This review contains spoilers for events prior to this season.
Leaving us with the nail-biting cliffhanger that was the finale of the last season, season five of Orange is the New Black was going to be a different sort of beast. This isn’t something I’d put together leading into the new season, but once it started it quickly became apparent that the developments at Litchfield were not going to blow over in an episode or two. Even by the conclusion of this season, Poussey Washington has only been dead for about four days. The events are that condensed.
The season starts right where they last left off, and the ensuing aftermath is a prison riot/hostage situation that occurs for the entirety of the season. A lot has to go on in a much smaller window of time than the series normally gets to work with. It’s not always abundantly clear how much time would pass before, but there’s clearly been wiggle room for relationships and enterprises to develop at realistic paces. As a result of this dramatic shift a lot what happens spins off from the central context of the riot, regardless of the characters concerned.
We get numerous reactions and developments from different groups of people as a result, as one would expect from a sizable population of people. There are those who act as “lunatics running the asylum,” like Leanne and Angie, taking advantage of their freedom within the prison to take what they want and cause general mischief and mayhem. Taystee and company are pushing hard for changes to come about at the prison as a result of the riot, as well as pushing for justice for Poussey. Piper, Alex, and others largely sit it out in the yard, wanting to distance themselves from the whole situation. All the while, injured inmates and those with more sensitive needs like Suzanne suffer from the loss of proper treatment and routine. Each branch feels natural to the situation, doing what the series does best by presenting the good, bad, and questionable sides of people and their actions.
I did like how the riot situation developed, but the small window of time didn’t allow for any particularly meaningful character arcs to shine through. Nearly everybody was too compromised by the situation for that to happen, and almost everything was reactionary. The only significant exception for me was Taystee and co, who spearheaded negotiations on everyone’s behalf. Other developments were still entertaining and well written for what they were, but the situation simply did not allow for a lot to unfold in deeper ways. Many things felt like holdover from the previous season, like this was a season-long special finale. Even the flashback arcs, usually substantial for fleshing out characters, felt a lot more superficial this season, in a lot of cases showing us information we already knew.
I’ve heard criticisms for this season varying too broadly in terms of tone, but I didn’t really find that to be the case. The comedy still worked most of the time when incorporated and didn’t take away from the drama, which played a larger factor in this season thanks to the mounting tension of the situation. With perhaps a few exceptions the series still managed to make me laugh, touch my heart, and make me want to cry when they wanted to. Moments of levity would still exist, after all, even as people lash out against a system that’s actively mistreating them.
Season five of Orange is the New Black is a good continuation of the series, the very real criticisms of the private prison system coming to a head in dramatic and violent fashion. Considering the depths the series is usually allowed to go into with its characters, when not hamstrung but the context of this season, I wonder if this story arc would have been better suited to 3-4 episodes placed at the end of a season, rather than a whole season itself. Though I stand by my criticisms, they’re details that struck me after the fact. In the moment it was still the compelling rollercoaster of emotions I expect from the series.