Leading into the fifth season of Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” I was intrigued imagining how the creative team would present it. It was coming off of the incredibly well produced fourth season. which saw the series start to turn from a primarily comedic show to a primarily dramatic series with comedic undertones.
The fifth season didn’t disappoint. Every episode of the 13-episode season had me thrilled and enthralled for almost every story beat of its run. Combine that with the show’s seeming turn toward a series finale, and “Orange is the New Black” season five might just be the best season of the series.
The main arc of this season takes the form of the fallout from season four, where an altercation in the prison cafeteria led to the death of inmate Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) by Corrections Officer Baxter Bailey (Alan Aisenberg). An inmate holds two guards at gunpoint, due to one of the guards smuggling in a firearm and then losing it, and the inmates take control of the entire prison.
This sets up the main narrative for the fifth season, with the prison now run by the very people it is tasked to control. This shift in power from guards to prisoners refreshes the narrative and provides many worthwhile subplots that ultimately string together the various storylines throughout the series and bring them to a meeting point.
Events that happen in season one have payoff through the course of this season, and that is true for events in every other season as well.
What is most important, though, is the payoff from the issues raised by season four. Season four tackled life in a for-profit prison. The show’s creative team wanted to raise questions about the private prison system, and through their examination of it, the storylines in that season set up much of the discontent the inmates expressed this season.
Season five is a reaction to the private prison system, both narratively and philosophically. Are prisoners people, or are they numbers on an excel spreadsheet? Do prisoners deserve some level of fair treatment, or should they all be treated with the lowest amount of dignity possible?
These are questions that are asked by the creative team and by the characters in tandem, and the answer from both is that one should expect to be treated with some humanity while locked behind bars.
While it’s easy for the show’s creative team and the characters in the show to hold that opinion, it’s not as easy a question for the general public to answer. How prisoners are viewed and how they should be treated in prison is up to much more debate and various judgement by those who’ve never seen the inside of a cell.
The show combats this by showing the vast diversity of characters within its narrative. As diverse as the characters are in personality, so too is the diversity of their crimes. From tax evasion to manslaughter, the entire spectrum of crime is presented through the various characters of “Orange is the New Black.”
The creative team hopes that one would come to the conclusion that those imprisoned for far less severe crimes, especially victimless crimes, shouldn’t be subjected to the inhumane practices that they actually do receive in reality.
I think the show does a good enough job presenting this idea to the audience, but it is still incumbent upon the audience to see beyond the story in front of them and to search for the deeper meaning within it.
Season five forces the audience to see the deeper meaning. As the character Taystee (Danielle Brooks) becomes the de facto leader of the prison, she enters into hostage negotiations with the state’s governor. Taystee demands fairer treatment for the inmates in the form of better food, trained guards and access to medical care.
Again, these are items some in the general public tend to scoff at, but taking into consideration the crimes the inmates were convicted of — skewing heavily toward nonviolent offenses because the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary is a minimum security prison — the show wants the audience to really evaluate whether or not the inmates deserve to be treated with such inhumanity.
Taystee serves in the position of leader, and Danielle Brooks does a fantastic job acting in this role. Taystee was best friends with Poussey Washington and fights for the better treatment of the inmates as a service to her murdered friend. Everything Taystee does, all of the demands she levies, are in remembrance and honor to Poussey, and Brooks’ Taystee provides the emotional core of the season.
Behind the negotiations, though, is a prison struggling to maintain control. The various gangs and factions within the prison are now tasked with running it. This forces several unholy alliances, as with the white supremacists forced to team up with the latino and black populations. This leads to interesting bits between the groups as they have to shelve their respective prides in order to maintain control of the prison while Taystee negotiates on their behalf.
These various groups have a genuine dislike for one another, and in some cases deep hatred, but they all want the same thing. They all want to be treated better by the prison system, not treated like they are royalty, just treated as if they actually exist. These desires force the factions to serve the greater good by serving something beyond their own self-interests.
Watching the groups work together and then struggle provides a worthwhile viewing experience and again demonstrates a new type of storytelling for this season.
Jokes take a backseat in this season because prison riots and hostage negotiations are serious business, but many moments of levity and humor are still woven into this season. At moments it’s genuinely funny, and at other times it’s immensely heartbreaking, but the majority of the season is defined by tension.
Every moment feels as if the SWAT team might break in or the prison alliance might fold into itself, and that level of tension keeps one watching episode to episode.
Time is also manipulated this season. The entire 13 episodes are contained within three days. This helps to disorient the audience as much as the inmates inside. It feels as if the riot has been going on for weeks.
As for negatives, I don’t think the flashback sequences were all that great this season. Usually the character flashbacks provide great insight into the characters personality and who they were before they came to Litchfield, but this season I felt most of the understanding of character came from what was happening in the moment.
We saw who people truly were by how they treated the hostage prison guards, what demands they asked for or how they treated their fellow prisoners when they came into control of the prison.
The flashbacks only pulled away from the really good storytelling and character building happening during the riot, and since the prison was on lockdown and the events of the season took place in three days, no new prisoners came into the story, so almost all of the flashback sequences were for characters we already knew. Not all of them were bad, Frieda’s (Dale Soules) flashback was pretty enjoyable, but most of them felt pretty unnecessary or redundant.
Season five of “Orange is the New Black” provided one of the most entertaining seasons of television this year. By flipping its genre on its head, redistributing the power dynamic and telling a story that is politically relevant today, this season asked important questions and invited the viewers to search themselves in order to find the answer.
I give “Orange is the New Black” season five: 9 /10