This article discusses the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black in full. Reader beware, because there are:
Now that Orange Is the New Black has gone for broke in its fifth season, it’s time for the show to admit there’s no fixing what it’s done with Litchfield — and to start over from scratch.
Season four ended with an inmate pointing a gun squarely at a guard; season five is entirely focused on the prison riot that ensues once she pulls the trigger, unfolding over three frantic days of negotiations, inmates torturing guards, and everyone doing pretty much whatever the hell they want. A riot is a really tricky corner for the show to try to write itself out of and neatly resolve — so season five doesn’t even try.
Instead, it leans into the spirit of total chaos, making for the sloppiest, most confusing season of Orange Is the New Black yet. The show’s signature flashbacks are random and blunt, rarely having anything to do with what’s happening elsewhere in the episodes they appear in. The show’s tone, which has always swung wildly from comedy to drama and back again, becomes a whirling dervish of total nonsense. Inmates do horrific things like rape guards and auction off a fellow inmate as a slave, but with such genuine giddiness that their actions might as well be punctuated by a laugh track.
There are sporadic moments in season five that reminded me how good Orange Is the New Black can be — mostly those including Danielle Brooks’s Taystee and Selenis Leyva’s Gloria — but for the most part, it’s a total goddamn mess.
By the time the season ends, a SWAT team has swept through almost all of Litchfield, apprehending inmates and separating them onto buses headed to different prisons. The woman who shot the guard (Dascha Polanco’s hangdog Dayanara) is led away in handcuffs. And while the finale ends on a cliffhanger — 10 of the show’s main inmates hold hands in the basement and wait for a potentially deadly show of force — it feels more than anything like the show is exhausted by the effort required to keep up with its increasingly stupid stories.
If Orange Is the New Black wants to keep going — and it must, thanks to a triple renewal that will keep it around through at least season seven — it needs to let go of its convoluted baggage and find a way to reset. With Orange Is the New Black’s narrative spinning out of control, it’s officially time for the show to embrace something akin to an anthology format by recycling the cast and giving another set of deserving stars and stories a shot.
Season five isn’t necessarily the ending the show’s best characters deserve, but it might have to do
When Orange Is the New Black premiered in 2013, it (rightfully) earned praise for focusing on the kind of stories TV still rarely tells. With blonde prepster Piper (Taylor Schilling) acting as what creator Jenji Kohan called “a Trojan horse,” the show gave real time and consideration to women of color, poor women, immigrants. It made a point of showing how no one person was defined by what landed them in prison, highlighting the systemic rot that puts so many people at a constant disadvantage.
The show also succeeded because its casting is generally spot-on. Schilling, and Laura Prepon as her star-crossed lover Alex, might have been the initial stars, but actors like Brooks, Leyva, Uzo Aduba, Laverne Cox, and Samira Wiley soon became the best reasons to follow all the screwed-up ins and outs of Litchfield Penitentiary. The cast of Orange Is the New Black didn’t, and still doesn’t, look like any other on television.
But by the end of season five, everyone has just about hit their wall. Taystee, after hours upon hours of negotiating, fails to get any kind of justice for either her dead friend or the prison at large. Gloria both breathes a sigh of relief after her son — revealed to be seriously ill midway through season five — has a successful surgery, and accepts that it will probably be years before she ever sees him again. Suzanne (Aduba) recovers from a mental breakdown with the support of women who, once plainly exasperated by her, would now move mountains to save her. Piper and Alex get engaged.
I’ve followed these women for years, but it says something about how frustrating their stories have become lately that I truly don’t care what happens to them next. As good as these characters have been in the past, I’m more than ready to spend time with some new ones who are completely unburdened by the past five seasons of increasingly confused storytelling.
Orange Is the New Black can live forever if it wants to — but it needs to swap out its original cast for another sooner rather than later
Season five’s cliffhanger might be a last-ditch effort to keep us invested in the next stage of the riot, but from where I’m standing, the more interesting narrative possibilities lie outside Litchfield’s walls, now that so many of the prison’s inmates are being split up and sent to different prisons.
There’s obviously no getting back to the Litchfield we and they once knew — if the riot didn’t kill that possibility, I will call serious logical bullshit — so why not just call it? Even if Orange Is the New Black doesn’t want to devote itself completely to an anthology format, which requires a narrative reset with every new season, it could at least follow a couple of the characters we’re already familiar with and have season six center on them meeting and interacting with an entirely new slate of people.
Call this kind of reset the Grey’s Anatomy approach: Keep some of the characters that still work, and bring in a whole host of new ones to infuse Orange Is the New Black with fresh stories. That way, the show can get back to what it does best — telling unexpected stories and pulling back the curtain on corruption — without having to wade through its own narrative bog to get there.
Honestly, I won’t be surprised if this turns out to be the show’s plan all along. Kohan is a demonstrated fan of upending her show’s premise to try something else (see: Weeds’ sixth season forcing the cast to move elsewhere and live undercover). It would be strange if she gave the go-ahead for the show to write such a disastrous prison riot without considering the idea that, y’know, real disasters have real destabilizing consequences that aren’t so easy to tie up even throughout an entire season.
And here’s the thing: Starting over with a new cast (ideally one that’s a little less sprawling than the one season five eventually had to juggle) would be easy. The revolving door that is the show’s prison system lends itself well to bringing in new characters and releasing old ones without it feeling too easy. It’s not like the kinds of stories Orange Is the New Black thrives on depend on the setting of Litchfield specifically — and now that the show has almost literally blown up Litchfield, it might as well make it official and leave the rubble behind for good.
Seasons one through five of Orange Is The New Black are now available on Netflix.