Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Orange is the New Black season 5
Season 5 of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is something of a letdown – even more so because it comes after one of the show’s best years. Season 4 ended with a heartbreaking loss, quickly followed up by a tense cliffhanger. In the wake of Poussey Washington’s death, inmate Dayanara Diaz got her hands on a guard’s gun and the season ended with Daya aiming the gun at a guard’s head, surrounded by dozens of furious inmates screaming for her to pull the trigger. For the fifth season, creator Jenji Kohan took a risk by setting all thirteen episodes within the time span of the Litchfield prison riot: a three-day period directly following the season 4 finale. This was a bold choice by Kohan, and it could’ve taken the show in any number of directions quality-wise. Unfortunately, the series ended up going in the wrong direction.
As far as bad seasons of good shows go, season 5 of Orange certainly isn’t as heinous as something like the infamous second season of Friday Night Lights. But there’s no arguing that this is the weakest Orange is the New Black season thus far. The decision to structure this season around a quasi real-time format was undoubtedly a disservice to the show. By stretching out an isolated, chaotic incident like a prison riot across thirteen episodes, Kohan makes the story overall- and the characters in it- feel uncomfortably thin.
This problem isn’t ideal for any show, but it’s particularly harmful to one known for fulfilling storylines charged by rich characters. Once the inmates take over the prison, their newfound power allows them little more to do than twiddle their thumbs for thirteen episodes. The new status quo lasts far too long, and leaves the show suffering on several fronts that, in past years, have made Orange is the New Black one of television’s best shows.
One of Orange is the New Black‘s highest merits is its ability to make everything – from great tragedies to hilarious embarrassments – seem inevitable. Once a conflict is introduced, it’s only a matter of time before it boils over in a way that’s believable and, as direct result, satisfactory. But in season 5, most instigating events came out of left field and triggered a domino effect that, more often than not, let to disappointing conclusions.
Perhaps the best example of this is a storyline involving Gloria Mendoza’s son, Benny. Without much warning, Gloria discovers her son is in the hospital over a serious injury. To get furlough, Gloria schemes to get the captive guards released, thus ending the prison riot. While this storyline gives plenty of material for actress Selenis Leyva to work with, it’s awkwardly introduced and sticks out primarily as a bold-faced plot motivator. It feels less like an opportunity to learn about Gloria and more like an excuse to give the Litchfield hostages an escape route. Jenji Kohan, who also created the Showtime comedy Weeds, has a unique talent for plugging twists that keeps her shows perpetually interesting. But oftentimes those twists emerge from pre-established elements that conceivably catalyze the story. We might’ve known about Gloria’s son Benny, but have no real reason to care for him or to think his life would be in danger anytime soon. Thus Kohan banks on sympathy we don’t have for a character whose predicament comes from out of nowhere.
The prevailing issues of season 5 wouldn’t have been such a detriment if the individual episodes were good by themselves. But unfortunately, none of the flashback episodes in season 5 to stand out. On top of being weak, episodic stories, they either touch on the backstories of characters who have already had episodes, or on the origins of characters we don’t care much about. Once again we get episodes for Piper, Alex, Daya, and Red, but we’ve yet to see episodes centered on Yoga Jones, Gina, or Anita. Regarding characters who get their first flashback episodes, one of them is Linda Ferguson, an MCC employee who unexpectedly lands in the middle of the Litchfield riot. Linda’s episode recounts her days in a college sorority – not really the eye-opening backstory we’re use to seeing in an Orange is the New Black episode. And while some singular editions of Orange are more lighthearted than others, the best feel like complete stories outside of their seasonal context, and manage to move us in some way.
With a faulty overarching story and dysfunctional episodes, Orange‘s fifth season loses all command over tone. Orange is the New Black started as a tight-rope act between comedy and drama. Some might argue that, at this point, Orange is almost completely a drama. Turn to any random moment in season 5, and you can see that to be true. Some of the darkest, grittiest, and most inhumane scenes transpire during season 5, and yet the show still has a stubborn grasp on the comedy end of the spectrum. There are moments in this season that feel less like a realistic prison drama, and more like watching a standup comedian riff on what prison life must be like. The epitome of this can be found in the “Litchfield Idol” episode, when one of the inmates does impressions of other characters on the show.
Aside from oscillating unsuccessfully between two different tones, season 5 also takes a bizarre stab at another genre: horror. On episode becomes a weird slasher film, in which a guard sneaks into Litchfield and incapacitates prisoners one by one. Kohan and her team are clever writers, and surely were in on the joke. Still, they would have been better off restraining themselves from telling said joke. As a result, season 5’s erratic tone did its wobbly storyline minimal favors.
You would hope Orange is the New Black would pull it together for the season finale. Sadly, that isn’t the case this time around. While season 4 ended on a bona fide cliffhanger – one fueled with high drama and higher emotions – season 5 ended on a whimper instead of a bang. It felt less like reaching the edge of a cliff and more like the bottom of a small, gradually inclined hill. Instead of sweeping the rug out from under our feet, season 5 simply ends, leaving little to anticipate going forward. Hopefully season 6 will mark a return to form for the Netflix heavyweight.
All seasons of Orange is the New Black are available to stream on Netflix. What did you think of the latest season?