Netflix’s Orange is the New Black shakes things up in season 5, changing the dynamic and compressing the story with interesting but uneven results.
After four seasons spent cooped up in the confines of Litchfield Penitentiary, Jenji Kohan and the rest of her writers on Orange is the New Black have decided to stir things up with a little narrative jailbreak, pushing the series into unknown territory by taking some compelling storytelling risks. Those risks come largely on behalf of season 5’s radically compressed story arc and the heightened stakes that come from the flipping the dynamic of the series, upsetting its rhythms, and flirting with extremes — essentially revamping a series that was getting a little long in the tooth.
It wouldn’t be fair to suggest the show was drifting or had somehow become complacent, but Orange is the New Black worked largely because it had found such a successful recipe, one that allowed for some creative and careful deviation, but, by and large, always produced the same dish. The entertainingly obnoxious and entitled Piper Chapman remained reliably so, and the members of the expansive ensemble were given personal stories that oftentimes carried emotional weight and made good on the series’ opening credits with its song by Regina Spektor. It worked, but especially after season 4, the familiarity of the setting and the show’s structure was beginning to feel more than a little repetitive.
You can understand why that would be. Though it has proven it no longer needs the Piper character at all, her prison sentence still serves as the framework for the series as a whole, meaning we’re all watching so long as Piper’s still serving time. That doesn’t allow for much in terms of wiggle room between seasons, and the threat of monotony – ironically enough – become very real. So the choice to have season 5 unfold in a much shorter timeframe – a few days – and to have the entirety of the story take place under the umbrella of a single, chaotic, and very high stakes event shakes things up in interesting ways without breaking the rules of the series itself.
In fact, having season 5 unfold during a riot is actually playing to the advantages of the setting. Prison stories are innately like powder kegs; the tension is palpable regardless of where the narrative is going. The only problem is, when you stretch a storyline out over several seasons, like Orange is the New Black has done, it can begin to feel as though the fuse will never be lit. To Kohan’s credit, she and the rest of her writers’ room have come loaded with matches, leading to a demonstrably darker season that is in direct response to the events of season 4 – namely the death of Poussey (Samira Wiley).
The last few episodes of season 4 dabbled in the unrest of Litchfield’s inmates – especially Danielle Brooks’ Taystee – following the privatization of the institution and the unjust practices and disproportionate punishments handed out by the new, woefully undertrained staff of prison guards. So when one of the guards foolishly and illegally brought a gun into the prison and it wound up in the hands of Daya (Dascha Polanco), it was clear all hell was about to break loose.
It was a fascinating way to end the season. Cliffhangers haven’t really been a device the series has employed as anything more than a way to encourage viewers to continue their binge-watch, so delaying the conclusion of Daya’s choice for so long felt bold, and in many ways, season 5 reads as a similarly bold response to that choice.
The notion of consequence is the cornerstone of any prison-set story. After all, it’s the reason everyone is there – well, the inmates at least. What season 5’s prison riot storyline does is delay the notion of consequence, while flipping the power dynamic and, in turn, upending the structure of the series as a whole. After Daya shoots the (potentially psychotic) prison guard played by Michael Torpey, it’s clear that Orange is the New Black is fully invested in seeing this riot through to the end. Promising viewers that the situation will play out in full, rather than in flashback or in segments allowing for an indeterminate amount of time to pass, gives the season a greater narrative thrust, one that makes every shift from one group of characters to another feel far more urgent than it did in season’s past. And with the usual punitive measures taken by the guards off the table, the series’ writers are given a lot more creative freedom in terms of the potential conflicts and in how they are allowed to be resolved.
That means the events of the season are – appropriately – more severe. There’s a heightened sense that actions and repercussions can rapidly escalate, taking the series into territory it hasn’t yet ventured. What it stands to gain from that is an explosive narrative that continues the series’ exploration of the dehumanizing effects of correctional institutions while also toying with the notion of power’s corruptive influence. After just a few episodes, it’s not hard to see the situation devolving into something akin to the Stanford Prison Experiment – not that the inmate/guard dynamic wasn’t that already – but the show’s writers mercifully make attempts to keep the story from feeling like it’s riding on rails.
As sharp and as focused as the season’s storyline is during the early going, Orange is the New Black season 5 still consists of 13 episodes. And like nearly all Netflix series, there’s a noticeable streaming drift through the middle section here. It gets padded out with some flashbacks of various inmates, many of whom you likely wouldn’t have thought about had the series not turned the spotlight on them. It’s not surprising to see the show fall back on devices that have worked so well in the past, and some of the digressions do afford interesting insight into the women who’ve been remanded to Litchfield. Still, given the circumstances of the season’s story, fewer episodes would have made it far more memorable.
In all, though, Orange is the New Black successfully shakes things up in season 5, changing the dynamic and compressing the story with interesting but uneven results.
Orange is the New Black season 5 is available in its entirety on Netflix.