We pick up immediately where we left off last season: Caputo just had a press conference in which he refused to acknowledge Pussey’s murder, as well as exonerated CO Bayley of the crime. Taystee (Danielle Brooks), enraged, gets the inmates riled up, which all culminates in the prisoners surrounding CO Humps, who had smuggled a gun in the prison. He loses control of the gun, which lands in the hands of Daya (Dascha Polanco).
What follows is a season that takes place over the course of just three days. The initial uprising becomes a full fledged riot, the guards become hostages, and Litchfield becomes governed by its inmates. It’s an interesting concept, but one that the showrunners stretch a little too thin at times, trying to fill 72 hours with enough content to satisfy viewers and extend over the course of thirteen episodes. Even the flashbacks take a backseat this season, not appearing in all episodes, and not always fully working (especially when the actors in the flashback are different because they are playing a younger version of a character, like in the cases of Red or Daya).
Orange Is the New Black is also suffering from a case of not knowing who to focus on because of an overload of cast members. Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia, keeps getting a raw deal season after season. I’m not sure if it’s because of scheduling conflicts, but the show keeps finding ways to get rid of her for the majority of screen time in very convenient ways, and this season is no different. A few cameos by the deceased Poussey (Samira Wiley), the annoying Larry (Jason Biggs), and the problematic Delia (Mary Steenburgen) and Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) really don’t add much to the narrative, and feel superfluous (and in the first case just reminds us that we are missing one of the fan favorite characters). The show also inexplicably focuses on side characters that are not why we watch the show. I really don’t care about last season’s white supremacist contingent or some of the fourth tear Latinas, but the show gives them an inordinate amount of screen time. Each season obviously must give preferential treatment to some characters over others, especially on a show that has more than a couple of dozen of cast members, but this season felt especially stuffed. Gloria (Selenis Leyva) gets a nice and strong arc, and Taystee steps up as a leader and chief negotiator, but so many other great characters recede to the background. And that’a a bit of a shame. Their stories feel rushed, and thus not as fleshed out as we are used to.
The tone of the season alternates between lighthearted and pitch dark and depressing, and sometimes it does so in a jarring way. One minute we are treated to a pop-up coffee shop during the second day of the riot, and next we are face to face with unfathomable violence. There are moments of brilliance, like watching the inmates take the guards’ phones and maneuver the changing world of technology which has advanced quickly while they were incarcerated, but too often the writers didn’t take advantage of what they could have. There is also the extremely troubling treatment of the topic of rape. Previous seasons had tackled the topic with respect and intelligence, but that has somehow disappeared this season. Between Pennsatucky’s ongoing romantic liaison with the CO who raped her, and the two meth-heads joking about raping one of the guards, I’m not sure the writers really thought these things through.
I do still love the show, and the cliffhanger finale makes me mad that I have to now wait a full year to see how things are resolved. There is a real sense of dread over what the fate of the inmates will be next season and what shape the show will take. Will it be the same show, or will now take a drastic turn? The fact that after 5 seasons the show still has us guessing and anticipating what will happen next shows the legs and the strength it still can pack a punch with. The show is already renewed for two more seasons, so we still have a lot of OITNB to look forward to. And I for one cannot wait.