Cath Murray is slightly disappointed with the slow burning fifth season of the iconic Netflix prison drama, Orange is the New Black
This review contains some spoilers for previous and the current season of Orange is the New Black (OITNB).
Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) was one of the most lovable characters in Litchfield Penitentiary, so her death at the end of season four of OITNB meant there was always going to be a gaping absence at the heart of season five. Failings of the current season notwithstanding, the writers have done Poussey proud; her memory forms a thread through the episodes: in her girlfriend Brook Soso’s (Kimiko Glenn) depression-turned-passive-resistance, the vigils and seances and books hung on strings from the ceiling like Buddhist prayer flags. Most powerfully, Poussey’s best friend Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) frequently calls her inmates and the prison guards to honour her by bringing the correctional officer who killed her to justice. But while the season eventually achieves poignancy, pathos and depth, the journey there is often tedious.
One issue is that setting an entire season over only three days is daring and the writers don’t quite pull it off. Indeed, previous runs have been refreshed by the arrival of new characters, but as the prison lockdown doesn’t allow for fresh folk, we meet some old characters in different ways instead. We have prisoners-turned-guards and guards-turned-prisoners, while MCC executive Linda Ferguson (Beth Dover), who previously dated prison warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), even goes unintentionally undercover among the women. But all this isn’t enough to sustain interest through some of the earlier episodes and the plot doesn’t really pick up pace until shortly before its climax, around episode 10.
Still, there are some strong themes and the occasional classic OITNB zinger:
Maritza: Down there [in Mexico] if you’re super cute, you don’t have to do crime. You just marry a drug boss or something.
Flaca: We grew up on the wrong side of the border.
You’ll definitely want to push through to the finish line, but be aware: you’ll be treading water for a while.
Just like in the previous seasons, motifs running through the fifth series include race and oppression, power dynamics, motherhood, womanhood and friendship. Taystee really comes into her own, although not until episode five, and it’s worth watching just to see her find her voice. Her realisation that the prisoners shouldn’t allow fellow inmate and celebrity chef Judy King (Blair Brown), who has been accorded exceptional privileges while inside, to speak for them is a turning point, inspired in part by King’s friend Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) asking: “You’re gonna let some fuckin’ white woman karaoke our song?” Supported by Watson, Alison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen) and Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Taystee’s speech to the press is moving, railing against a “system that don’t give a damn about poor people and brown people and poor, brown people”.
When, during negotiations, Taystee is told she should trust the system to do its job, she hits back with: “You mean the same system who don’t give a shit when some pasty-ass cop shoots a black man for spray-painting a wall, or selling loose cigarettes, or reaching into his pocket for his own damn keys… You mean that system?” Following the discovery of a stash of phones, references to wider societal issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the YouTube star phenomenon make their way in, injecting some much-needed contemporary relevance to the prisoners’ conversations.
Showing how a few hours’ exposure to the internet impacts on the inmates’ abilities to connect to the wider world serves to reinforce the point that the prisoners’ insulated existence doesn’t adequately prepare them for life on release. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), who in recent seasons has become known for observations that are arguably profound in their very naivety, unwittingly muses to the undercover Ferguson that there’s no rehabilitation here. By the time they get out, “Everybody in here is going to be way worse than when they started.”
Most of the season, however, feels like the writers are waiting for their chance to begin to unravel plot lines. While biding their time, they engineer multiple scenarios that, in attempting to be both comic and poignant, end up being trite – such as when Pennsatucky shoots Leanne Taylor’s (Emma Myles) finger and has to conjure up the “remorseful” face she used to use when shoplifting with her mother as a kid. While a hallmark of previous seasons has been the ability of characters to defy expectations, this latest season too often serves up exactly what the audience might predict each character to do or say. In doing so, it strays into the realm of parody. The whole riot seems too tame to be true and many episodes coast along from one mildly comic scenario to another, with little change of pace or emotional register.
There is a distinct lack of serious conflict between prisoners in this season, which seems bizarre given not only the vitriol present in earlier seasons, but also the fact we’re looking at 300 women who are living in squalor, barely eating or sleeping, including several patients with psychiatric diagnoses who are not receiving their medication. One wonders whether the writers have never been hungry. Surely it isn’t possible that they have never met someone who is extremely hungry? One scene shows women placidly accepting trays with barely a spoonful of food on them. An environment where no one seems to eat, without any increase in violence, let alone irritable behaviour, seems ridiculous beyond belief. A proper argument doesn’t even break out until episode 11 and, even then, it’s within the group that actually has a food supply.
The absence of a viable challenge to the right of Taystee and her group to negotiate the terms is also unrealistic. Previous seasons have powerfully shown rival groups vying for power. Now a simple “submit your demands on a piece of paper and trust us to add them up for you” exercise, which is highly flawed anyway (some inmates admit they voted for Cheetos multiple times), is tacitly accepted and the group’s authority is never again questioned. The groups are facile and immovable: Alex (Laura Prepon) makes an impromptu late night speech to a handful of women and manages to launch a resistance movement that quietly goes about its business of doing not very much throughout the rest of the season.
Even the guards don’t take the women seriously. At one point, a prisoner slips a note under the door where the guards are being held hostage and one of them warns the others that it may contain anthrax. The only female guard replies: “This is a women’s prison – it’s more likely to be a kids’ Christmas list then a biological weapon.” This is where we come to what feels like another big theme of the season: women are harmless. After all, they’re only women. The point is made on several occasions, both overtly and by implication.
Piscatella (Brad William Henke), the captain of the guards from the previous season whose backstory we now learn about, expresses a reductive view about women. We discover he previously worked in a men’s prison, and he compares the two in the following way:
This is the thing about female prisoners. Men understand violence. They respect it. They’re dogs. If you beat them, they obey you. But women – women don’t fear pain the way men do. They have to be broken in other ways. But make no mistake, they have to be broken.
This leads Piscatella to exact some bizarre humiliation on the matriarch Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) in front of her prison “family”. This is one of the most uncomfortable scenes of the entire series, but not for the reason intended. Every time the camera cuts to Alex and Piper, they launch into embarrassingly ineffectual attempts to wriggle out of their duct-tape restraints, like cartoon fish out of water, in a retro display of the “helpless women try but fail to escape from the powerful man” trope. For a show that has broken barriers and given us characters such as Laverne Cox’s Sofia Burset, it is disappointing to see the actors colluding in such facile depictions of apparent femaleness. It feels rushed, lazy and insulting to the intelligence of the show’s core audience. The scene doesn’t come across as if it’s supposed to be tongue in cheek – if anything, there’s an impression that it is trying to be powerful and failing.
In another carelessly conceived shot, the camera pans over four male prison guards stuck in portaloos before arriving at the final one: a woman, who happens to be the only one who is crying. While it is entirely consistent with her character and predicament that she should cry, there is a disappointing lack of imagination in the staging of this scene. It may be that the show is going for pathos here, but it comes across as clichéd.
On the plus side, there are some strong depictions of motherhood in this season. Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) claims that giving birth gave her the knowledge that she would now, for the first time, be capable of killing someone if she had to – if only to protect her child. Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) also steps into her own, separated from her own son, but also taking a more active mothering role to Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco), whose own mother has been released, with rough nuggets of wisdom such as: “Sometimes your only choices are between shitty and shittier, but whatever we end up doing, we gotta own it.”
As usual, Piper has the last philosophical word, musing on whether the fact that “some grandma in Kansas” reading an article about the prison riot might end up seeing the inmates as people rather than criminals. “Isn’t that how change really happens?” she asks, in true Piper preacher mode, “Through mid-Western grandmas having epiphanies? Maybe that will have made all this worth it.”
The above is a classic example of the characteristic OITNB blend of schmaltz and depth, which, despite its failings, season five manages to deliver. Yes, the dialogue is often predictable and the scenarios contrived, with the characters only having the occasional flash of truth. But the underlying deeper messages of the season remain once the facile farce fades. Questions about the purpose of incarceration are left hanging in the air: questions about the difference, in essence, between a criminal and a free person. We are asked to ponder whether it is conscionable to allow private corporations to make a profit by skimming off inmates’ essential necessities, such as tampons and education programmes.
“Don’t make me question the mixed morality of what we’ve been doing here,” says one inmate-turned-guard as she evaluates their actions during the riot. Which would be a fitting motto for the entire detention facility. This is also the entire point of the season: to explore binaries of “guard vs prisoner”, “activist vs collaborator” or, essentially, “good person vs bad person”. Just as in Litchfield, in the murky waters of the real world no moral dichotomy is as simple as it seems.
Orange is The New Black season five premieres on Netflix on 9 June 2017.
All images are stills from OITNB season five, courtesy of Netflix.
1. Four black and one white women are standing next to one another, facing the camera and watching the flames burning on the ground in front of them. The white woman is holding up her phone, perhaps recording or taking a photo of the fire.
2. A black woman wearing a green-and-white jacket is eating from a small pink tub at a messy table in a canteen. there’s a white stitch over a bruise on her forehead.
3. Two long-haired white women are sitting at a table facing a camera and a black woman is walking away from that table, looking over her shoulder, perhaps at the woman on the right with her back to the camera. Two white women are looking to the left and one of them looks surprised or slightly alarmed at what she sees.