This article discusses aspects of all 13 episodes of Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season and contains spoilers throughout.
There are plenty of characters in the rouge’s gallery of Orange Is the New Black: Black Cindy’s pop-culture inflected braggadocio, the flibbertigibbet Floritza and their vain obliviousness, and of course Suzanne and her world of make believe. It’s hard to pick which one is the funniest, but for season five of this prison dramedy, there is one who stands out: Galina “Red” Reznikov (an excellent Kate Mulgrew). In fact, Red is truly the MVP of the season.
During the three-day riot that lasts for the entire 13 episodes of the season, Red spends all of it at war with CO Piscatella, her archnemesis in season four. It was his persecution of Red that led to the inmates’ peaceful protest in the cafeteria, which led to Poussey’s murder, which started the whole riot in the first place. She decides to use the chaos of the riot to go dig up dirt on Piscatella so that when it’s all over she can blackmail him into quitting or, better yet, get him fired.
This certainly does not sound like a recipe for comedy, but that comes thanks to Blanca Flores, the constantly disheveled Babadook of Litchfield, who gives Red a boost of energy when they start taking “vitamin supplements” she found in a CO’s locker to keep them awake. “Don’t worry, they’re natural,” she tells Red, the same famous last words anyone who had a bad trip on magic mushrooms also heard.
We later find out, after the two spin around the prison like delusional Tasmanian devils on a diet of cappuccino and Mini Thins, that it was pharmaceutical-grade speed. While on her bender, Red is a comic delight, spouting wisdom like, “Russians don’t have proverbs, we have vodka and misery. Oh wait, that’s a proverb!” She helps Blanca cook up a harebrained scheme to catch Piscatella in a Home Alone–inspired booby trap and tells us that the only reason she wants to get out of prison anymore is so that she can get senior discounts and take up paddle boarding. Red? Paddle boarding?
Red is also deliciously free of this season’s sad comic crutch — the malapropism. So much of the laughs on Orange are meant to come from the women either not knowing what a word means, mispronouncing a word, or using the wrong word. Yeah, sometimes that is worth a chuckle, but it happens so many times with so many different characters, it can feel at cross-purposes for a show that is meant to humanize the inmates. Luckily, Red doesn’t do this, at least until the last episode when she calls internet trolls “goblins,” but, hey, no one is perfect.
Red’s comedy is instead derived from her character, which is always the best, hardest-earned laugh. Seeing her act so uncharacteristically unhinged is better because we know how consistently controlled and calculating she’s been for four seasons. She’s not acting too differently than deranged meth heads Leanne and Angie, always under the influence and in search of the next high. But for them it’s their only character trait; for Red, it’s a new layer. And unlike Leanne and Angie, who have an almost nihilistic hedonism and a mean streak as wide as the straps on the awful bras they make the inmates wear, Red is popping pills like Chiclets in order to put Piscatella, the real villain of seasons four and five, behind bars. She has a cause to live for, and she’ll even disappoint her newly sober surrogate daughter Nickyi if it means getting a buzz to see that goal through.
The other purpose that Red’s clowning serves is that when her circumstances take a dramatic turn, it’s even more harrowing. In previous seasons, she was a force to be reckoned with in the prison, and a character that viewers saw as strong and merciless. Now, after seeing Red as comic relief for so many episodes, when Piscatella finally ties her to a chair and butchers her trademark hair, it’s that much harder to watch.
By the last frame of the season, though, when the riot police are storming Frieda’s bunker in the old pool, Red is back to where she started. She’s united with her family and back to being the strong boss who tried to take Piper down way back in the show’s very first episode. Her time as a clown with Blanca was something like a shamanistic journey. She went into the wilderness where she discovered the hilariously gonzo side that was always lurking deep inside, just waiting to be let out by a little Adderall.