Orange Is the New Black Gambles Big

In its fifth season, the Netflix show digs deep into human nature, and the result is both intriguing and incoherent.


In its first few years of existence, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black evolved from a dramedy about an oblivious white woman enduring prison to a deft and richly textured portrait of injustice in America. This transformation culminated in the penultimate episode of Season 4, “The Animals,” in which a beloved character, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), was crushed to death by a prison guard—a heartbreaking event that united the female inmates of Litchfield against an increasingly punitive system. In the wake of her death, a particularly sadistic guard brought a gun to work, and the season ended with his weapon being coopted by Daya (Dascha Polanco), in a tense cliffhanger that left viewers wondering whether or not she’d pull the trigger.

Orange has always trafficked in echoes and parallels to point out that all people—whichever side of the bars they’re on—are essentially flawed in the same ways, and that a corrupt system crushes everyone. Hence the show’s decision to have the most sympathetic guard, the baby-faced Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) be the one who accidentally killed Poussey. “Yeah, yeah, we know,” a character says early in Season 5, released in its entirety on Friday. “Power erupts.” In the past, Orange has emphasized the humanity of the female inmates, showing the emotional complexity and troubled histories of women who are often stereotyped or unfairly judged. But the new season, by contrast, seems intent on proving how flawed all people are. Set over the course of just three days, as a riot plays out, it’s less a work of entertainment than a sociological experiment, turning the pressure up on the prisoners and flipping Litchfield’s hierarchy upside down.

This is a characteristically bold move by Jenji Kohan, Orange’s showrunner—a gamble that’s high-risk, and, as emerges in the first half of the new season, low reward. The show’s cast has grown to the point of unwieldiness by now, and the result of following so many characters through such a short time period is that the plot becomes sprawling and tentacular, spending far too much time with characters who aren’t doing anything at all, and neglecting others to the point of collapse. It very quickly becomes clear that Thomas Hobbes was right—Litchfield’s state of nature is rough.

Amid the chaos and the cruelty, Orange’s insistence that it’s still a comedy is jarring. In the first episode, for instance, while the bewildered guards and inmates are still deciphering what’s going down, a running joke features different characters referencing mass shootings: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Aurora, Fort Hood. What’s presumably meant to be a dig at the cultural impact of these atrocities feels tonally graceless. And the show’s leaps between Taystee (Danielle Brooks)—who’s using her rage at her friend’s death to demand justice—and the jauntily anarchic behavior of other groups of inmates continually disrupts the pathos. Never have the Veep-like bon mots (the guard Piscatella is described as “the jolly gay giant”) or the bumbling white supremacists been less welcome.

Kohan seems to be intent on putting human nature under the microscope, exploring how people who’ve been subjected to horrific treatment can so cheerfully turn around and inflict the same thing on others. The prisoners, now in control of the one weapon in Litchfield, turn on the guards, who’ve abused their own power for so long. But they also subjugate each other. One particularly clumsy episode touches on slavery, with the Paula Deen-esque character Judy King (Blair Brown) enslaved by a group of women who’ve long resented her special treatment; she’s forced to wear a collar and auctioned off for bids. Outside Litchfield, Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) asks for work at a nail salon and is outraged when she learns new employees have to pay $20 a day for the privilege of “training.” “This is America, lady,” she sputters. “Slavery ain’t legal here.” Again, the echoes emphasize that the only thing distinguishing the prisoners from the rest of society is that their crimes happen to be illegal, or that they happen to have been caught.

But the show rarely takes the time to clarify the points it so badly wants to make, leaving viewers to draw their own meaning from the tumult. And its regular flashbacks—which functioned in Season 1 both as a way to get outside the prison and as a way to add depth to ancillary characters—have become extraneous for the most part, either returning to people we’ve already met or chewing up time in slow-paced episodes. Dale Soules’s Frieda is an intriguing character but viewers don’t necessarily need a history of how she became such an efficient survivalist. And the revelation that Beth Dover’s callous prison exec Linda was once indirectly responsible for the death of a sorority sister seems included only to hammer home the point that women inherently can be cruel to each other.

If you were trying to summarize the tone of the 13 new episodes in two words, “earnest farce” might do it. The strength of the previous seasons was that the show was able to break your heart when it wanted to—to fully emphasize how exploitative and enraging and evil systems of power can be—by putting the jokes on hold. But this new experiment with timing forces comedy and tragedy up against each other in awkward proximity, juxtaposing suicidal impulses with pet grooming and flaming hot Cheetos with solitary confinement. Rather than build to a calamitous ending, as previous seasons have done, the first episode opens in the midst of mayhem and never lets up. There are still moments of true joy, and actors (like Taystee’s Brooks) who are given the time and the emotional space to do extraordinary work. But like many sociological experiments, the outcome of this one isn’t the hoped-for result.