Spoilers ahead for Orange Is the New Black season five.
Flashbacks have been a central part of Orange Is the New Black’s storytelling structure from the very beginning. Particularly in the early seasons, nearly every episode devoted a chunk of its hour traveling back in time to learn about a character’s past while still following the current action at Litchfield Penitentiary. That approach has allowed the audience to understand the crimes each of these women committed prior to winding up in prison, and to see them as something the criminal justice system often does not: actual human beings. At their best, the flashbacks accomplished this in ways that felt thematically relevant to whatever was going on at Litchfield and/or deepened our understanding of a character’s motivations. Last season’s “People Persons” — which reveals that Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) was previously involved in the accidental death of a young boy, something we learn right before she’s goaded into beating up Maureen in jail — is an excellent example of Orange using flashback to purposeful, devastating effect while connecting Suzanne’s previous journey to her present one. If you take those scenes of pre-Litchfield Suzanne out of that episode, you essentially remove its heart.
Overall, though, the OITNB flashbacks have felt less consistent and vital with each passing season, a situation that reaches a critical point in season five. The new season unfolds within a tight, three-day span as a riot progresses into a standoff between the inmates and prison authorities. It is rooted entirely in the sometimes horror-movie-esque anxieties of that unfolding situation and the claustrophobia that sets in as guards are held hostage in small rooms or portable toilets, and inmates like Frieda & Co. hunker down in a makeshift bunker in the deepest bowels of the prison. Given that any shift away from what’s currently going down at Litchfield will inevitably break this sense of tension and containment, every flashback needs to make an even stronger case than usual that it is crucial to the episode.
Out of the nine flashbacks this season, few rise to make that case. In episode two, “F*ck, Marry, Frieda,” the flashbacks reveal how young Frieda learned how to be a survivalist while living with her paranoid, widowed father in the 1960s, all of which answers the question, “How the hell would Frieda know how to clandestinely create such a solid emergency hideaway at Litchfield?” But that question could just as easily have been answered through some explanatory dialogue rather than a bunch of scenes about Frieda’s wilderness training that slow things down during the early part of the season, which, in Orange Is the New Black tradition, drags until the story gears click into place a few episodes later.
The Watson-focused flashback in “Sing It, White Effie,” which features an all-white cast of private-school girls rehearsing their version of Dreamgirls, touches on the institutional and societal imbalances between black Americans and the white and privileged, all of which is echoed in Judy King’s attempt to speak about suffering in prison when the celebrity chef was coddled the entire time she was there. The flashback unfolds in four sequences, and the fourth, in which young Watson tells her teacher that the “system is rigged,” arguably could have been cut. One can already see from the way Vicky Jeudy plays Watson’s reactions in the Dreamgirls scene, and, later, as a grown-up watching Taystee take over speaking duties from Judy, that she’s reached that conclusion. This has always been a problem with the Orange Is the New Black flashbacks: They often go one or two steps too far to make their point when dialing it back would have been equally, if not more, effective.
The same criticism applies to the blatantly Clueless-inspired flashback — so many knee-highs, so much Suck and Blow — about Linda that serves only to establish that she’s far more ruthless than she appears. It goes double for the Piper-tattoo sidebar in the penultimate episode. The fact that OITNB resorted to a tattoo-related flashback despite the famously terrible tattoo episode of Lost almost feels like they’re waving a white flag on the entire flashback approach.
The only flashback this season that provides any payoff is the one in episode six that briefly brings Poussey back into the picture, just long enough to show her and Taystee first connecting at Litchfield and doing their Amanda and Mackenzie routine. Watching it, you get the sense that their reunion was the main reason for including it in the episode. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see them together again, and doing so adds more heft to Taystee’s grief in subsequent scenes. (Per usual, Danielle Brooks is off-the-charts excellent this season.)
Still, put any one of the flashbacks this season to the same test I applied earlier to “People Persons.” Imagine the episode without it and what do you lose? In most cases, the answer comes back: honestly, not that much.
Maybe part of the problem here is that this season is so steeped in the compelling, minute-by-minute action at Litchfield that the flashbacks feel more shoehorned-in and extraneous than they otherwise might have. Either way, it seems clear that, just as Lost did shortly after its tattoo-in-Thailand debacle, the OITNB writers should start thinking of ways to shake up the flashback approach, either using them even more sparingly or deploying them in fresh ways.
With the original group at Litchfield seemingly splintered off into separate groups at the end of this season, it’s possible the flashbacks will now focus on life at Litchfield, an experience that may take on the rosy glow of nostalgia if everyone’s new prison realities seem even worse by comparison. I also wouldn’t mind seeing some flash-forwards, especially if the sixth and seventh seasons start moving toward a finale. It would be interesting to see where some of these women are five years later, post-jail, in contrast with what they’re dealing with while still incarcerated
Basically, I’d like to see Orange Is the New Black do what anyone attempting to rehabilitate herself tries to do: Forget the past and zero in more and more on the here, the now, and what happens next.