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.
Having said that, there are definite advantages to the experiment. Even with their emphasis on individual episodes and characters, previous seasons tended to meander a bit in their first half; this season is more focused from the start, and has everyone dealing with the same problem, albeit in very different ways. Some inmates take advantage of the siege to try to improve conditions at Litchfield, others seek out their own selfish pleasures, and some like Alex and Piper are just trying to avoid all the drama and any resulting increasing of their sentences(*), but they’re all far more connected than they’ve been at any other point in the series.
(*) The show began as Piper’s story (and was based on a memoir by the real Piper Kerman), and while it has since vastly broadened its focus, there remained the question of what would happen when her sentence — which we’re reminded here has three months to go — ended. The series has always taken place over a more compressed time period (even though its references to pop culture and technology stay relatively current, in a way that will induce headaches if you try to think about it too much), and devoting an entire season to three days, is, among other things, an easy way to extend Piper’s time on the show without extending her sentence.
With Piper and Alex — who at times have been treated as first among equals in the cast, at others as just two particularly tall members of the ensemble — starting out on the sidelines, the season is free to put more dramatic weight on some of the show’s best and most sympathetic characters. Taystee (Danielle Brooks), still raw over what she sees as the murder of her best friend, takes over negotiations to improve the rotten state of things at Litchfield, and becomes just as central to the action — and Brooks gives just as moving a performance — as in arguably the show’s best season, its second. Selenis Levya is also terrific as Gloria finds herself torn between wanting to help surrogate daughter Daya (Dascha Polanco) — who begins the season the way the last one ended: with a guard’s gun in her hands — and wanting to get out because of a crisis in her own family. And the season’s most effective weaving of comedy and drama comes with the mentally ill Suzanne (the show’s two-time Emmy winner, Uzo Aduba), who rides a wave of joy and then suffering without the usual structures in place that she needs in order to function.
If the stories and episodes blur together more than usual, the season also finds other ways to keep mixing things up even in the claustrophobic environment. There’s a lot of role swapping and clothes swapping, for instance: inmates dress as guards, and vice versa, shallow and cruel private prison executive Linda (Beth Dover) tries to survive by cosplaying as a white-collar criminal with a colorful nickname she repeats often enough for others to be convinced they’ve seen a TV-movie about her starring Alyssa Milano, and opponents and allies also switch places with regularity. Not all of it works — the attempt to let Litchfield’s white supremacist gang alternate between danger and comic relief is a mess — but enough of it does to largely fight off the sluggishness that comes with most of Netflix’s other dramas after a few episodes.
And there are enough big emotional moments — particularly in the season’s second half — that land hard in a way that continues to mark Orange as a special show, even in the era of Peak TV.
So was it worth it? I won’t spoil the outcome of the riot itself for you (look for a deeper dive on the season on Saturday, after people have had a chance to see it), but devoting an entire season to it turns out to be neither absolute triumph nor utter disaster. It improves some things the show has struggled with in the past, but takes away some of its advantages in the process. There’s never a moment where it all comes together so perfectly as to justify the idea, but also not a moment where any one bad choice unilaterally condemns it.
Kohan has argued that “pot-dealing mom in suburbia” incarnation of Weeds had runs its course, and that the show would have grown just as divisive had she not shaken things up. And TV history is littered with shows that clung for far too long to one particular formula. Orange arguably wasn’t at that point going into this season — last year was excellent, and the prison privatization angle has only grown more timely given current events in the federal government — even if certain individual elements like the flashbacks should probably be tossed aside.
Orange Is the New Black is a frequently great, occasionally maddening TV show. That’s still the case even in a season that only covers three days in the lives of its many, many, many intricate characters.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org