Orange Is the New Black Season 5 Review: An Ambitious, “Real-Time” Season Shakes Things Up

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As far as Orange Is the New Black goes, season four was almost unbearably dull until the final three episodes, which then suddenly manifested one of the show’s all-time best arcs, one that fundamentally changed the mood of the show. So going into season five, it’s great to see the writers keeping that mood intact without losing the show’s essence. Season five is funny, kooky, and sweet, but there also isn’t an episode of the 13 where Poussey’s name isn’t mentioned.

Taking place over just three days, the most significant through-line of season five is an inmate led riot that reverses the roles in the prison in a way we haven’t seen before. That’s roughly 13 hours of television to cover 72 hours of actual time. As with every season, there are successes and failures in the individual character arcs. But while season five spreads the wealth of greatness far better than its predecessor, this story did not need to be 13 episodes, a criticism that’s starting to recur in Netflix’s series—evidence can be found in last week’s House of Cards season, as well as any of their Marvel shows without Jessica or Jones in the title. For every great moment of tension or strong character beat, there’s time wasted on characters the show hasn’t given us much reason to care about. The flashbacks have become something of a chore, with the only great ones from this season detailing Piscatella’s background and shedding light on a pivotal moment in Piper and Alex’s pre-prison relationship. It’s not even a given anymore that an episode is going to have flashbacks, a smart choice by the writers, even though too many of them are still crammed in.

The real meat of season five naturally all takes place in Litchfield’s present. After dealing with the cliffhanger of Daya pointing a gun at a guard that closed season four, the most notable role of the season goes to Taystee. I admire how much emphasis the writers put on Poussey’s death this season, making Taystee this year’s star a natural fit, being her best friend and all. Having been sidelined a couple seasons in the row, Taystee leads at least one angle of the revolution going on inside Litchfield. She and her friends have taken Caputo’s office and are making demands. It’s inspiring to see Taystee put the responsibility on herself making the prison a more humane place, and doing it as fairly as possible. Her hopes for Litchfield, as polled by the entire prison, include better learning facilities, proper justice taken on Poussey’s killer, and no more Piscatella.

But what Taystee can’t control is the prisoner population itself. This riot proves dangerous for everyone involved, especially the guards that have been taken prisoner, with the inmates replacing the shu with a porta potty that hasn’t been cleaned out in a while. Sometimes the guards have to participate in psychotic talent shows, sometimes they’re refused medical treatment for life-threatening wounds. Orange Is the New Black doesn’t always nail the vast difference in tone between the two, but the series remains eternally watchable for this weird dichotomy in tone.

There’s a large chunk of other subplots the season throws at us. Red is out for revenge against Piscatella, which boils to its own climax before the season is out. Piper and Alex’s relationship finally feels relatively stable, but even they sometimes find themselves on opposing sides of the riot conflict, with Piper still unable to keep her nose out of things. Mendoza gets news of her son needing emergency surgery and tries to get furlough within all of this mess. Morello thinks she’s pregnant. But season five works best when the show’s newfound intensity is put on display. This might be the darkest season yet in spots.

More serialized than ever before, Orange takes itself very seriously this year, which is where a smaller episode count could have come in handy. For every episode where it feels like everything is happening at once, there will be one where it feels like nothing is happening. If the series had trimmed the fat, this season could have been one of the best yet. It’s still a very good, sometimes great one, but seeing obvious areas where it could have been better doesn’t do the season any favors. Orange Is the New Black is still a good show, but it’s also still on a decline from the heights it reached in its first two seasons. Maybe the shake-ups at the end of season five will help that, though a frustrating cliffhanger makes it clear they’re trying to hold onto as many viewers as possible. But there are still way worse shows you could be watching. Orange remains a fun, character driven work, and even succeeds in upping the drama this season. It just needs to find ways to keep doing that, or maybe even just ask Netflix to cut its episode count. Grade: B+

By Matt Dougherty

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