Orange Is the New Black
With all the pieces of Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season finally in place, it’s easy to see how changes to the show’s narrative structure affected the quality of its storytelling. Despite the condensed nature of the riot timeline, OITNB unfolded many, many story lines this season. But because of that condensed timeline, far too many of those story lines never led to any real payoff. “Stormy Weather” is harrowing, tense, and striking in its imagery, with powerful performances from some of the show’s standout stars. But it’s also the result of a season that never really found its footing, the culmination of an unfocused narrative that threw several story lines onto the wall to see if they would stick.
I’m all for OITNB culling its too-large ensemble cast, as I believe the size of its cast contributed to the season’s downfalls. But looking at the season as a whole, it feels like the writers hastily wrote characters off without any real sense of closure to their arcs. Daya confesses to shooting Humps, and then nothing really comes of it. Even Gloria and Maria’s arcs fizzled, despite standing out as compelling character work in the middle of the season. Suzanne functions more as a part of Taystee’s arc than standing on her own. Clearly, the show couldn’t lock in Laverne Cox for more than a few episodes, resulting in a complete lack of follow through for the character.
And then there are the character arcs that just don’t make sense. Red and Flores acted as comic relief in the first several episodes, but then out of nowhere, Red’s war with Piscatella became an outsized part of the narrative. Although she has been a strong character in past seasons, Red’s role in the riot is more plot point than character. Flaca and Maritza similarly served as comic relief this season. Early on, their YouTube channel sparked some jealousy between the two pals, but that doesn’t amount to anything. Rather, “Stormy Weather” attempts to ascribe deeper meaning to their vlogging shenanigans, with Maritza reflecting on how the riot offered a cruel taste of freedom. Then, Flaca and Maritza are dramatically separated at the end of the finale, as the prisoners are sorted into different buses to be sent to new prisons. But even that ending, though emotionally honest to the characters given all that we’ve learned about them, doesn’t track with the rest of their arc this season and it therefore comes off as forced.
I noticed similar problems for other characters as well. What was the point of Pennsatucky all season? She pops up from time to time to share comically screwed-up stories about her past … and that’s about it. This season has been so disturbingly committed to rehabilitating Coates that it feels more like a revision of the character. Watching Pennsatucky snuggle her rapist on a couch is always unsettling, but it’s played as if it’s supposed to be genuinely sentimental. Between that and Angie’s off-hand comment about raping men, this finale underscores OITNB’s inconsistent handling of story lines about sexual abuse.
On the subject of Angie and Leanne, they too have served incoherent purposes all season. They’re villains, but they’re played off as comedic villains, their antics often absurd and fueled by their meth-head sense of logic. In this finale, they decide they want to be good people, so they burn all the inmates’ files. Given that most of these files would realistically exist in digital format, I’m not sure this really counts as a legitimate plot development. “Stormy Weather” treats Angie and Leanne’s decision to be good as genuine character growth, which also doesn’t sit right. When Leanne sees her mother outside, she realizes she would care if she died. As with Flaritza, it’s an oddly emotional note for the characters to end on given their overall lack of substance all season.
Or what about Alex and Piper? As I wrote in my recap for the last episode, their relationship developments are hollow and disconnected from the riot in a way that makes both characters extraneous, disposable pieces of the puzzle. This is especially true for Alex, who in the finale asks if the riot was worth it — presumably as a way to ask viewers to contemplate all that has happened and decide for ourselves — but the words come out of the wrong character’s mouth to have any real impact. Alex had nothing to do with the riot. She didn’t understand it or participate, so how can she possibly judge its worth?
The finale unnerves from the very start, the look of panic on Taystee’s face as a team storms the prison evoking a sentiment echoed throughout the entire hour. Just as the beginning of the season explored how inmates reacted to the start of the riot, the finale explores the different reactions to its end. But whereas the disparate reactions at the beginning of the season were largely rooted in cogent character development and emotional stakes, the finale is a more erratic and illogical.
Just look at what happens when Ouija and Pidge team up with Brandy, Sankey, and Helen to form Team Latte, who together set up traps in the dorms and prepare makeshift weapons to attack the incoming men. Ouija and Pidge were fiercely committed to the cause, but that cause is over, so the idea that any of them believe they can build any resistance without any leverage or more participants isn’t believable. Ouija and Pidge want the demands met, but Team Latte’s attempt to resist arrest could never logically achieve that goal. (Presumably, the white-power crew just revels in chaos, so I’m more apt to buy their participation.) Plus, it all amounts to nothing. The guards walk away unscathed and Team Latte is taken outside with the rest of the prisoners.
The violent means by which the SWAT team sweeps the prison gives the finale its tense sense of dread. Despite different characters reacting in different ways, they’re all met with the same violence and dehumanization, even if they attempt to peacefully surrender. The guards use pepper bullets, electrified shields, even their own fists to force the women into submission. The man leading the team tells one particularly loose cannon that if he wants to have some fun, he should use pepper spray or mace — because accidentally killing someone with the pepper bullets would cause too much paperwork. Their unnecessary use of force and complete disregard for the inmates’ humanity brings the systemic power imbalance back to the surface. Nicky has to listen from a distance as Morello attempts to surrender by telling guards she’s pregnant, only to be met with the same violence and disregard as everyone else. Soso is pulled away from the library, her body contorted as we shift into her perspective to watch the books as she passes them by. It’s a powerful shot.
But at times, the violence is so intense that it feels like gratuitous shock. I’m just not convinced that the governor would sign off on this use of force — even though Caputo is informed that the governor signed off on possible casualties — given that the hostages are free and the riot was the response to a guard killing an inmate. With the media outside and many of the inmates dragged to the lawn in front of cameras (plus Flaritza posting a video of the men firing the pepper bullets on them), this will cause even more of a mediastorm for MCC and the state. It’s harrowing, moving imagery, but because we’ve never met these men before, it comes off as OITNB prioritizing its larger point over organic storytelling about systemic violence. It’s sadistic, it’s indulgent, and it only makes the season’s earlier attempts at injecting the riot with levity even more senseless. Orange Is the New Black gets off on being jarring, but the riot has multiplied its tonal shifts to the point of incoherence.
Taystee is the only character with a consistently satisfying and meaningful arc that runs through the season, especially since it’s anchored to the emotional catalyst of the riot: Poussey’s death. I’m not entirely convinced by the finale’s insinuation that Taystee let the negotiations fall apart because of her sense of pride, a suggestion that’s put forth by Black Cindy. But that aside, Taystee has been the character through which the entire riot reverberated. Her arc is therefore is the most urgent and compelling within the season’s narrative structure.
For many characters, the riot feels like just a passive changing of conditions, a shift in setting. For Taystee, it’s so much more than that. Her arc comes to a head in the finale when she sees Piscatella in the bunker. She grabs Frieda’s gun and packs all of her pent-up rage into confronting him, blaming him for Poussey’s death. Danielle Brooks outdoes her previous best performance of the season, which came during Taystee’s speech to reporters in “Sing It, White Effie.” Taystee’s anger turns into a release of grief, something she hasn’t had the time or space to do ever since taking up a leadership role in the riot. She decides not to kill Piscatella. Instead, Red lets him go, making him promise not to touch anyone on his way out. He emerges from the bunker only to be immediately shot by one of the inexperienced SWAT men. It’s a poetic ending for the character: His reign over Litchfield was marked with unnecessary use of force and under-trained men given too much power, and those are the exact evils that take him out. But it’s also an easy way out for the show, taking out the monster without any moral burden to other characters. Plus, Piscatella’s attempts to force a parallel between his own quest for revenge and Taystee’s falls flat.
Orange Is the New Black ends its fifth season on another cliffhanger, leaving Gloria, Taystee, Frieda, Piper, Alex, Nicky, Black Cindy, Suzanne, Red, and Flores’s fates uncertain as the SWAT team blows down the door to the bunker. It’s a powerful image, but it doesn’t set up any clear path for the show to go from here. That uncertainty is meant to keep us in suspense, but it’s also indicative of why the ambitious change to the show’s narrative structure was ultimately unsatisfying. We spent the entire season inside of the riot, which made it difficult to process or see what it all means in the long run. It’s all chaos with no aftermath, and the potency of each character’s arc is wildly inconsistent because of restrictions in the format. Now that I’ve seen the whole season, I can safely say that the shakeup to the format, while an initially interesting risk, was more restrictive than was is novel. All season, the writers tried to dig themselves out of a hole that they couldn’t escape. Now, they best way for the show to move forward creatively would be to hit the reset button. That’s a risk worth taking.