Orange Is the New Black
Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson is the beating heart of Orange Is the New Black’s ambitious but messy fifth season. Danielle Brooks turned in the season’s best performance in the last episode, and in “Flaming Hot Cheetos, Literally,” her character once again has the most compelling arc. Even amid the chaos of the Litchfield riot, Taystee’s motivations and actions remain clear, unwavering, and convincing.
Although Taystee’s flashbacks in this episode don’t tell us much we don’t already know about her, they still serve a valuable narrative purpose. We already knew that she thinks life in Litchfield is better than anything she had outside, but seeing her reunion with her birth mother — and the swift dissolution of that relationship — is powerfully specific storytelling. Danielle Brooks reveals a new layer to the character, too, bringing a slightly different edge to her performance as a younger Taystee that reveals the ways she has grown.
The episode’s best flashback comes near the end, when we see Taystee’s second day at Litchfield. She plops down at a table in the library and overhears two white women discussing their prison diet plan. When they leave, someone behind the bookshelves makes fun of them. For the audience, Samira Wiley’s voice is instantly recognizable, playing with our heartstrings. It’s the first time Taystee encountered Poussey, and the two quickly establish a comfortable and easy rapport. Young Taystee pinned so many hopes and dreams on her birth mother, and that all fell apart. Now we see what it really looks like when she finds family. Andrew McCarthy’s direction makes the scene feel almost magical, Poussey’s head bopping behind the books before finally emerging. Seeing Poussey again is affecting without feeling too emotionally manipulative. It’s the perfect flashback.
Beyond that one great scene, McCarthy’s direction gives “Flaming Hot Cheetos, Literally” a fluidity that past episodes have lacked. There are still a ton of plotlines unfolding at different paces, but a much-needed visual cohesion makes Litchfield feel a little more connected again. Story lines are starting to overlap more on a writing level as well. Ruiz joins Daya on the lawn, her desire to get home to her kid outweighing her investment in the uprising. Piper gets reinserted into the action when she gets sick of sitting around and wants to feel important again. Frieda lurks around in various scenes, and we learn that she’s passing out secret invitations to her bunker. Anita, Yoga Jones, Gloria, Gina, and Norma are among those lucky to get invites, but they’re thoroughly spooked by the thought of being holed up in Frieda’s apocalyptic safe room. Then she reveals that the small bunker opens up into an even bigger one, an auxiliary gym she converted into a luxury riot lounge for them to wait it all out together.
Still, certain parts of this season are so detached from everything else that shoehorning them in takes away from the overall impact of the riot narrative. In this episode, Nicky and Morello go through the motions that have defined their entire relationship. Morello comes onto Nicky, they sleep together, and then Morello freaks out and says they can never do it again. This time, she takes things to a slightly more outlandish level by suggesting she’s pregnant. (Hey, it could be true, but you never know with her.) We’ve seen the characters go through this exact back and forth before, and that repetition is the point, underscoring Nicky’s emotional exhaustion. They can’t seem to break this cycle, making Morello another one of Nicky’s addictions. Natasha Lyonne and Yael Stone both give moving performances and there’s good stuff in here, but narrative feels like a distraction because it doesn’t directly engage with the riot.
Perhaps this is an intentional decision, meant to give us a bit of a break through these quieter, relationship-driven scenes, but it’s taking away from the stakes of the uprising. The riot has gotten to the point where it should touch all the characters. “Flaming Hot Cheetos, Literally” at times struggles to communicate the severity of the situation, especially when characters carry on with their lives as if nothing has changed. Orange Is the New Black excels with relationships, but within the context of the riot, not all of them feel urgent or emotionally connected to the season’s larger narrative. Watson teaching Soso to run through her pain, for example, is much easier to get invested in than the growing jealousy between both halves of “Flaritza.”
The riot is even touching the outside world now that it has the attention of the press. Aleida finally got her television interview and it doesn’t go too smoothly, especially since she has trouble with their swearing policies. Nothing much comes of this yet, and the scenes rely a little too much on humor rather than digging into the real issue, which is that the press has presented a biased and harmful depiction of Litchfield’s inmates. Aleida is positioned to push back against that narrative, but this plot never quite gets there.
We also check back in with Bayley, who is released from jail after begging to be put there and then tries to kill himself only to learn that dye is nontoxic. I’m still not totally sure what OITNB is getting at by showing Bayley’s side, but I do find it interesting that nobody takes him seriously, which significantly contrasts with the experiences of the inmates at Litchfield. Put simply, the world is overly sympathetic to and forgiving of young white men. Bayley murdered someone and it’s considered just a mistake; many of the women in Litchfield did far less, and they were locked away. Bayley is begging to be locked up and punished for what he has done, and yet he won’t be. He’ll get away with it. (The overall apathy toward mental health in these scenes is also telling. Bayley’s parents are practically amused by his attempt to kill himself.)
Fresh off her decision to save Coates, Pennsatucky finds herself surrounded by an angry mob that includes Leanne, who lost her finger in the altercation. The other inmates all want to throw her in the “poo,” but Big Boo steps in, blasting the Law & Order theme on her phone and demanding a mock trial for her friend. The trial is Litchfield Idol–esque in both premise and execution, which is to say it is unsettlingly goofy and doesn’t quite deliver to its full potential. Big Boo proves Angie is lying about loving Saved by the Bell in order to discredit her as a witness, and the episode treats this runner as much more fun than it actually is. Humor in the context of a prison is a feat OITNB has pulled off impressively in the past, but humor in the context of a prison riot is a much steeper challenge. Conceits like this mock trial just feel too out of place to really amuse.
It does all end on a strong note, though. Pennsatucky points out that they shouldn’t be acting like the criminal-justice system, which didn’t give any of these women a chance in the real world, where one of them even took the stand. Pennsatucky argues that they should all strive to be better than the people who put them here. In the end, everyone convenes and agrees to assign Pennsatucky community service. They’ll have a conversation about her skills to figure out how she can best serve the community. “One crime should not define a person,” they conclude, which is pretty much the thesis for this show. This exploration of communal rehabilitation versus punishment is interesting and essential to OITNB’s overall message, but the buildup of the trial is messy and too silly for this thoughtful conclusion to really land.
Taystee, Cindy, Alison, and Watson’s story line hits on some of the same ideas as the trial, but in a much more grounded and personal way. The episode starts with a flicker of hope: Nita from the governor’s office delivers boxes of Hot Cheetos, Takis, and tampons to the prison. On the surface, it looks like they’re finally meeting the demands — but of course, this is the easiest and most trivial demand for them to meet. In a phone conversation, Nita tells Taystee they’re ready to discuss the hostages’ release. She frames the Cheeto delivery as an act of good faith, and she expects the same from them. She says they’ll do their best to address the rest of the demands once the hostages have been released. Do our best. “That’s what my defense lawyer said,” Cindy remarks, which is much more natural commentary on the criminal-justice system than the entire mock trial story line. Nita uses manipulative language to try to convince the inmates she’s on their side, but she underestimates their intelligence and determination. Taystee sees exactly what’s happening, and she pushes back by rounding up all the provisions.
The final shot of Taystee and her girls (and Piper) standing over a burning pile of Cheetos, Takis, and tampons is powerful. “We want to be motherfucking taken serious,” Taystee declares. If only the rest of the episode harnessed the same emotional potency and urgency of that moment.