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.