Netflix’s monstrous blockbuster “Orange is the New Black” returned on June 9 after a year-long wait but its fifth season spans only three days. Since premiering in 2011, the question of whether the show can maintain quality and longevity has become more pressing—it does have a safety net since it has been renewed for two additional seasons though.
Immediately starting where season four left off, a rush of catharsis permeates the season premiere when inmate Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco) shoots Thomas Humphrey (Michael Torpey), the disturbing correction officer (CO) who had terrorized several inmates prior. The season begins in a rather shambolic manner as the shooting inspires inmates to riot and the COs are held captive. Sending Litchfield Penitentiary into a form of a “Twilight Zone” episode, certain inmates literally don the COs’ uniforms and treat them like prisoners while the COs can only whimper for mercy. Exuding dark humor, the COs’ ill-treatment does open up numerous eccentric sight gags: the COs involuntarily performing in a faux talent show for the inmates, intentionally not given access to restrooms and forced to play games with the eccentric Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba).
This CO-inmate role-reversal poses the ultimate question: can the inmates unite as one?
Answer: Um no.
Racist remarks are constantly exchanged and the inmates remain divided in terms of their agendas and beliefs. Inmates of Latin American backgrounds specifically are called out and the continued appearance of the white supremacist inmates, including Brandy Epps (Asia Kate Dillon) and Helen Van Maele (Francesca Curran) quickly became tiresome with their frequent slams and downright negative dispositions.
The comedy is infectious though, particularly with the characters of Cindy “Black Cindy” Hayes (Adrienne Moore) who perpetually offers sassy one-liners and the dynamic duo of Marisol “Flaca” Gonzales (Jackie Cruz) and Blanca Flores (Laura Gomez) who mischievously gives many inmates makeovers. The season’s humor delicately balances against its more pronounced drama.
Only two things kept the initially-chaotic season relatively grounded: the memory of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) and its powerful commentary on corruption within the prison system. Certain inmates grieve differently: Washington’s girlfriend Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) wants to memorialize her and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Dannielle Brooks) outright demands justice and wants Washington’s murderer, CO Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), arrested.
Taystee is the season’s greatest character as her determination is heartbreakingly juxtaposed with her grief over Washington, her late best friend. Being so driven by her emotions and sense of morality makes viewers empathize and express their support like binge-watching cheerleaders.
One of the season’s highlights was when Soso helped create a memorial for Washington by transforming a few hallways into a makeshift library, adorned with multitudinous novels, alluding to Washington’s love for reading. Witnessing Taystee’s emotional breakdown upon seeing the library emphasized that the inmates are genuinely still human beings dealing with turbulent emotions regarding their place in the prison, life and Washington’s murder. Unlike the stigma against prisoners by the general society, Soso and Taystee clearly want all the inmates, particularly Washington, to not be seen as expendable individuals, and their past ill-treatment by COs and Washington’s death further fuel that mindset.
Taystee also wants to fight the corruption that has been evident in the prison system, advocating for better educational, nutrition, health and reform programs, believing that impoverished and non-white people can easily fall into a baiting cycle of crime and imprisonment. This was embodied in the fifth episode, “Sing It, White Effie” where in flashbacks, to-be-imprisoned Janae Watson, (Vicky Jeudy)—who attends public school and is not affluent—is disturbed by how a prestigious prep school she toured was featuring an all-white production of “Dreamgirls.” Back in the present, she and Taystee realize that fellow inmate Judy King, a white celebrity oozing fame and fortune, should not be their spokesperson, deducing they should not hide behind a white person to fight their battles.
Villainy was expressed through the character of Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke), whom Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) targets after she finds out that he had killed an inmate at another prison. Flashbacks this season are sadly brief and viewers often are left to fill in the blanks themselves, hence Piscatella’s flashbacks, which reveal a past forbidden affair with a male inmate, are not enough to justify his horrific actions.
This harks back to how much psychology plays in this show as viewers continually find out how their personal lives led to their arrival at Litchfield (regardless of being an inmate or CO) and how the inmates handle dilemmas (like whether to force Dayanara to surrender for shooting Humphrey). Piscatella’s storyline also speaks volumes of how corrupt the prison system is as he, despite committing murder, got away with it and was still hired at Litchfield.
The show’s conscious treatment of racism, sexism, white privilege, corruption, social stigma, greed and homophobia is altogether astounding, making it a highly-complex and emotionally-driven show, even in its fifth season. Its huge and diverse cast impeccably deal with all these issues individually but this also brings up one of the show’s sad realities that viewers have to accept—certain characters come and go. While Washington is the obvious example, this season saw the presumed exits of Dayanara and Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), the latter appearing more sporadically over the years.
It seems the inmates can never win, the season finale ending with almost every inmate surrendering as the prison is raided by armed officers—a tragedy for Taystee as she’d fought hard for justice and reform. While the risk of having this season’s events occur over three days pays off, it also has a downfall as it ends without revealing what will happen in the long run, making this season feel like a mere transitionary one.
But many inmates still maintain that they want to be viewed as human beings, not animals, being one of the show’s core messages. Epitomized in the finale, ten inmates, including Chapman, Taystee and Red, hold hands, maintain their dignity and willingly surrender, the screen fading to orange as they await their unknown fates.