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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Orange Is The New Black’s narrative experiment comes to an end

Illustration for article titled Orange Is The New Black’s narrative experiment comes to an end

Welcome to the end of The A.V. Club’s coverage of Orange Is The New Black season five. These reviews and their comment sections are intended for those who have seen up to this episode, the season finale. If you have not seen the entire season, read ahead at your own peril.

There was no indication at the end of last season that the fifth season of Orange Is The New Black would vary in structure. It was only during red carpet appearances earlier this year that the cast started talking about the fact that the season would take place across only a few days, telling the story of the riot we saw in its opening stages in last season’s finale.

I went back to check my reaction at the time: I wrote that the twist was “an interesting wrinkle,” which “makes sense given cliffhanger, but throws a wrench into many of their storytelling rhythms.” I think this was part of the point: after one season of introduction and three seasons of mostly telling the same stories about how the prison ecosystem changes in light of significant changes—Vee’s arrival, MCC’s takeover, the arrival of the new inmates—living in the riot is a way to avoid repeating those patterns. But the truth is that one of the show’s greatest strengths has been showing us the long-term effects of these changes. It wasn’t just that MCC took over Litchfield and things went to shit: we saw the situation in the prison devolve gradually, piece by piece, until outright tragedy emerged. We also saw how characters evolved to confront these situations, meaningful changes that were made possible by the cumulative time we spent with them.

To suddenly go from a season spanning months to a season taking place over three days is the definition of temporal whiplash, especially when you consider the complexities of the riot. Early on, the show struggled to balance comedy and drama amidst an inherently dramatic situation, exacerbating an existing issue the show deals with on a regular basis. As the season progressed, the short time frame meant there was no room to evolve characters who were thin to begin with, which left both one-dimensional villains and the new group of recurring characters introduced last season to mostly tread water development-wise. Taystee, a character whose arc reached its crescendo at the end of last season, was well served by the show spending time in her defining moment; for others like Maritza and Flaca, though, the riot was mostly just another set of days, their characters moved around as a form of comic relief where the narrative demanded it.

The nature of these reviews, written as I watched screeners, means they are a document of my evolving reservations about this format over the course of the season. However, you may have noticed that I never really made any clear judgment, as I was waiting for a moment that clearly communicated whether or not the experiment was a success or a failure. I kept expecting there to be such a moment in an earlier episode where the show was doing something that could have only happened in this story structure, which would make it feel like there was an inspired storytelling instinct driving the choice to go in this direction. However, that moment never came: while there were a handful of powerful images—Taystee’s speech to reporters and the burning of the Hot Cheetos and Takis come immediately to mind—there weren’t so many that a more condensed version of the riot would seem unimaginable. I went into the finale still on the fence over whether this was a productive narrative choice, which is—I suppose—a judgment in itself.

I will say that the sense of dread going into this finale was more intense than in previous seasons, but this was a pretty simple byproduct of the season’s structure: we knew at the end of last season that things were about to go very bad for Litchfield, and then the season just forced us to live with that feeling while it told other stories. It never let us forget that things could go wrong at any moment, but it kept delaying the inevitable, showing us news reports about casualties and preparing us for the fact that things were about to go very badly. The choice to end the penultimate episode before the riot was an effective cliffhanger, but not a surprising one given how unavoidable that scenario has felt all season.


The raid is some of the tensest television the show has ever offered, as you keep waiting for something to go “terribly” wrong while watching as nothing right is happening. We’re immediately shown the SWAT team showing blatant disregard for these women, even those who aren’t resisting. We get powerful vignettes of their use of force, as when Brook is pulled from the library watching the books falling from the ceiling as she’s carried off. We also get the alarming scene in the laundromat where the team leader and one of his young—probably poorly trained—soldiers discuss the best tactics for using pepper bullets and unnecessary punches to the face to immobilize their “targets.” That soldier—warned that bullets need to be pointed up so the pepper spray can rain down on the inmate—is a ticking time bomb waiting to go off, so when he points his gun at Maritza I lost my breath. And then I was relieved—RELIEVED—when Maritza was only subjected to unnecessary suffering from the pepper bullet, which is so disturbing when you take a step back and think about it. Somehow, seeing these women systematically shocked with electrified shields, forcibly restrained, and then rounded up like cattle is a relief, which is too dark to really process.

Chekhov’s Inexperienced SWAT Soldier does eventually claim a victim, but it’s the one person in that prison whose death is more or less meaningless. Piscatella was never going to become a fully three-dimensional figure over just three days, but even within the narrative structure the use of this character did nothing to engender anything other than hate. You could argue his death is a moment of catharsis, but it lacks the kind of impact Vee’s death had: these types of villains can’t stay in this story for long, but whereas Vee was run over by a hero, Piscatella becomes collateral damage amidst chaos, eliciting a shrug and little else for me. It inspired my darkest thought of the episode, which was that part of me wanted that bullet to find its way into someone else, someone I cared about, if only because it felt like it would echo more from a storytelling perspective.


I didn’t actually want Suzanne to wake up from her catatonic state and find her way into the crossfire. I certainly didn’t want Taystee to hold onto the gun she takes from Frieda to shoot Piscatella and get herself shot. I didn’t even want either Alex or Piper—given a huge romantic moment at the end of the previous episode—to die, even if their relationship has never been my favorite part of the series. However, as the episode progressed, I became weirdly disappointed that all of the dread I had been feeling was dissipating. Although I couldn’t bear the thought of losing any of the show’s central characters, it seemed cheap that even the white supremacists and the Latino inmates who organized a trap for the SWAT team and attacked them emerged from the riot unscathed. At various points in the season, characters express their desire that the riot not be for nothing, and I felt some variation on the same thing: if everyone walks out of Litchfield alive, what impact did this riot really have?

“Storm-y Weather” confronts this question from a variety of angles. The first is through a focus on how a handful of characters were changed over the course of the riot. Central to this is Taystee, who we saw reacting in horror as the raid began, and who eventually has all the weight of the riot fall onto her shoulders. Taystee has worked tirelessly to try to earn justice for her dead friend, but it has come at the expense of everything else: in addition to a lack of sleep or proper meals, Taystee also never got to fully process her grief, and lost track of Suzanne at a time when her friend desperately needed her. More than any other character, she lived the riot in every moment of this season, and these three days were equal parts transformative—giving her a sense of purpose she had never had previously—and destructive.


The single most intense moment in this episode is when Taystee sees Piscatella in the swimming pool, and moves quickly into a rage: after spending the past tense minutes convinced she was responsible for this raid, she realizes that it all started with Piscatella. As Taystee holds a loaded gun to his head, my chest got tight: whereas I didn’t really care if Daya shot Humphrey, this season has reinforced that Taystee and by extension Danielle Brooks is the heart of this show in the midst of this riot. Of the character arcs, Taystee’s was the only one that felt like it was consistently strong throughout the riot, and I was literally on the edge of my seat (I really do mean literally) hoping that she wouldn’t do anything that would jeopardize her life in that moment. It was everything she’d been putting aside during this three days exploding in a single moment, her resolve breaking down and providing a deeply affecting conclusion to her lead role in the season as a whole.

But when the show tries to do the same with other characters, it doesn’t land the same way. Red spent too much of the season drugged up digging up exposition on Piscatella for her “arc” to feel meaningful, despite the show positioning her as the co-lead to Taystee by having the two share the season’s final shot. Maria and Gloria’s stories were well-drawn but felt like they never got enough time to develop over the course of the season, and I’d say the same for Alex and Piper, and pretty much every other supporting character. This is not to say these stories were bad: I liked what the show did with Nicky and Morello, for example, but its connection to the riot was never particularly strong. When the inmates start emerging to the crowd of people gathered at the prison, we see bits of resolution—Maria with her daughter, Lorna and her husband, Leanne and her mother, Flaritza and their fans—that point to ongoing stories, but everything feels incredibly small compared to the riot itself, and the character (Taystee) most strongly connected to it.


The second way the show confronts the impact of the riot is what happens after the inmates are rounded up outside, and the buses start arriving. Although everyone who is rounded up inside the prison does not face the type of dire consequence I imagined, we leave them being filed off to other prisons, with no idea what type of conditions they’ll find on the other side. It works to reinforce that the inmates were fighting for a future they never really had control over: it’s possible that they would have relocated most of the inmates at Litchfield even if the riot had ended peacefully. The show didn’t do much with Maritza and Flaca this season outside of giving them a YouTube channel, but this development splits them up, and dramatically reorders the future of the show. Will we follow multiple prisons? Will some of the other duos—which A.V. Club commenter Evil Lincoln ranked in previous seasons—be no more? Will the show use this as a chance to trim its ungainly ensemble, and refocus its energy on a smaller group of characters? It’s not a life-and-death resolution to the riot, but it’s a meaningful one, and promises considerable change when the show shifts into its post-riot aftermath.

The third approach to confronting the impact of the riot is by not actually resolving the riot. We never truly enter the aftermath of the riot in “Storm-y Weather.” When the guards realize that there are ten people missing—we’ll talk about this number in the Strays—there is no confusion about where they are. Caputo immediately presumes they are in the abandoned pool, as we’ve known throughout the episode. The SWAT team moves in, and the group decides to make a united front, knowing they don’t have the firepower to wage any type of resistance. The group is something of a motley crew, with members multiple representatives from the different social and racial groups in Litchfield. And after a released Piscatella is gunned down, the SWAT team bursts their way into the pool area, and we fade to Orange on the group of women linked to one another, their fates uncertain.


It’s a decision that bothers me. The show has typically done 90-minute finales, so the show could have easily spent forty minutes to resolve this storyline and provide a proper coda. Instead, they effectively forced us to live through the exact same cliffhanger as last season for another year: although the specifics have changed, the core of both last season’s cliffhanger and this season’s is the uncertainty over whether characters we care about will live and die. I went into this season worried that something like this would be the natural byproduct of whatever Daya did with that gun, and for it to come to pass mostly reconfirms my reaction as opposed to challenging or evolving it. What happens after the SWAT team enters that room could well dramatically change the future of this show, and deliver on the ominous foreshadowing in the season that came before it: however, instead of providing the narrative resolution to that focus of the season, the show delays it once more, and in the process leaves me still questioning whether or not this was a productive experiment. While I don’t think my opinion of this season will change dramatically depending on who survives that attack, I do find it difficult to fully process that opinion with so much still up in the air.

The choice to tell the story of this riot over an entire season was a risky one, and I will readily admit that I probably would have complained if they had burned through the riot in a few episodes and tried to return to the status quo. I appreciate when shows take risks, and if I were to isolate the season to only Taystee’s storyline and the post-riot negotiations it would sit alongside the show’s strongest moments. But the short timeframe meant that nothing seemed to pay off: Judy King was released but disappeared, Daya was arrested but never followed up on, Sophia went to Max never to be seen again, the guards were each given new characterizations that proved fundamentally insignificant beyond a few jokes, etc. None of the season’s flashbacks ended up being terribly memorable, and the time spent outside of the prison was deeply hit (glimpses of the prisoners’ families) and miss (Bayley). The natural tension created by the volatile riot environment was often extremely productive, but the show doubled down on cheap suspense with Piscatella’s entrance, detouring into a horror thriller with diminishing returns. It would have been unrealistic for every storyline within the riot to reach a clean and satisfying conclusion after only three days, but it’s fundamentally unsatisfying when so little seemed to add up into something substantive and meaningful.


My frustrations with the fifth season of Orange Is The New Black have not shaken by core investment in the show and its characters. That is the nice thing about creating an experimental season: it is so obviously a deviation that we can write it off accordingly, not necessarily damaging the show’s long term potential. Although it’s not clear exactly what form the show will be in next season—or where we will pick up the story, for that matter—its future has not been irrevocably minimized by what happens here.

Instead, it’s just a case where the show has delivered a season of television that maps well onto Netflix’s binge structure but risks exacerbating the degree to which this and other Netflix shows debut and then are quickly forgotten weeks later. The season’s central storyline explores the messy aftermath of the tragedy that ended last season, and offers a powerful performance by Danielle Brooks that comes closest to justifying the experiment. But the bulk of the season only sporadically taps into those ideas, and struggles to introduce anything new that could evolve the show’s interest in issues of identity or ideology. The core ideas that drive Orange Is The New Black remain deeply substantive, but its fifth season didn’t end up having the time to tap into that consistently, or evolve it in ways that we’ve come to expect from the show.


Stray observations

  • So, the SWAT team says they are missing ten inmates, but this math doesn’t add up. There are ten inmates in the bunker, true, but Pennsatucky is in Coates’ cabin, and Chang snuck through the fence at one point. Linda is throwing off the count by one, but this implies that their numbers are wrong, or Chang was caught in a deleted scene.
  • Speaking of Pennsatucky, hers is a story that really struggled to add up to anything specific. I was suitably unsettled by her occupying Coates’ house and constructing a domestic scene when he returned, but after last season took the character on such a complex journey it seemed like this season she was treading water in that. It’s perhaps the story that will need the most time to resolve, given the psychological trauma of her past and her inability to see Coates’ rape for what it was, but I had hoped we were moving past Coates when he left the prison, and am flummoxed by the return to it here. Perhaps the point is that Pennsatucky accepts his form of affection because of how bad prison is—emphasized by her bullying—but I really need Boo or someone else to help her realize she shouldn’t be cozying up under a blanket with her abuser.
  • As critic Alan Sepinwall said when we were discussing the finale, the “I’m from MCC” scene is a nice take on the “I am Spartacus” trope. Linda from Purchasing’s arc never really went anywhere terribly exciting, but it’s nice to think she’ll be stuck in this mess for a while until someone from MCC is able to identify her.
  • That could take some time, though, given that Angie and Leanne burned all of the inmate files. While I imagine there are also computer records that exist in some capacity, it’s unclear what level of information would be filed, and what kind of chaos could result given the inmates lack their traditional identification badges. It seems like a logistical nightmare, which is why I’m feeling like there will be a time jump at some point in next season’s premiere.
  • I spent much of the season confused about what was going on with the nurse in the infirmary, and then the finale doesn’t even bother to clarify where he is. Is he still trapped in the porta-potty? What was the point of that character, exactly? It seems like there were things left on the cutting room floor with some of these stories.
  • I immediately rolled my eyes at the show’s use of The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build A Home” given it feels like it has been used in a lot of TV shows (Wikipedia lists over ten). It’s a great song, and thematically appropriate, but if Grey’s Anatomy used it a decade ago, I feel like you should try to find something else?
  • I mentioned it above, but the shot of Brook being carried out and watching the memorial library from her point-of-view is breathtaking. My favorite visual of the season.
  • I’m curious about the science of an EpiPen counteracting Lithium like that—any doctors in the house?
  • I swear I hadn’t seen Flaca and Martiza’s “this was just a taste of freedom” conversation or before I wrote a previous review outlining that theme. I found that whole thing on-the-nose, underlining ideas that were pretty evident in the thematic work in the previous episodes.
  • Nice little moment between Piper and Suzanne’s mothers—they don’t know the complex relationship their daughters shared back in the first season, or what kind of danger they’re in here, but it’s a brief moment to remind us.
  • We’ve now gone almost two entire seasons since Caputo dropped that hint about Maureen’s file, but somehow it never came up this season—I have to think they’ll close that loop when she recovers from her infection, right? Or am I going to be left hanging forever?
  • “I guess she would care if I died”: Leanne and Angie have a tough role to play, oscillating between antagonists and comic relief over the course of the season in ways that didn’t always work for me, but I loved this moment of Leanne reacting to her mother’s presence at the prison.
  • My screeners didn’t have subtitles or closed captioning for these final episodes, but I’m pretty sure Gloria’s phone call with her mother confirmed that Benny survived his surgery? There’s a lot of “What Ifs” tied to Gloria not learning about Benny’s injuries.
  • “It’s like reality, only fake!”—this should’ve been on the box for Frogger.
  • Request: an oral history of how Michael J. Harney has a credit in a season in which Healy never appears.

A final note on Binge-Reading

Thanks for coming to the end of my journey writing about the show: as with last season, I wrote this in isolation, writing as I went through the screeners Netflix made available, so I hope that it proved productive on your own journey through the series at whatever pace you moved. As we’re still experimenting, please do feel free to reflect on how the shift in how the reviews were published affected your experience following them alongside your viewing schedule. See you next season!