When Orange is the New Black burst onto the still developing Netflix scene, viewers were wary of a new show that attempted to balance its witty slapstick dialogue between heartbreaking scenes of routine injustices. Not to mention, its predominantly female and well diverse cast made it unlike any other show on television. Yet, after four seasons of dedicated viewers binge watching episode after episode, OITNB is an inarguable smash hit.
The latest season of OITNB aims to continue its legacy of weaving an unbearingly realistic narrative about the harsh realities of a system we would rather not think about, and in doing so challenges us to question our humanity for allowing this to go on. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The fifth season begins in the immediate aftermath of the beloved Poussey’s recent death (for which we will never forgive the writers) and tensions between the inmates and the prison guards are at an all time high just as the sadistic Humphrey loses the gun he smuggles in to Dayanara. Luckily for us viewers it does not take long for Daya to resolve this cliffhanger, and succumb to the crowd of inmates jeering her on, and shoot Humphrey in the thigh.
Now holding the monopoly of force the inmates quickly step into the vacuum of power left by the warden and the company that owns their prison, MCC. Act one of this new class structure involves them collectively rounding up the guards, holding them hostage and barring the doors of the prison to ensure no one gets in or out. So begins what every OITNB fan has been waiting for since the very beginning: A full-scale prison riot.
Though these women are still technically confined, the coming days of this uprising triggers a transformation among their population as each group, and indeed each individual, is driven to take advantage of this momentous and unprecedented surge of personal freedom. Some of these hardened criminals spend their time eating candy bars and working at a makeshift coffee house, while others take it upon themselves to personally terrorize the hostages with the abuse they have had to endure at their hands in the past. All in all, it’s an incredibly eventful three days.
That being said, while this season did beautifully tie together our underdog inmates and have them unite in this crisis across every racial or economic barrier, there were many plot points that were either unfounded or just plain awkward. Including an ‘America’s Got Talent’ parody that featured a painful-to-watch strip tease. Add in everyone’s least favorite psychopath, Piscatella, whose unfounded obsession with mentally breaking inmates, especially Red, is never really explained even through his somewhat irrelevant flashback to his early guard days.
Which also beggars the point as to whether the flashback trope that has defined the puzzle-piecing narrative of this show is useful anymore. At first these memories were expertly plotted into the story to either enlighten, or sometimes even shock us, with the personal details of the prisoners we had never considered. Lorna as a stalker with an imagined fiancee is still one of the best written reveals of the entire series. However, now that we know considerably more about these inmates, these flashbacks really serve no purpose but to give us some extra information, which may not even be relevant. For instance, the story of Piper and Alex’s tattoos are only mildly interesting and don’t seriously add to the theme in any way.
Nevertheless, what this season gets right is its doubles down on pushing political messages as the injustices that triggered the protest surge into the public eye at last. It’s during the negotiated release of the Martha Stewart stand-in, Judy King, that these women are finally heard. Initially, the press intended for Judy to speak on the events and circumstances that lead up to this riot, only to be interrupted by Taystee, one of the original instigators of this lawlessness. As she divulges to the press, Judy, being a rich white celebrity has been kept separate of the general prison population, and has little understanding of what brought them to this point.
In what’s perhaps the best performance of the entire season, Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee, gives a heartbreaking attestment to the cruel existence of a system that blatantly discriminates and condemns the poor and people of color. Even for those who may not be fans of OITNB, seeing a woman of color stand down an entire army of reporters, none of whom expected her to speak at all, and directly state the racially infused realities of the prison complex brought an undeniably powerful legitimacy to this seemingly free-for-all riot.
Ultimately, this was a season of development for both the women inside the prison and the people on the outside who have likely never bothered themselves about the injustices of this system. By creating this uproar, and using the internet to broadcast the truth about the constant mistreatment these prisoners face everyday, it’s clear that the status quo on this issue cannot continue any longer. If nothing else, OITNB is challenging us to pay attention to this order and how it treats people, and to be responsible for it.