The Highs and Lows of Orange is the New Black‘s Experimental Fifth Season

Orange is the New Black‘s fourth season featured one of the most emotional climaxes of the year and the good news is that the new season doesn’t simply return to the status quo as though nothing happened and instead picks up immediately where the previous cliffhanger left off. But what follows is a season that I can’t quite decide how I feel about.

(Spoilers for the whole season are about to follow. Don’t read unless you’ve seen the whole thing or simply don’t care)

This season stands apart from the ones that came before it by choosing to focus solely on a single event, the riot that broke out in the final minutes of Season 4, and covering only three days instead of weeks or months. In the grand scheme of the show, the idea makes sense on paper. It’s different, it’s exciting, and it also helps slow down the show in a chronological sense. In-universe, Piper only has 3 months left on her sentence and since the show has been renewed to Season 7, I imagine the writers are in no rush to reach Piper’s endgame.

The forcefully intimate setting created by the riot offers some overall great character moments, which is always where Orange is the New Black has been at its strongest. Danielle Brooks’ Taystee has easily the strongest arc of the season and anchors its most powerful moments, including the big speech at the end of “Sing It, White Effie”. Her grief over Poussey’s death is something easy to connect to as a viewer and effectively grounds her crusade for justice and better conditions. And as is always fun with an ensemble this size, we get some newly fantastic character-pairings, such as Red and Blanca. This season also gets plenty of mileage out of its supporting characters, especially with the white supremacists and the Latino inmates.

Orange is the New Black Season 5

But for every big moment with Taystee and those directly involved with the riot, it almost seems like Orange forgets what to do with the rest of its large cast. Red specifically spends most of the season as a drugged up comic relief, a strong step back from the powerhouse of a character we’ve grown to love. Daya is another strange one, who starts at the centre of all the chaos and then floats out to the peripheral without her arc going anywhere particularly unexpected or even all that compelling.

The individual episodes were generally as strong as ever, but it’s as a whole season that the seams start to show. In many ways, it feels like half a season’s story spread out over a full thirteen episodes. The story itself is solid and mostly very compelling, but the long episode run means a lot of wheel spinning and a problematic loss of momentum, especially in the mid-to-later episodes. The riot feels like a huge thing early on with actual consequences, but it becomes unfortunately normalized as the season goes on. The logistics of life within the riot, such as how the inmates are feeding themselves for example, fade into the background and drain lots of the previously built-up tension out of the situation.

And despite the long episode count, certain plotlines are just glossed over, such as Humps’ actual death, which also just fades into the background of the story, despite meaning that all the negotiations are arguably for nothing. The situation with the guards’ is gripping and quite chilling at the start of the season, as the tables are turned by the inmates and we question how we’re meant to feel about their treatment, but quickly loses steam and dissolves into simple comedy (although the talent show is genuinely funny).

On this note, the bottle season also presents some huge tonal whiplash that really damages the season as a whole. Orange is the New Black has always been a show that hang between comedy and drama, but the setting for the season shouldn’t leave much room for laughter. Orange wouldn’t be the same without its comedy, but the riot comes about as a result of the show’s darkest moments and as a result much of the humour feels out of place. A strong example this time around is Leanne and Angie, whose expanded screen-time in what should be a tense story makes them less amusing and more obnoxious.

Also and most glaringly out of place is the character of Piscatella. He was cartoonishly villainous last year and even more so this time around. Orange has always been interested in adding dimensions to all its characters, even its antagonists (Pennsatucky was arguably the antagonist of Season 1 and now she’s one of the most endearing characters). But turning Piscatella into a horror movie villain and giving him a strangely defined vendetta against Red personally is just so weird in the context of the show. His story, and Red’s by extension, doesn’t justify its presence.

The most conflicting part of the season is its ending. The raid itself is gripping, as we see the utter lack of restraint used against these mostly non-violent women and see that everything was ultimately for nothing. But therein lies part of the problem: the season doesn’t really have a resolution to its many storylines. The dust literally doesn’t even settle before we cut to credits. While it makes for a thematically interesting ending it’s also an unsatisfying one, because it isn’t an ending. It’s another cliffhanger, after we just had one last season and we have to wait another year to find out how these stories that arguably began in Season 4 are going to resolve.

There’s a lot left hanging for the show to tackle when the show returns and it’ll be especially interesting this time to see how Orange is the New Black manages to pick up the many, mangled pieces. The “bottle season” concept may have worked better on paper than on-screen and may have lacked some of the punches that Season 4 provided, but what did work still worked well and I’m definitely looking forward to next season.

Orange is the New Black Season 5

Small Thoughts: 

  • Flashbacks are becoming some of the weakest parts of the show and I found myself wanting to skip through most of them. At this point we’ve covered all the most interesting characters and the flashbacks aren’t adding what they used to.
  • This is probably the best Piper has been used in the show since Season 1. Season 4 did a great job in course correcting the character, but this was the first time she felt relevant to the main story without being too forced. Still a little forced, but a big step forwards from the panties storyline.
  • Dogget became one of my favourite characters after Season 3, but her relationship with Coates is increasingly uncomfortable. It’s unclear what the show is actually trying to say about their relationship. Is it meant to be tragic that she keeps going abuser? In which case, why do the musical cues suggest its a happy thing?
  • So many questions about the nurse. How is medical completely unaffected by the riot but still easy to access (other than plot)? Why is he still there and not a hostage? What happens after Angie kidnaps him?
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Ross Topham

If there was an award for procrastinating, Ross Topham would probably be late to the ceremony. Hopefully he's writing something worthwhile instead and we'll see that awesome, upcoming space opera novel sometime soon...

Ross Topham

If there was an award for procrastinating, Ross Topham would probably be late to the ceremony. Hopefully he's writing something worthwhile instead and we'll see that awesome, upcoming space opera novel sometime soon...

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