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‘Orange Is the New Black’ Zooms in, Slows Down, and Loses the Thread

Season 5 focuses on a 72-hour stretch at Litchfield Penitentiary, and the time frame proves a struggle

(Netflix)
(Netflix)

When an inmate at Orange Is the New Black’s Litchfield Penitentiary does something wrong, they’re typically given a “shot” (a written violation), or sent to solitary, or occasionally have more time added to their sentence. This year, however, the offending inmate is sentenced to community service by a jury of her peers, forced to give out glasses of “yellow drink” as rehabilitation rather than punishment. The prison is undeniably a better place when it’s governed by its residents rather than its guards. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the show they lead.

The fifth season of Orange Is the New Black is 13 hours long, covering 72 hours of a prison riot at Litchfield, the minimum-security women’s federal prison where the Netflix series takes place. That’s one hour of television for every five and a half hours of real time. (Creator Jenji Kohan estimates that previous seasons covered about 10 months, total, of the inmates’ sentences.) The pacing is Rectify-level slow, pairing awkwardly with the 24-style tension of the riot’s end. Released last Friday, the season is a noble experiment within a noble experiment: Kohan has added in a late-period switch-up to an already-radical exercise in redefining who a TV show is about and how it can be structured.

But the change throws off Orange’s delicate balance, allowing it to veer alternately into a cutesy, borderline-condescending comedy and the preachiness of a TED Talk. Even at its weakest, Orange is still unrivaled in its empathy and ambition — but interfering with the basic blueprint of the show threatens its ability to show off those qualities.

Over its first four seasons, Orange was one of the only Netflix dramas to resist some of the platform’s built-in temptations. Like other streaming hours, Orange ran long, and there was little to differentiate episodes. But Orange stretched out because it needed the room to tell all of the stories in Litchfield: of Amish girls turned meth addicts, or self-righteous martyrs, or foster kids who’ve spent their lives in some kind of system. This was expansion, not bloat.

With an infusion of new story lines courtesy of Litchfield’s new corporate overlords, the fourth season continued that expansion. First, Litchfield was privatized and handed over to the Management & Correction Corporation, or MCC. Then, MCC implemented “cost-saving measures” like overcrowding, substandard food, and dispensing with “superfluous” perks, like tampons. Then, MCC hired poorly trained and poorly screened guards, like the one who accidentally suffocated Poussey (Samira Wiley) in full view of already short-tempered inmates. Ever so gradually, the pieces of an angry mob with little or nothing to lose had clicked into place. The lead-up to the riot was a striking slow build — the kind you don’t notice while it’s happening, but seems inevitable in retrospect.

It’s a head-scratcher, then, that the show follows up one of the most high-intensity moments in its history by slamming on the brakes.

The fifth season trades Orange’s hard-earned equilibrium for a gimmick with diminishing returns. There are still just as many stories in progress, but Orange has only three days to tell them. Lorna’s (Yael Stone) entire emotional journey this year consists of figuring out whether she’s pregnant; Pennsatucky’s (Taryn Manning) story peaks early, only to stall out in the back half. Even the end result of the riot is maddeningly, if pointedly, circular. After days of negotiation, Taystee’s (Danielle Brooks) attempt to bargain for improved living conditions and justice for her best friend are undone. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is a particularly obvious way of communicating one of Orange’s central themes: that attempting to change the prison industrial complex is an exercise in futility, and that the stories of the real people trying to do so deserve exploration. But the ultra-slow-boiling plot proves self-defeating, taking a worthwhile story and sabotaging its message in the telling.

The season’s sluggishness is also responsible for a tone that vacillates between twee and sermonizing. Orange has always walked a precarious line between depicting the humor inmates use as a coping mechanism and exploiting (fictional) incarceration for entertainment, but the absence of Litchfield’s typical structure and routine has left the show as adrift as its characters. The buddy-comedy slapstick rapport that develops when Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Blanca (Laura Gómez) stumble on a guard’s trove of “vitamins” — read: speed — becomes too kooky to handle. Suspiciously well-executed arts-and-crafts projects quickly cross over into the fantastical: a full-blown improvised coffee shop; an immaculately staged memorial put together in just a few hours; a subterranean fortress stocked with EpiPens and a functioning computer.

At the other end of the comedy-drama spectrum, Litchfield erupting into chaos means explicitly discussing how its population got so enraged and indignant. Taystee recruits a captive Warden Caputo (Nick Sandow) as a negotiating partner. All of the demands they bring to former assistant warden and state-appointed emissary Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) are reasonable and, more importantly, just: nutritious food; reinstatement of a GED program; an end to unpaid labor; consequences for the guard who killed Poussey. But the hemming and hawing means addressing in the bluntest possible terms the issues Orange has spent four years carefully illustrating. The horrors of solitary confinement were far better demonstrated by last year’s stomach-churning interlude with Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) than by Taystee’s rhetorical questions about the practice. A riot and the ensuing deliberations were the logical next step in Litchfield’s deterioration, but they do a disservice to Orange’s themes.

Which isn’t to say the season obscures those themes entirely. Without access to her medication or a regimented schedule and already blaming herself for Poussey’s death, Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) spirals in dramatic and frightening fashion. The subplot follows through on the consequences of depriving mentally ill people of medical care. Meanwhile, the season-long trade-off between advocating future gains for everyone and currying favor by collaborating now highlights the cruelty of pitting inmates’ individual and collective needs against each other. This show can still pack a punch.

There’s something admirable about a fifth-season show pushing itself this far outside its comfort zone, and something pragmatic about a series designed to cover one woman’s 18-month sentence stalling while it fills its seven-season order. But the choice is ultimately ill-fitting for the show’s lofty intentions. Orange’s convictions remain strong and its ideals sound — but Season 5 goes to show even the best of intentions are nothing without a proper vehicle.