‘Orange Is The New Black’ Season Five In Review (SPOILERS)

Orange Is the New Black season five debuted yesterday on Netflix. I wrote about the season as a whole with minimal spoilers here, and for those of you who’ve already had time to watch it all, I have many more specific thoughts — with spoilers for the entire season throughout — coming up just as soon as I decoupage you into submission…

Orange is a show that defies easy recap coverage if you’re doing it solo. For a few years, I tried treating it like a more traditionally-released show, reviewing two episodes a week for half the summer. This pleased nobody, myself included, since by the time we were midway through the season, anyone who cared had already finished watching weeks ago and had long since forgotten the details I was digging into. Last year, I used what’s now become my approach for most binge shows, with a single post featuring mini-reviews of all 13 episodes. I’d have done that again this year, but as I noted in my piece last week, devoting the entire season to the prison riot largely obliterated the distinction from episode to episode, especially since the flashbacks (with a couple of exceptions that I’ll get to) have largely become pointless. I thought briefly about doing a character-by-character breakdown, but you may have noticed that Orange has many, many characters, and that approach would have taken nearly as long as doing fuller reviews of all 13 episodes.

So at the risk of missing out on your favorite minor character and/or subplot (I don’t have a strong opinion about the infections in Maureen’s facial wounds, for instance, other than that they were gross), I’m just going to bounce around and talk about moments and ideas that I liked, and didn’t, from throughout the year. And then feel free to talk about whatever you want in the comments:

Taystee’s the boss. Season two was the show’s best so far, not coincidentally because it turned Taystee into the main character for most of it. So much happens throughout the siege that there’s no one dominant character, but Taystee is central to a lot of the action, including taking over negotiations with the outside world and coming painfully close to getting all their demands met, and Danielle Brooks knocks it out of the park continually throughout, from Taystee’s improvised press conference speech to the show she goes toe-to-toe with Fig to her realization that she blew it all by valuing justice for Poussey above things that would improve the lives of everyone else in there. (Though the discovery of Humps’ apparent death could have ruined the deal even if she had agreed to it on the spot.) She’s not perfect — no character on this show is, or they’d have no place at Litchfield (as inmate or employee) — but it was great to see her be so vital to so much of what was happening.

Daya made a phone call. As I noted at the end of my season four spoiler piece, Daya seemed an odd choice, dramatically, to be the one to pick up Humps’ gun, since she had no real history with the cruelty being inflicted by him and the other new guards. There’s a larger point to be made about how incarceration has made a basically harmless woman into someone cold and violent and remorseless, but that could have been done with a lot of the characters, many of them played by stronger actors than I’ve generally found Dascha Polanco to be. But Daya’s phone call to Pornstache’s mom to ask her to take custody of her baby was a tremendous scene, powerful precisely because of how Polanco underplayed the tear-jerking emotion of it all. (Pornstache did enough crying for all three characters in the scene, in the most human Pablo Schreiber has been during his time on the show.) Daya is still scamming Pornstache, since the father is really Bennett, but she’s doing what she has to for her daughter, and you can tell it feels like a kindness to them, too.

Ruiz stole Gloria’s betrayal out from under her. This is an emotionally brutal case of both women getting screwed over in their attempts to do right by their kids, but Ruiz at least got to hold her daughter for a few minutes, and Gloria seemed to get good news about Benny’s surgery. Excellent work across the season by Selenis Levya and Jessica Pimental.

This was juuuust the right use of Piper. Most of the audience hates Piper. I don’t particularly blame them, and I often find her insufferable, too, while recognizing that she’s usually meant to be insufferable. This season managed to give her and Alex a lot to do without ever making it feel like they were taking over the riot, or the show, with Alex’s desire to avoid the drama — and Piper’s inability to resist getting involved in the end — providing some interesting conflict and humor until they both got abducted by Piscatella and pulled into everything together. (More on that in a bit.)

It’s time for the flashbacks to go. Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse will never come right out and say that the “How Jack got his tattoos” episode of Lost was their attempt at self-sabotage so they could go to ABC and say, “See? This is why we have to set an end date for the show!” But it’s always felt that way, and I have to wonder if doing a similar thing with Piper and Alex and Larry’s tattoos — because the world had been clamoring for Larry’s return, you see — in the penultimate episode came from a similar place. Or maybe it was just creative exhaustion. Either way, the show hasn’t needed the flashbacks in a long time, with the rare exception of ones that significantly recontextualize a character in the present day. None of this year’s did that. A couple of others (teenage Janae learning about cultural appropriation and the unfairness of life, young Frieda being schooled in survivalist teachings by her paranoid Commie-hating dad) reflected well on events happening during the riot, but weren’t as revelatory as ones from the early seasons (like, say, the first one with Suzanne). Some others (Taystee meeting her birth mom, young Red deciding to leave the Soviet Union) were good short stories but unnecessary distractions from a very full cast of characters in the prison itself. The rest just felt obligatory, or like they were limply dramatizing information that could have been conveyed just as easily in dialogue: the fourth episode tries to set up parallels between Sankey and Alison’s men at home being with other women, but only bothers to turn Alison’s situation into a series of flashbacks, when she could just as easily have told Cindy what she was dealing with.

Torture isn’t funny — at least not on this show. Season four rightly treated Humps’ physical and psychological torture of the inmates as something to be horrified by. Once the roles are reversed during the riot, though, physical cruelty — cavity searching the guards, cutting off Humps’ thumb, Maureen giving Humps a stroke by blowing oxygen bubbles in his IV (and Flaca and Maritza trying to scotch tape his facial features back into place) — keeps being played for laughs. Clumsy, ugly, and it never even really leads down a “We have become everything we hate” kind of path of self-discovery. Though there’s a moment like that in a different vein in the Piscatella arc. And speaking of which…

Piscatella the 13th. For a show that’s generally been good with nuance even about its more overtly villainous characters, Piscatella always stood out as a two-dimensional bully and bogeyman. Having him sneak into the prison during the riot to abduct, terrorize, and torture Red and her crew only exacerbated all of that, and felt pretty silly, while also creating such an ongoing level of danger that it became hard to focus on anything else happening throughout the ninth and tenth episodes. I’ll grant you that the cliffhanger at the end of episode nine with Red facing off against Piscatella and declaring, “I was born ready” was pretty great, but immediately undercut by the way that their next scene in episode ten starts off with him tying her up in the flush of victory. It’s not that Red had any realistic chance against that giant, but you don’t tease an epic fight and not show it.

The Piscatella flashback at least provided context to the inmate he killed — as revenge for the assault on his boyfriend Wes Driscoll — which in turn set up the finale moment where he tells Taystee that seeking vengeance doesn’t make anything better. But that scene was a turn towards the human that felt much too late, given how he’d been written for two full seasons. And with him killed by an overzealous cop during the assault on the pool, there won’t be a chance to give him any more depth.

Trading places, and clothes. One of the more clever ways the writers found to keep the season from looking monotonous despite the limited timespan was to have the inmates take advantage of all the new clothing available, from the meth-heads (and later Cindy and Alison) dressing up as guards, to Boo finding pleasure wearing Caputo’s suit (which later made her look perfect for playing a Law & Order-style defense attorney for Pennsatucky), to Flaca and Maritza giving out makeovers (Blanca’s eyebrows get plucked, Nicky’s hair gets straightened), to the guards and Linda(*) having to dress as prisoners, even all the way through Piper and Alex wearing tactical jumpsuits for the last couple of episodes after Piscatella abducted them from the shower. It was a nice way to not only illustrate the role reversals happening throughout the prison, but to visually differentiate different phases of the season from one another, even though all took place over three days.

(*) Every time Linda described her undercover identity as “the Counterfeit Cunt of Connecticut,” I couldn’t help but think of this Curb Your Enthusiasm scene.

Pennsatucky and Coates: bad idea. Pennsatucky explains to Boo that she can’t control her feelings for the guy who raped her, and that something chemical happens when she’s around him, but I hate it every time the story goes there. They’re not the first TV couple to come out of a rape situation (I grew up watching my sisters watch Luke and Laura on General Hospital), but it gives me the hives here, on a show that’s generally really smart and complicated about the intersections of gender and sexuality and violence.

I ran out of patience with the meth-heads — which seems to be the point. Angie and Leanne’s antics this season were often where the tonal shifts from drama to comedy were at their most jarring, like them forcing the guards to put on a Litchfield Idol talent show at gunpoint, and after a while I began to dread their every appearance, whether they were harassing Pennsatucky or just generally making oblivious nuisances of themselves. But the scene in the finale where they have an epiphany about how awful they are was smart and funny, and needed that much of a build-up, even if it wasn’t always pleasant to watch. I don’t expect this moment of discovery to last any more than I expect Linda to try to institute reform within MCC (assuming she ever manages to convince someone in authority that she’s not really an inmate after Boo pulls a reverse “I’m Spartacus!” on her), but it’s good to see that even the show’s two dumbest characters can occasionally see themselves for who and what they are.

Ouija does good impressions. If you interview actors on long-running series, you’ll usually find at least one, and usually several, who can do spot-on impressions of their co-stars. The brief interval of peace in episode seven gave Rosal Colón, who plays Ouija (one of the newer inmates who transferred in when MCC doubled the prison population at the end of season three), the opportunity to do just that during one of the coffee house scenes. Fun.

Suzanne goes to Bitchfield. Most of the characters this season tended to either be in dramatic or comic mode for most of it, or to start in one and end in the other. Suzanne, as you might expect, was a roller coaster of emotion, at times viewing the siege as a dream (getting to hang out with the guards), at others a nightmare (no structure, getting her face painted white by the meth-heads — particularly tough for a dark-skinned black woman raised in a white family, on top of the mental health issues — and a lack of medicine). Where a lot of the other pivots of mood from scene to scene, or episode to episode, could be clumsy, Uzo Aduba has proven to be pretty masterful at going back and forth even within the space of the same scene, and she was again a hugely valuable piece of the season’s emotional tapestry. Even if I don’t think an Epi Pen would be enough to instantly counteract the effects of lithium that she was experiencing.

Sophia goes to max (and another show). Sophia was one of the show’s breakout characters from the start, but Laverne Cox has — either by the show’s choice or hers (since her fame as a trans rights trailblazer has put her more in demand than many of her co-stars) — always been a guest star on the show, and will disappear for long stretches as a result. I don’t know exactly when production of this season occurred relative to the filming of Cox’s short-lived CBS drama Doubt, but I assume Sophia had to go to max, on what turned out to be a futile attempt to reunite with Sister Helen, at around the moment that Cox had to move from one show to the other. Doubt‘s cancellation, and the shake-up of the entire prison population that we see at the end of the finale certainly gives the writers leeway to bring her back quickly if all parties are interested in doing so. And speaking of which…

What now? If Jenji Kohan were a baseball general manager, she’d definitely be one of those ruthless types who would rather trade a player one year too soon than one year too late. There was probably more life in the set-up and structure of the first four seasons (flashbacks aside), but instead she went with this riot idea for year five that mostly worked, and the season ends with most of the inmates (other than Pennsatucky snuggling with Coates and the group in the pool just hoping to survive the cops’ arrival) being placed on buses at random — Maritza and Flaca even get separated — to be taken to other prisons while this mess gets cleaned up.

This could be a false cliffhanger where we return in a few weeks, or months, as Litchfield reopens and most of the familiar faces are brought back there. (There would be the matter of Piper’s sentence, which only had three months to go, but it’s easy to imagine her and many of the other prisoners getting added time due to the riot.) Or it could be the start of a radical shift in where the show takes place and/or who’s on it. Maybe we keep following the same characters, but spread out across the country at different kinds of facilities. Or maybe we stay in Litchfield, but only a small group of inmates gets to return, along with a flood of new characters. I imagine we’ll know more pretty soon — it wasn’t long after season four was released that we began hearing about the idea that this year would take place entirely during the riot — but there are a lot of possibilities at the moment, which isn’t a bad creative place to be for a show that’s been around this long, with at least two more years to go.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com