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Orange Is the New Black season 5 review: a staggeringly ambitious mess

The season takes place over three days and is everything great and bad about the show in one concentrated dose.

Orange Is the New Black
Season five of Orange is the New Black takes place over just three days.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work, unlike any other TV season I’ve ever seen.

It’s also a huge mess, at times borderline unwatchable. The show’s always-jarring tonal shifts — between comedy and drama and any other genre you can think of — start to feel as if they’re in poor taste when dropped into the midst of a season about a prison riot. The flashbacks to the inmates’ lives before prison have less and less bearing on the action of the show. And there are multiple bizarre storytelling decisions, including a late-season homage to slasher films that is simultaneously played for horror and cutesy laughs.

And yet it’s hard to shake. This is probably the show’s least successful season, but I’d hesitate to call it its “worst” season. Its epic sweep and intimate storytelling offer up something that’s completely unlike anything else on TV — including the previous seasons of Orange Is the New Black.

It’s about a dream of a better world that everybody involved knows can never come true. It, at times, offers a nearly Shakespearean view of its little prison society, complete with characters swapping outfits to put on new guises of the self, and one character speaking largely in monologues about the absurdity of the characters’ situation as the season goes on, like the Fool in King Lear. It’s a mess, but maybe it has to be a mess to get to the places it goes in the end.

So let’s dig into the good, bad, and wondrous of season five. And beware, because there are...

Good: The season’s structure gives it a tight focus previous seasons lacked

The first two seasons of Orange focused on, respectively, Piper Chapman’s first few weeks in prison and the growing war between Red and Vee. They remain the two seasons when the show felt as if it had most penetrated the public consciousness, the seasons that got nominated for major Emmys, the seasons that spawned all those “Which inmate are you?” personality quizzes.

Season three was messier, by design, telling the story of the last few moments between Litchfield prison’s change from a public institution to a privatized one. And season four revealed its cards late, as the show built a slow-boiling but ultimately damning critique of corporate influence over American life and the tendency of businesses to think of human beings as numbers on a ledger.

Orange Is the New Black
Taystee (Danielle Brooks, center) and her friends work to negotiate a better life for Litchfield’s inmates.

The tack everyone involved in season five seems to have taken is to offer a suggestion of what sorts of systems might be better, both specifically when it comes to the prison industrial complex and more generally when it comes to society as a whole. To do this, the season turns Litchfield from a prison to a sort of women’s commune in the wake of a riot that overthrows the usual power structure. The guards become hostages, and the prisoners go about setting up an ad hoc society, while Taystee (the amazing Danielle Brooks) attempts to negotiate better living conditions for the prisoners with MCC, the corporation that runs Litchfield.

This means that the entire season takes place over about 72 hours — give or take — with the first six episodes taking up only 24 or so. It’s an incredibly compressed timeframe to tell a story in, one that only heightens the connections between this show and HBO’s classic Western Deadwood (where every season covered a little over a week in the life of the titular town).

Thus, if you didn’t like the scattered nature of seasons three and four, season five offers stronger focus. And if you’re someone like me who tends to shy away from those “every season is its own movie!” sorts of shows, the long-standing character histories and complex web of plots in Orange means that season five never gets bogged down by the sorts of lulls those stories can be done in by. However...

Bad: Orange still wants to lurch from comedy to drama and back again, and that proves more difficult in such a compressed timeframe

Orange Is the New Black
Random Alex and Piper plots don’t always seem to gel with the rest of the season.

The hallmark of Orange Is the New Black is that it can never entirely be pinned down. It might offer up a screamingly funny scene right next to one that ends in tragedy, and then it might cut to another character offering a soliloquy to the powers that be or a representative of the prison or a chicken. It has bizarre tonal shifts because it knows that life has bizarre tonal shifts, and its overwhelming empathy for everybody onscreen carries through no matter the storyline.

But for the first time, season five made me feel the hand of the writers in its need to shove some comedy into the proceedings, lest they become too dark. (A prison riot is not a great vehicle for laughs.) Too often, the show will desperately cut to something that’s supposed to be funny, and it will only be so in theory, or it’s played for laughs despite being in murky moral territory.

As an example: Season four’s greatest strength might have come from the way it depicted the horrors of torture and the way even mild forms of such abuse grind down and dehumanize those who are subjected to it. Too often, season five turns such torture — or even suggested sexual assault of the guards-now-hostages — into a joke.

Could this be grist for a great story? Sure. But the season too often seems scared to really run with its “what if the prisoners ran the prison?” idea as a metaphor for life at large, which leads to many of these tonal issues.

Good: The season’s Shakespearean sweep makes it feel all the more impressive once it reaches its conclusion

Orange Is the New Black
Suzanne functions almost like the Fool does in King Lear in the later sections of the season.

Season five of Orange sometimes feels like one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies awkwardly mashed up with one of his great comedies, to the degree that some of the season’s most horrifying scenes are immediately followed by a marriage proposal. (Hey, that reminds me of Much Ado About Nothing.)

But it’s also one of the few TV shows out there that genuinely earns the comparison to the Bard. In particular, the season uses Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) as an analogue for the truth-telling Fool from King Lear after she goes off her mental illness medications, and offers up a dueling trio of Rosencrantz and Guildensterns, hanging back from the action but always there to comment on it.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this was my favorite season for star-crossed couple Alex (Laura Prepon) and Piper (Taylor Schilling) in quite a while — using the two simply to offer snide commentary on the injustices around them while attempting to wash their hands of them fit the season’s overall critique of power structures and those who unknowingly perpetuate them.

But it also has fun with characters trying on different guises — a nice suit Warden Caputo (Nick Sandow) brought to the prison flits from character to character, and still others put on guard uniforms, while a different character decides to hide out in the prison as an inmate, rather than the MCC employee she is — and with the sort of convoluted, coincidental plot twists that marked many of Shakespeare’s plays. Hell, there’s even a séance where a very significant ghost might be contacted, and the show’s flashbacks resurrect characters who have long since left the series.

Orange always indulges in puzzle-piece storytelling, where every little thing is significant, and it all eventually adds up to a full picture. That’s always reminded me of how Shakespeare’s plays combine lots of little details and many characters with very different motivations into one big, satisfying whole. And when it comes to Orange, season five might be the apex of that approach.

Bad: Two story decisions in particular

Orange Is the New Black
Sending Piscatella into the prison as a slasher movie villain ... doesn’t really pan out.

The first is to bring the brutish Piscatella (Brad William Henke) into Litchfield during the riot, so he can stalk around the prison in the middle of the night, abducting and tying up inmates like he’s in a Friday the 13th movie. Even the show seems to know this is sort of a dumb idea, because the characters keep commenting on how unlikely it is and comparing it to, well, a Friday the 13th movie.

But for as dumb as the slasher episode is — and it’s so dumb — it at least gets the series to a place where it can explore one of its favorite themes, the difference between justice and mercy.

When Red, who has lost so much at the hands of Piscatella, ultimately decides to let him go rather than hold him hostage any longer, it feels like a decision with real weight, like her act of mercy would have a real impact on his life, if he weren’t shot seconds later by law enforcement agents invading the prison. (This is the kind of sick twist Orange delights in, and usually pulls off.)

But a far worse exploration of the idea of mercy versus justice occurs in the story of Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), who ends the season ensconced in domestic bliss with the man who raped her in season three. She’s escaped prison and gone to his apartment, and when he arrives home, the two simply settle onto the couch to watch TV together.

The character’s decision to ultimately forgive her rapist so she could move on made for a powerful moment in season four, but the growing flirtation between the two didn’t make a lot of sense in season five. I have every faith in the world that the show is going somewhere with this — but the reconnection between the two is played far too much as some hopeful romance just getting its legs under it, which feels like a strange choice all around.

Wondrous: Pretty much everything else in the finale

Orange Is the New Black
In summation: a picture of Caputo.

Honestly, this season of Orange gets better and better the longer it goes (though, weirdly, the slasher homage is dropped into the middle of the otherwise very good back half of the season), and the final three episodes go from strength to strength. The series has never lacked for strong finales, but this one just might be my favorite.

There’s a simple reason why: It’s an episode that genuinely attempts to answer the question the whole season asks. Can you build a better society? Or is it always doomed to fail because of the forces of the status quo waiting at the door to tear it down?

I won’t lie: It’s a convoluted road the series takes to a point where it gets 10 of its most important characters together in a room, waiting for law enforcement to enter, knowing that some of them might die. There are a lot of plot holes and missteps along the way. But that doesn’t negate the power of the closing passages of the season, or of the other characters being separated as the riot ends and they’re put onto different buses, presumably to go to other prisons.

Orange has never shied away from the idea that there are crimes worth punishing. But it’s also never shied away from the idea that justice is something for institutions to mete out (usually poorly) and mercy is something human beings should generally try to show to each other. We are weak and fallible, and we might feel like we only have so much kindness to give to each other. But it’s a necessity, when what others might call justice comes to blow in the door, guns at the ready.

Orange Is the New Black is streaming on Netflix.

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