NOTE: Some minor spoilers for the fifth season of, “Orange is the New Black” may be present in this review. That said, the review is written to accommodate those who have not yet watched the season, and as such, will avoid discussion of major plot developments.
Orange is the New Black delves pretty heavily into experimental territory throughout its new fifth season, as the show tries to make the most of its advance renewal through 2019 by Netflix. This year’s Season Five presents a very different Litchfield than what we know, especially after last year, when a rush of poor inmate treatment and heavy-handed, ill-trained new guards culminated in the unexpected death of Poussey Washington. Picking up exactly where Season Four’s cliffhanger ending left off, Season Five essentially unfolds in real-time, as the inmates rise up in an extended riot, capturing the guards (and Caputo), while the media takes notice, and Linda is forced to go undercover as an inmate to avoid detection.
The hook of an inmate-run Litchfield definitely makes for a strong, surprising hook for Season Five of Orange is the New Black, with this experimental new story direction paying off well in some ways, and failing in other ways. The real-time style of the over-arching riot conflict makes the show more actively take after the binge-worthy Netflix style too, rather than taking the time to build a world and history with each of Litchfield’s inmates. Because of this revised direction, the inmates’ separate stories often take a back seat to the riot’s stakes this season, while the season instead focuses on addressing the fallout from Season Four, and having fun with the inmates running wild at the prison.
Fortunately, there’s a lot more story elements that work with the riot backdrop, compared to the ones that don’t. This really is a fresh and interesting new direction for the latest season of Orange is the New Black, one that allows us to re-interpret characters that we would think we know by the fifth season in, even though Piper has her smallest and least consequential story arc yet this season, despite still being advertised as this show’s main character. Fortunately, the surprise addition of Linda as an undercover inmate leads to some pretty standout storylines for Boo most notably, while surprising revelations are also made about Freida, who also happens to be one of the flashback subjects this season.
Like I said though, the flashbacks definitely take a backseat in Season Five, and often felt like they were only here because they’re a staple of the show, rather than truly feeling like they organically fit with the riot storyline this season. Some of the flashbacks are more inspired, most notably a shocking and impactful series of flashbacks for brutish guard, Piscatella later in the season, but many of them feel like simple filler. This is especially evident when the show re-treads characters like Taystee, Red and Daya with new sets of flashbacks, as if Litchfield suddenly ran out of inmates to explore the background of, which really isn’t true, especially after all of the inmates that were added to the prison last season. Moreover, the flashbacks don’t even really touch on anyone’s criminal history at all, which was part of what made them so interesting in past seasons. Why did the showrunners even bother with them this season then? They don’t seem to add much in this case.
Again though, the tense and exciting nature of the riot does at least prove to be very compelling, and makes the pacing of this season feel more brisk and binge-friendly. While many of the characters feel secondary to the thrills this season, Taystee at least does step up in a big way, when she becomes the main spokesperson for the inmates’ demands for better treatment, as well as the voice that most craves justice for Poussey’s death. The emotion and drama still almost always lands perfectly in this latest season of Orange is the New Black, as the inmates struggle with the idea of clinging to a losing battle, and more than ever having to find meaning and purpose in a system that seems actively designed for them to fail.
Even if the drama still works though, the comedy this season is a lot more uneven. It’s tough to mine workable jokes from such intense circumstances, and there’s a disappointing amount of instances where the humour just falls flat on its face this season. The series also sometimes strangely leans on the humour as a storytelling crutch this season too, when it can’t find a more sensible way to move the story along. The most blatant example of this is a weird horror satire that’s played for laughs later in the season, in a way that truly makes no sense and comes off as a major story contrivance, despite being very serious with its implications, and soon after leading into a scene that’s supposed to be genuinely horrifying.
Orange is the New Black has always danced the line between drama and comedy since its debut in 2013, but in Season Five, the show feels legitimately tonally and thematically confused in several places. Scenes are sometimes strangely stitched together in ways where you can’t always tell whether you’re supposed to celebrate the inmates fighting the power, or condemn them for digging themselves into an inescapable hole. The same is true of the media and prison company, who are sometimes portrayed as reasonable one minute, and monstrous the next. In terms of exactly what it wants to say and what kinds of ideas it wants to present, Season Five of Orange is the New Black is sometimes successful and effectively emotional and/or thought-provoking, but there are also quite a few instances where the show seems to lose its train of thought, and jump all over the map with its commentary here. You won’t always know exactly what the series is trying to communicate with its busy, fast-paced storytelling this year, and that’s frustrating.
Like I said though, Season Five of Orange is the New Black still ultimately does more right than it does wrong. The Litchfield riot that sustains the entire season is an interesting change of pace, and one that feels a little friendlier for a full-on binge effort by Netflix subscribers. The comedy and flashbacks do noticeably suffer this season however, so depending on what you watch this show for, you may feel that Season Five lets you down in some respects, even though most of the season is at least effectively dramatic and exciting to watch. Without giving anything away, the season ends on another major cliffhanger that seems to present another big shake-up during the show’s sixth season next year as well, so it looks like Orange is the New Black is going to keep trying new things in the years to come. I suppose that’s not a bad thing, since, if nothing else, the inmates of Litchfield are certainly going to become more interesting than ever in the years that follow!
- Riot storyline makes for an especially exciting, novel season
- The inmates being in charge effectively reinterprets several characters
- Drama and emotion still usually land perfectly
- This season's character flashbacks feel like a flimsy afterthought
- Comedy noticeably suffers amid the high-stakes storytelling