Late in the new season of Orange Is the New Black, as the prison riot that’s gripped Litchfield appears to be nearing an end, an inmate asks, “So was it worth it?”
She’s wondering about the costs and benefits of the riot and the siege that followed, which led to violence at times and intense peace and joy at others. But she could just as easily be asking about the decision to set this whole fifth season (it debuts Friday; I’ve seen all 13 episodes) across the three days that the riot lasts.
Orange isn’t the first series to radically alter its format for a single season. Creator Jenji Kohan’s Weeds reinvented itself every year for the second half of its run (with fandom split widely over whether this was a good idea), and FX’s Archer has done the same recently. It’s not even the first show to try to stretch out a three-day span in the lives of the characters across a whole season. How I Met Your Mother‘s swan song took place over Robin and Barney’s wedding weekend.
That HIMYM experiment was a disaster on almost every level (well before we got to the finale where the Mother… well, you know). But it was also a desperate gamble by a creative team that hadn’t expected to have to fill one more year, had a specific event they felt had to be held until right before the end, and had a small cast and 24 episodes in which they had to do… something. Between inmates, guards, and administrators, Orange has one of the largest ensembles in all of television, and over time has proven that it can pull the most obscure and seemingly thin character off its bench and turn them into someone just as complicated and interesting as the ones we’ve known for years. In terms of the sheer tonnage of characters and storylines, if ever a show was built to prove the HIMYM final season idea could work, it’s this one, which has no need of devoting an entire episode to an omelet-making competition — though a good chunk of one hour is spent on the inmates forcing their hostages to put on a talent show.
But there are other ways in which Orange proves ill-suited for the task.
For most of its run, the show has managed to avoid the streaming drift problem that plagues most of Netflix’s other dramas. Its episodes feel like episodes, with the flashbacks and action in the present day placing enough focus on one character to distinguish each hour from one another, even though all feature continuing subplots. This season is much more the “13-hour movie” approach that almost never works. The compressed timeframe ironically makes many of the arcs feel dragged out because the characters can only progress so far so fast in this setting, and because various moving pieces have to be kept in proper order. There’s a comic subplot early on about Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Blanca (Laura Gómez) taking speed to stay alert during the siege that’s amusing at first, but then just… keeps… going, across multiple episodes, because the next phase of their plan can’t happen for a while.
It doesn’t help that the flashbacks have pretty much exhausted their usefulness at this stage of things. Whether they are repeat flashbacks featuring characters we’ve known well since the first season, or ones involving previously minor characters, they now seem obligatory and uninspired, rarely providing more illumination than if the same info had been conveyed in a few lines of dialogue. This is most clear in the season’s fourth episode, where two characters from very different backgrounds are presented as dealing with the same issue — one the subject of that hour’s flashbacks, the other explained quickly in the present, both resulting in about the same emotional weight. A couple prove useful for justifying the expanded role for a background figure, like the way older inmate Frieda (Dale Soules) proves to be particularly resourceful throughout the siege; or for clarifying an emotional conflict in the present (the one with a teenage version of Vicky Jeudy’s Janae is quite good), but more often than not, they’re filler — or, in the case of one late in the season explaining how Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) got their tattoos, straight trolling of the audience. (That, or the writers really loved the comparable episode of Lost about Jack in Thailand.)
To be fair, the siege lends itself to this kind of intense serialization more than the main plots of previous seasons, and the year’s worst episode is also its most distinct: a clumsy slasher movie homage about an intruder who decides to take advantage of the chaos inside the prison.
That episode also illustrates how the tonal whiplash that’s always been a problem for the series is exacerbated by the change in format. The comic and dramatic sides of Orange have sometimes co-existed peacefully, other times awkwardly, but there was usually enough variety of story and character to forgive the occasionally jarring shift from light to dark. Here, the setting is so inherently serious that typically silly material feels far more out of place — the writing isn’t any broader, but it feels that way given the contrast. One early episode features the inmates grieving last season’s death of Poussey in the cafeteria where an incompetent guard unwittingly crushed the life out of her; it’s a moving moment, but the next time we’re in the cafeteria in that hour, it’s for a food fight. Poussey’s death and the mistreatment that a new crop of guards inflicted on the inmates are the driving factors behind the riot, but where last season treated the torture of the inmates as something to rightly be horrified by, here the tables are turned and it’s at times played for laughs, to ugly results.