. Taystee rather successfully creates a list of demands with her group of friends and begins negotiations with Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), Caputo (Nick Sandow) and MCC, driven by sadness and anger at the failure of the prison system to really do anything, from providing the inmates with quality food to simply humane treatment by the guards. Brooks pulls off a huge range for Taystee as she navigates a slippery slope of negotiations, internal pain and having to hold up the hopes of all the inmates as the presumed leader of the riot.
On the flip side, Red and — to my pleasant surprise, a very compelling, highly entertaining and English-speaking — Blanca Flores (Laura Gómez) begin an all-out hunt to lure in and destroy Piscatella (Brad William Henke) after discovering some incriminating evidence on his backstory. While Red’s hatred is not altogether unfounded, Flores’ eager help seems a little out of the ordinary. After an episode detailing where Piscatella’s rage and violence truly comes from, including an intense — even for this show — physical and psychological torture scene, it still didn’t settle right. Even with Piscatella as the show’s most cruel villain to date, it didn’t seem to fit with how the season was going. Piscatella’s entrance into the riot felt somewhat forced, as if giving Red and the others something to do. The writers even played with a horror genre parody that even I picked up on, and I both dislike and rarely watch horror films. I didn’t really know what to make of it, as I understood it to be intentional, albeit not quite a homage. Still, this addition was at first curious, but with little payoff as it was too clear what the outcome would be and didn’t fit with the other rather structureless episodes.
The culmination of the two storylines, the riot and revenge on Piscatella, never really aligned, but thankfully, the main characters of each still did. Without giving too much away, the powerful few ending shots of the season include the ten somewhat-main characters of this season as they stand in solidarity, holding hands, awaiting what may come. Even if the season was never as singular as their strength, the message of camaraderie still reverberated strong, which proved satisfying. While the inmates were typically always indirectly united against the common enemy of the prison and the system, they never were truly united until now, even amidst the chaos. For what it’s worth, for everyone who found solace in the humanity of Litchfield’s prisoners, is still something completely and utterly worth watching.
Season five of “Orange is the New Black” is now streaming on Netflix.
Contact Olivia Popp at opopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.