Orange Is the New Black shakes up its structure this year, opting for a season told in real time over the course of three days instead of the usual flashback-driven narrative. It’s too soon to say whether that structural change is successful, but in the season’s premiere episode, the condensed and tense storytelling works to establish Litchfield’s new state of chaos.
Picking up where season four left off with Daya (Dascha Polanco) aiming a gun at Humps (Michael Torpy) while the other inmates look on, “Riot FOMO” follows through on Daya’s critical decision, which doesn’t come easy. After a couple of agonizing minutes, she winds up shooting him in the leg — she was aiming for his penis — and thus an official prison riot commences at Litchfield.
Despite the fact that all the action happens within the confines of the prison, the story is spread out as every character reacts differently to these new conditions. Most pair off as they decide whether to join the fight or wait the chaos out. Morello (Yael Stone) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) hope to take over the drug supply room as their stronghold, but they have to take out the meth heads who beat them there first. Flirtations spark between the on-and-off lovers, who still find time to be cute with one another amid all the chaos. Piper (Taylor Schilling) similarly tries to make moves on Alex (Laura Prepon), but their plans are interrupted by a buzzing cell phone that belongs to Linda (Beth Dover), the MCC rep who was inside for a meeting but got caught in the riot. Although Alex insists they wait the whole thing out so they’ll look better once the investigation comes along, Piper persuades her to help out Linda, whom they provide with an inmate uniform. Fortunately, Linda already has an alias locked and loaded thanks to a novella she wrote. As usual, Dover doles out comedy effortlessly.
The interpersonal squabbles in “Riot FOMO” range from small, like Flaca (Jackie Cruz) arguing with Maritza (Diane Guerrero) over not including her in the riot, to very serious. Some lie somewhere in the middle, like Big Boo (Lea Delaria) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) holing up in the commissary for a candy party, which takes a darker turn when Coates (James McMenamin) drops by. Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Sophia (Laverne Cox) have to band together to save Humps from dying, which Sophia agrees to do with major reluctance. Gloria and Sophia’s history remains just under the surface of their actions here, and it’s felt throughout. After running out of resources, they take Humps to medical, where only one doctor remains in the wake of the riot. They leave him there, restrained to his gurney, flanked by Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and Maureen (Emily Althaus). Gloria thinks that saving Humps is the best way to help Daya, but right now, it doesn’t look like there’s any easy way out of this mess.
Daya gradually unravels over the course of “Riot FOMO,” which is one of the episode’s most compelling arcs thanks to Polanco’s performance. Even though Daya pulled that trigger, she did so without fully processing or foreseeing the consequences. There’s a sense throughout the hour that all of the inmates have been backed into a corner. The swift uprising is the result of years of violence, neglect, and inhumane treatment at the hands of the prison industrial complex.
Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Watson (Vicky Jeudy), and Alison (Amanda Stephen) certainly want justice. They storm Caputo’s (Nick Sandow) office, hoping the camera crew will still be there so they can broadcast a real press conference about Poussey’s murder instead of the lies Caputo spewed last season, when he excused Bailey’s behavior and never even uttered Poussey’s name. The camera crew is gone, but they find Caputo and MCC’s PR guy and they take them both down. They force Caputo into recording a statement they’ve written that acknowledges Poussey’s humanity and calls Bailey’s actions what they are: murder. Brooks gives a moving performance throughout, with Taystee rattled by her best friend’s death as she seeks justice. With the help of the PR guy, whose only interests are in exonerating MCC, they upload the video to YouTube and get the story out there.
Caputo remains oblivious to the fact that the inmates are taking control of the prison until close to the end, when they finally bring him up to speed. Confusion permeates the episode. Misinformation spreads quickly, and several characters, especially guards, become convinced Humps is on a shooting spree since he’s the one who brought the gun into the prison. Characters make references to several real mass shootings, including Sandy Hook, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech, Charleston, Aurora, and Fort Hood, in a not-so-subtle but still provocative acknowledgement of the sheer frequency of mass shootings in this country.
Amid the chaos, there are little pockets of stillness. One of the best scenes of the episode is when Soso (Kimiko Glenn) looks for a quiet place to read Rainer Maria Rilke out loud in German and sit in her sadness. Soso is understandably devastated, barely holding onto her will to live. She encounters Judy King (Blair Brown), who gives her a powerful pep talk that emphasizes the resilience of humans. Judy doesn’t provide closure, but she does lend Soso some strength. It’s a touching, quiet moment among the frenetic, confusing action of the rest of the episode.
When Caputo finds out that the inmates have overtaken Litchfield, he warns Taystee and the others of what’s to come. If they have any knowledge of prison riots, he explains, this won’t end well. Here, he sums up my biggest concern about where this season of Orange Is the New Black is headed. There’s no easy way out for the characters, so there’s no easy way out for the writers. Watching this premiere was exhausting, and yet there are a dozen episodes left. It’s not yet clear whether the season’s ambitious structure will help it sink or soar.