Netflix has referred to its shows as thirteen hour movies, and with the newly released fifth season of Orange in the New Black, this has never been more true. Each episode directly follows its predecessor, and the entirety of the season takes place over seventy-two hours. It’s more binge-able than ever. After spending a year in limbo, waiting to see what became of this riot, not even my overactive imagination could have prepared me for what happened in this new season of Orange is the New Black. In an attempt to keep spoiler free, I’m going to talk more about the themes explored, rather than individual character development.
Especially during the season’s first few episodes, everyone seems to be losing their minds. As it went on, I realized that, in a minimum security prison, at least half of the inmates are in Litchfield for drug related offences, so with them taking over the prison, of course drugs will be freely flowing through the prison. We’ve seen heroin and marijuana making their way through Litchfield in the past, but with the inmates running the show, and no one guarding the medical cabinet, almost everyone seems high.
Considering Poussey’s murder, the inmates now realize that they’re expendable. These guards could very well kill them at any second, so the women have no reason to be subordinate. Everyone is doing whatever they want, whether that be drugs, sex, violence, or other debauchery. While the show’s past few seasons have started exploring the dangers of private prisons, this season brings them front and center, and makes no attempt to hide that it is simply modern slave labor. It does sometimes get a little heavy handed, and some of the dialogue regarding the prison system seems slightly forced, but it’s an interesting issue and the show has shown a spotlight upon it.
The downside of setting the entire season over a single weekend, is the tone and pacing seem off. We see one character having a nervous breakdown, and another hosting a talent show, simultaneously. As viewers, we’re stuck in a weird place between amused and terrified. Some of the episodes feel like they belong in a different show. With the stakes this high, I found it hard to believe some of the light hearted elements happening within the prison walls. Within five minutes, we go from laughing at the meth-heads antics, to feeling absolutely devastated for another character. Some of the episodes seem to be mostly filler, and while setting the whole season over a single weekend is certainly ambitious, maybe some episodes could have been condensed in favor of a more complete narrative.
Elements also seem cartoonish. As the season progressed, some of the different places the inmates held themselves up in stretched the believability. At times, it felt like the inmates were stuck in the world’s most messed up summer camp, not a prison. In one scene, an inmate’s life is in serious jeopardy, but we cut between the more lighthearted B story, and it seems almost inappropriate to laugh at some of the humor, considering the situation the prisoners have found themselves in. While the show has been focusing on less than realistic elements in the past (think prison panty business), this season makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s balls-to-the-walls insane.
One of the staples of this show is the flashbacks. In previous season, they’ve mostly been used to show how the women ended up in prison. This season, however, they’re more of a device to show how these women, in these desperate situations, are using their life experiences to make irreversible decisions. We don’t really learn much about why they’ve been arrested and tried, but we understand a great deal about them and their mindsets, through seeing their former lives. We get deeper development for some characters whose backstories we’ve already seen, at the expense of characters who remain a mystery. Some of the backstories seem out of place (there’s a Dreamgirls sequence symbolizing cultural appropriation), but they all offer a unique point of view to these women.
The simplest way to describe the fifth season of Orange is the New Black is crazy. Almost everyone in the prison has, to an extent, lost their minds. Some play pretend and imagine themselves as professionals. Some take prisoners. Most do drugs. Some just sunbathe. As we get closer to the season finale, we realize nothing is going to be the same going forward; there are going to be major consequences. However, if you’re literally trapped in a prison, where not four days ago your friend was murdered by a guard, of course you’d go a little crazy, and end up being more free than you’ve felt in years. This is a weird season, and I’m sure it’s going to put a lot of long-time OITNB fans off to it, claiming it to have jumped the shark. While it certainly was out there, and some storylines did push the boundaries of plausibility, season five or Orange is the New Black is an insane, unpredictable, game changing, especially binge-able season, and one of the most unique pieces of entertainment of 2017.
Montclair State | New Jersey