Last year’s cliffhanger had us all on the edge of our seats wondering whether Daya (Dascha Polanco) would pull the trigger on psychopathic guard Humphrey (Michael Torpey), putting an end to his miserable existence. Well, the gun does go off… but it ultimately backfires on the show. Playing out like a cross between Attica and Lord of the Flies, season five takes place over the course of a three day riot at Litchfield during which the inmates go on an anarchic spree of malevolent indulgence, dehumanizing their guard captives and generally acting like a bunch of nimrods. The black inmates set themselves apart from the pack – as one faction always does in the Flies trope – taking warden Caputo hostage as a way of seeking justice for the death of their beloved friend Poussey. Ultimately, as is usually the case with riots…it doesn’t end well.
The choice to confine 13 episodes to a span of a few days might have been a decent idea if the plot wasn’t so well-worn. It’s your basic prison riot cinema 101. There’s a lot of boisterous brouhaha, punctuated by quiet moments, a few meager insights…followed by the predictable questions: Are we the bad guys? Was it all worth it? In the end, the season paints itself into a corner, wearing the audience out to the point where answers to such moral conundrums don’t matter anymore, you just want it to end already.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of stretching out such a large canvas for the sake of a finger painting exercise – the excruciating finale of How I met your Mother springs to mind. Still, if you’re going to make such a bold narrative decision, it needs to maintain a strong focus, both in tone and theme. Season five is all over the map in that regard. Is it a campy romp or is it a legitimate commentary on our nation’s privatized prison systems? Is it about the duality of man (woman) or merely a cartoon replete with poo poo and fart jokes and the occasional exposed set of boobies? In other words, it’s a hodgepodge which winds up feeling more like a missed opportunity than a cohesive statement.
Aside from the missteps in style and execution, I would add that Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Pepron) have long since become untenable, yet we are still made to endure their cringing presence to an almost sadistic level. Pinch-faced Piper served her purpose well enough as introduction to the microcosm of Litchfield, but her role should have been shrunk to travel-sized significance by now. As for Alex, queen of the ironically arched brow, she should have never been allowed to return in season three.
The rest of the characters get shorter shrift, a few dead end arcs, some shallow perspective, but by and large it’s more about spectacle than substance and that spectacle gets old…real fast. Orange is The New Black has always been about exploring the ways in which lives can turn on a dime and how to survive the ensuing aftermath. Showrunner Jenji Kohan abandons this construct and hangs the entire season on a singular, attenuated thread. Unfortunately, the effort collapses under the weight of her misguided ambition.
Showrunner Jenji Kohan hangs the entire season on a singular, attenuated thread. Unfortunately, the effort collapses under the weight of her ambition.