Warning: This article contains Orange Is the New Black season six spoilers.
Judging by the critical response so far, Orange Is the New Black season six is a vast improvement upon season five’s mishandled prison riot storyline. It is by no means the best season of the popular Netflix series, which follows the lives of inmates at an all-female correctional facility, but it doesn’t have to be considering what came before. Even with the purposeful loss of a nearly a dozen other characters — resulting in a slightly leaner, though nonetheless chock-full of too much story, a stretch of 13 episodes — season six does pretty well, and it has one of creator Jenji Kohan’s latest new pairings to thank for that.
I’m not talking about the warring cell block gang leaders and sisters Barb (Mackenzie Phillips) and Carol (Henny Russel), whose violent though humorous rivalry is one of the season’s best additions. Nor am I talking about Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Black Cindy’s (Adrienne C. Moore) new prison radio show “Flava,” named by combining Flaca’s name with Cindy’s Hebrew name, Tova. No, the best new duo season six gifts to viewers is actually one of its shortest, but most poignant, pairings: Black Cindy and Reuben Siegel (Connor Ratliff), the lawyer her Rabbi sends to defend her in the riot investigation and trial.
As the premiere episode, “Who Knows Better Than I,” reveals, investigators and pro-police groups are out for blood following the Litchfield riot. They are especially angry over the apparent murder of Officer Piscatella by the inmates, though the sadistic prison guard was actually killed by a fellow officer’s stray bullet. Cindy and Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) witness the riot police re-staging Piscatella’s death to frame the inmates but decide to keep quiet in order to save themselves. So when Siegel arrives, aside from helping Cindy avoid any riot-related punishments, his main job is to make sure she isn’t blamed for what she didn’t do.
Siegel’s ability here seems lackluster at best, especially when he first meets Cindy. Upon entering the prison meeting room, he exclaims, “Sorry, I know I’m late but I have a good reason. I won a trial!” On paper, the first line of dialogue for Siegel can go either way, and thanks to Ratliff’s performance and Moore’s bemused reaction, both possibilities are on full display. Siegel is excited, but Cindy is not. “Congratulations?” she asks, prompting his unintentionally hilarious response. “I know I shouldn’t brag, but I’m just so shocked. I thought for sure this guy was going down.”
Throughout Siegel’s explanation, Cindy exudes a range of emotions that include everything from disinterestedness to surprise, an array that would otherwise prove disastrous for any new pairing in Orange‘s world. This first meeting is far too early to determine whether the young attorney will be able to help Cindy out. Yet the professional relationship between them that flourishes throughout the rest of “Sh*tstorm Coming,” and later in “Well This Took a Dark Turn,” indicates that Siegel’s arrival isn’t a fleeting moment in an otherwise packed season. What’s more, Moore and Ratliff’s work together excels.
Ratliff, an Upright Citizens Brigade alum, is best known for his work on truTV’s improv-heavy comedy The Chris Gethard Show. Even so, he came to Orange with a mix of the two very different world’s distinct skill sets, thanks to some time spent in London and a growing list of credits that includes TBS’ Search Party and Mike Birbiglia’s dramedy Don’t Think Twice. As a result, he boasts a genuine ability to balance the script’s written words with a sense of light improv and playfulness that Moore, a theater veteran, appreciates.