This review contains spoilers for all of Orange Is The New Black, up to and including the finale of season 5.
Traditionally, US TV shows cover about a year’s time within the fictional world of the series. This is largely practical; with lengthy ‘seasons’ of 12 – 24 episodes spread over the course of the academic year (September – May) by periodically going on hiatus, it makes sense that time in the show follows time in the real world. This allows characters in contemporary-set shows to refer to current events consistently, and actors to age (depending how much they allow that to show) without causing head-scratching continuity problems.
Orange Is The New Black has never followed this pattern, largely because its central character is supposed to be serving a 15-month sentence in prison. Considering some of the things Piper Chapman has got up to over the course of the show (beating another inmate to within an inch of her life, starting an illicit panty-selling business), the show could have added time to her sentence beyond her real-life counterpart Piper Kerman’s time. However, the Netflix format lends itself to a more flexible approach anyway, with 13 episodes a year being released simultaneously. This removes the ‘real time’ feel of watching a show spread out over a real-life year, though it does have the rather odd side effect of making the year or so that has passed in series feel like the five years that have passed in reality.
For season 5, however, the show has taken this tight timescale to an extreme, covering just three days in thirteen hour-long episodes. Orange Is The New Black is not the first show to do this. How I Met Your Mother’s final season also covered three days, in 24 episodes of about 20 minutes (excluding adverts). In the hour-long format, every season of 24 played out in real time, each season of 24 episodes covering 24 hours (including adverts – episodes were actually about 45 minutes long, with Jack Bauer presumably using the commercial breaks to pee).
The format can work. While How I Met Your Mother’s final season was controversial, the controversy came more from its use and development of the characters and their relationships, and from the culmination of those three days, which ended up feeling rather unsatisfying. The unusual format itself was not without its problems, but not completely disastrous either. 24, meanwhile, was successful enough to run for eight seasons in the format, plus a few specials. But does it work for Orange Is The New Black?
Part of the problem with this season is not the restricted timescale itself, but the nature of the three-day event being covered and the way it is approached over the thirteen hours. Orange Is The New Black’s usual format relies on a blend of comedy and drama, setting lighter stories against serious subject matter and sometimes tragedy. Although each season is released all at once on Netflix for those so inclined to binge-watch, it maintains the traditional US TV show format, with each episode existing as a complete entity in and of itself, though ending in a cliffhanger to persuade viewers to let the next one start straight away. This approach is seen most clearly in the sets of flashbacks to the history of a particular character that usually (but not always) appear, telling their own bit of self-contained backstory that relates and feeds in to the main story of each instalment. However, episodes are also distinguished by other factors, including tone, theme, the choice of characters from the enormous ensemble to highlight and sometimes smaller stories that are contained to that particular episode.
In the case of season 5, that means space has to be made for more comic stories, for lighter stories, for broader stories and for calmer stories over the course of the season. The problem is, the backdrop of this season is a prison riot. Realistically, no one will come out of this without serious negative consequences, ranging from extra time added to a sentence, to being sent to Max, to (for the guards and Caputo) losing their jobs. But even more importantly, every character is in serious danger of death at all times throughout the entire season. This may be a minimum security prison, but more than one character (both among the inmates and the guards) has committed murder in the past, and there’s a whole heavily armed SWAT team outside, poised to enter at any time. This is a very serious situation and not the place for anything but the blackest of gallows humour.
The problem the show has is that it’s chosen How I Met Your Mother as its model, continuing in its usual format and blending comedy, drama and flashbacks, when it should have chosen 24. 24 succeeded by offering an intense real-time experience in which the audience were constantly on the edge of their seats, every episode a thriller. While the emphasis might shift between episodes and across the season, the story continued without any individual episode feeling significantly tonally different to the others. While the show used humour, as any successful show does, it used it sparingly and cautiously, and did not stop the action for a ‘lighter’ story because that would have broken the tension. If Orange Is The New Black had really embraced that more consistently dramatic format it might have done better.
The most successful aspects of this season are those that embrace the seriousness of the situation and follow the main story of the three-day riot and the negotiations around it. The whole thing is held together by an absolute tour-de-force performance from Danielle Brooks as Taystee, who is simply brilliant in a juicy but very demanding role. One of the sad things about season 4 was that the friendship between Taystee and Poussey was played down in the run-up to Poussey’s death. We are compensated for that here, not just with a lovely flashback giving us a glimpse of Poussey herself, but through Taystee’s absolute determination to get justice for her friend. We are reminded in the final episode that, while we saw Poussey die a year ago, in the show it has only been four days, and Taystee’s grief is raw throughout this entire season. Brooks has to play the whole thirteen episodes in a state of anger and gut-wrenching bereavement, while also head-lining the negotiations, playing a woman thrust into a totally unfamiliar situation but, until her last, dreadful mistake, doing very well. Brooks is magnificent and Taystee’s story compelling, with even that awful error in judgment at the season’s end understandable and true to character.
One the other hand, the biggest problems with this season were caused by the show’s determination to hold on to its usual tone and format even in very altered circumstances. One of the least satisfying episodes is “The Tightening”, which plays out as a spoof of horror movies, casting Piscatella as the boogeyman but also including random horror movie tropes played out by other characters messing around (Angie and Leanne making prank phone calls, Flaritza singing in a dark corridor for no apparent reason). The situation is too serious and the story too continuous for such an odd one-hour tonal shift to work. Similarly self-conscious elements, like Judy King being made to look like an image of Christ’s Passion for no real symbolic reason (carrying a cross bar like the more historically accurate depictions of Jesus carrying his cross, blood pouring down her face as she falls in imitation of the three falls Jesus has in the Passion story) take the viewer out of the narrative and sit oddly within the overall arc of the season.
There are other problems with this season as well. It stretches credibility to what might, for some, be breaking point. Season 1 of Orange Is The New Black was loosely based on Piper Kerman’s non-fiction memoir and was correspondingly realistic. There was the odd bizarre beat, like Red’s hunt for a special chicken, but the incidents, the stakes and the arc plots were based on realistic situations for a minimum security prison, including difficulties with bunkmates, being sent to the SHU and Pornstache’s abuse of Tricia leading to her death. Over the years, as the show has moved further and further away from Kerman’s real experience, increasingly dramatic and not entirely plausible situations have crept in, including the mass trip to the lake at the end of season 3 and a number of escapes, brief getaways and accidental early releases (Rosa, Morello and Angie, respectively).
This season, however, really starts to stretch the limits of our suspension of disbelief, particularly with the existence of Frieda’s bunker in an old pool. This has apparently been there for years – how long has the pool been empty? Does no one ever check it? Why don’t the SWAT teams find it at first – didn’t they check for people hiding in the lockers? Wasn’t Frieda in Max for murder originally – how long has she been at Litchfield? How did she smuggle an entire computer in there? This was the biggest, but far from the only, plausibility issue with the season, and was then compounded by basic writing errors like the count being down by ten at the end (there are ten people in the bunker, but two have escaped and there is one extra among the prisoners. If Chang has been caught then it works, but viewers should not be left scratching their heads and wondering if a scene has been deleted).
The flashbacks are also not quite as well deployed as they have been in past seasons. In previous years, the flashbacks were used chiefly to show us why these women were in prison, and also to give us some insight into their histories and how these inform their actions. More recently, we’ve also been given more insight into the guards through flashbacks as well. The flashbacks relating to Linda and Piscatella in this season emphasise the fact that it is not just inmates who may have been responsible, deliberately or otherwise, for a person’s death in the past, which adds to the tension. However, Alison’s flashback, while telling us some basic information about her family, doesn’t really give us any insight into her character or why she’s in prison, and Frieda’s, while interesting, exists primarily to justify the existence of the utterly implausible secret bunker. Red’s flashback is the best part of the bizarre horror-spoof episode, reminding us of her background in the Soviet Union, but otherwise unremarkable.
All this sounds very negative, but this season is not a total disaster. In addition to Taystee’s very strong story arc, there are some nice explorations of human culture in microcosm scattered through the series, as the prison becomes its own ecosystem, largely cut off from the outside world. We see slavery, a barter system and the migration of groups not wanting to follow their culture as a whole (as those wanting to stay out of the riot make their way outside) – a human history in miniature.
It’s also interesting to see the show’s usual tribal units along race lines start to break down. The black women, in their quest for justice for Poussey, stay together the longest due to their clear goal. Elsewhere, however, Flores works with Red while Gloria and Maria eventually splinter off, Piper spends some time trying to help Taystee and the others and we even see one of the newer Hispanic women working with one of the white supremacists on a coffee shop. All this culminates in a final cliff-hanger as ten of our core cast from across different groups face a SWAT team prepared to use unnecessary force on them (Piper, Alex, Red and Nicky from the white women plus Frieda from the Golden Girls, Taystee, Black Cindy and Suzanne from the black women and Gloria and Flores from the Hispanic women).
It is interesting that, while the season 4 cliffhanger offered us Daya, by sheer accident (in-universe – a deliberate choice on the part of the writers, presumably intended to emphasise the randomness of who ends up with the gun) pointing a gun at Humphrey, a very unpleasant guard but not the root cause of the problem, this season finale gave us Taystee, a character with a lot of responsibility for starting the riot who has a very clear goal, pointing a gun at Piscatella, the character who, while not the one to kill Poussey himself, created the circumstances that allowed it to happen. This provides us with the emotional resolution to the death of Poussey that we’ve needed all season, far more so than Piscatella’s rather abrupt death just afterwards.
However, it was rather disappointing that the season finished still in the riot, albeit at its very end. The consequences from all of this will have to be tremendous for the show to maintain any credibility whatsoever. We’ve already seen two characters sent to Max, one (Daya) a series regular from the very beginning, and the others have been separated. But two guards are dead (and another miraculously alive without his insulin), the others have been raped, tortured and abused, and the prison has been set on fire – there will be further consequences to this that we have yet to see (considering Piper and Alex have just got engaged, it seems likely these will start with them being split up – whether this proves as emotionally affecting as the abrupt separation of Flaca and Maritza remains to be seen).
All in all, this season of Orange Is The New Black is far from a disaster. Held together by Danielle Brooks, it includes a number of affecting moments (Judy King comforting Soso, Janae insisting to Taystee that they must speak up for themselves, Nicky comforting both Red and Morello). Even the more dubious developments include something worth watching – it was a relief, for example, after numerous episodes of comedy drug-taking, to see Kate Mulgrew offer absolute, steely, silent resistance to a sadistic, twisted man in a way that brooked no opposition (in a scene which made me genuinely fear for Red’s safety). The biggest problems with the season come from the ‘comedy’, much of which is rather tasteless, given that it is based on the abuse of a group of terrified hostages denied even the dignity of clothing. A return to a more normal format should bring with it a return to the balance the show managed between these elements in previous years – and they even have a perfect excuse to add to Piper’s sentence now as well. Perhaps starting with a six-year time jump is the best way to go!