The Jaunty Horror of Orange Is the New Black

The Netflix show’s sense of humor has never felt so out of place.

In the action-packed second half of Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season, a number of horrific events occurred. A prison guard stalked and kidnapped women. He ripped clumps of hair off Red, leaving her scalp bald and bloody. He broke Alex’s arm. Suzanne had a psychotic breakdown that left her screaming and ripping the fiberboard tiles from the ceiling. In a flashback scene, a male prisoner was viciously raped, and his rapist was scalded to death in the prison showers. And amid all these excruciating moments, the show went off on a jaunty new tangent in “The Tightening,” presenting Orange’s first “horror” episode as a comedic romp through the tropes of classic slasher movies. In the words of Cindy, oh hell no.

While it’s hard to begrudge a show as rich and complex as this one for experimenting with new formats, “The Tightening” was the apex of the tonal missteps Orange has taken since it upped its dramatic stakes last season. How do you follow something as heartbreaking and enraging as the death of Poussey (Samira Wiley)? It’s a tough conundrum, but the answer has been definitively proven not to be: with a series of morbid jokes about mass shootings, a mock talent show starring hostages, and a stress boner. Never has the Netflix show’s characteristically madcap sense of humor felt so out of place.

The decision by the showrunner Jenji Kohan to stage the fifth season in something akin to real time, playing out over three days as the Litchfield prisoners riot, was a fascinating gamble, with mixed results. On the one hand, the show has had the space and time to consider complex ethical and philosophical questions. What kind of society might people forge for themselves without any strictures in place? Is it better to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Jeremy Bentham-style, or to further your own immediate needs as an individual? On the other hand, the show’s sprawling cast (upwards of 60 characters) didn’t seem to lend itself well to the new structure, with a disproportionate amount of time spent with people who were largely unnecessary to the central plot (Leanne and Angie, I’m looking at you). As so often happens with Netflix shows, it was a slow and frustrating buildup to a climactic and well-delivered final episode.

But by far the biggest issue was the season’s jarring oscillations between tragedy and comedy. “The Tightening,” directed by Erin Feeley, was an experiment with the conventions of horror, as Desi Piscatella, the sadistic guard and primary antagonist from Season 4, broke into the prison and stalked the inmates one by one. The episode lurched between the show’s typical style and scenes enhanced by atonal, suspenseful sounds and a shaky-cam effect. Glimpses of Piscatella lurking in the background of scenes made for genuine tension, which was squashed by the show’s comedic homages to different horror movies. Cindy, walking through the hallways, encountered what looked like the twins from The Shining, only it turned out to be Maritza and Flaca practicing their singing. In a nod to When a Stranger Calls, Leanne and Angie prank-called Cindy, whispering, “Have you checked the children?” When Piscatella finally caught up with Piper and Alex, it was in the shower, Psycho-style.

This whimsical, winking swerve into genre might have functioned better if it wasn’t immediately undercut by the following episode, “The Reverse Midas Touch”—one of the darkest Orange has aired. Directed by Laura Prepon, who plays Alex, it cut between present-day Piscatella torturing his collection of inmates, and a flashback detailing the lead-up to his murder of a male prisoner. “I like an audience, so I’ve invited your family here to watch,” he told Red, before ripping out strands of her hair in a scene that was genuinely hard to watch. This was a more characteristic exploration of horror for the show, with a sadistic villain intent on wielding his power over vulnerable women.

The contrast between the two episodes was discordant, and it speaks to the struggles Orange has had in exploring darker themes while keeping its mordant sense of humor. And while Asia Kate Dillon and Francesca Curran have done admirable work this season as Litchfield’s two neo-Nazis, it’s debatable how funny white supremacists can be in 2017, particularly when they’re prone to shouting hateful invective at prisoners of color. Scenes where the prisoners subjected their guards to some of the same treatment they’d inflicted on them—cavity searches, enforced nudity, torture by way of 2 Girls 1 Cup—struck an incongruous balance between comedy and discomfort, particularly when Luschek (Matt Peters) had an adverse, tumescent reaction to the stress of it all.

Kohan has described the series in the past as a “trojan horse,” a story sold on the back of its fish-out-of-water premise of a middle-class white woman sent to jail that came, in later seasons, to focus much more on the lives of its characters of color. But with this shift in focus came a more deliberate emphasis on the very real inequality prevalent today, both inside women’s prisons and out. Poussey’s death was heartbreaking in part because it was so timely, and once again, Season 5 coincided with the news of yet another acquittal of a police officer who shot and killed a black American. The show has proven that it can delve into real, significant issues and wield profound influence over Netflix’s millions of viewers. But its impulse to alternate these storylines with sitcom-ready moments has never felt so dissonant. This isn’t to say the show can’t or shouldn’t be funny—just that its quirky, crackpot brand of humor could be refined given the stakes of the stories it’s telling.