Late in the sixth season of Orange Is the New Black, the eternally beleaguered Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) turns to fellow inmate Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and asks for her honest opinion. “What is it about me,” Piper asks, “that makes people want to fuck with me?” “Because when they look at you, they don’t see you,” Taystee says. “They see the shit they never had. Money, education, opportunity. That’s why they’re never going to stop fucking with you, because of what you represent.”
Nearly everything about this scene is frustrating. Too much of it is focused on Piper, in spite of Taystee’s more interesting story and Brooks’s exceptional performance. It comes unbelievably late not just in the season, but in the show more generally. It’s odd for Piper to suddenly question why she’s the brunt of everyone’s ill will, especially after she’s had similar revelations about her own privilege in the past, and well after the show introduced other characters (Brook Soso, Judy King) who struggle with the way their privilege makes them targets in prison. Even the circumstances behind the scene are frustrating: Piper is visiting the prison salon to get chewing gum out of her hair, while Taystee is getting her hair done before going to trial for her involvement in season five’s riot. The broader context is right there — Taystee is terrified that a jury won’t see her as sympathetic enough and she’ll spend the rest of her life incarcerated. Piper is complaining because someone put gum in her hair — but Orange Is the New Black doesn’t do enough to connect the dots.
When Taystee winds up telling Piper she’d gladly change places with her, it briefly feels like a conversation with the potential to be an enlightening moment. Instead, the unfairness of their relative positions and the unbalanced weight of their stories — Piper’s is so light, Taystee’s is so momentous — is completely lost, and the exchange becomes just one small part of season six, a little piece of the many personal narratives that meander and disappear and return seemingly without design. It’s easy to forget the conversation ever happened. And it should not be that way, because it’s directly relevant to where both characters land in the season’s endgame. This is the problem with Orange Is the New Black’s sixth season: It has lots of promising pieces, but it’s forever losing them inside its momentum-less bulk.
In its first two seasons, Orange Is the New Black began with the narrow perspective of Piper Chapman and then radically expanded its narrative into the histories and voices of other incarcerated women at Litchfield Penitentiary. That rapid unfurling into a mosaic of stories was fundamental to the show’s greatness. Its flashback structure gave different characters ownership of their own episodes, and that storytelling structure became both a narrative form and a political gesture. When characters like Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), Taystee, Poussey (Samira Wiley), and Sophia (Laverne Cox) got their own stories, it was a way of resisting the familiar frame that insisted Piper had to be the show’s main character. It put the spotlight on female characters who so rarely get to have their own stories.
In season six, however, that flashback framework has become a vestigial organ that the show doesn’t know how to remove. Some episodes use it, some don’t. In nearly every case, it’s unnecessary, and in several instances, it’s a bizarre choice to dedicate time to those specific stories. (Nicky Nichols’s bat mitzvah is a train wreck with some good laugh lines, but it does not feel like an indispensable part of this show.) The irrelevance of flashbacks is partly thanks to the season’s shift into new territory: After five seasons set inside Litchfield’s minimum-security facility (what the inmates call “camp”), most of season six takes place in the maximum-security building, where many of the returning cast have been relocated after the riot of season five. Several are jettisoned from the series as their characters get shipped off to other unknown prisons (including Maritza, Big Boo, Yoga Jones, Leanne, and Norma), and the new setting lets OITNB introduce new faces. Most notable are Amanda Fuller as villain Badison, Vicci Martinez as Daddy, and Henny Russell and Mackenzie Phillips as feuding sisters Carol and Barb. That feud, which draws its battle lines between two prison blocks, provides most of the connective tissue throughout the season. But in spite of the new location and dominant new feud, new characters make up a relatively small portion of the season’s narrative heft. Their flashbacks are minor, and their additions to the story exist largely as sidebars. Why continue to use a flashback structure at all, if it doesn’t provide revelatory backstory for new characters?
The move to maximum security also provides less structure and restriction than you’d think. We’re led to assume that life changes dramatically after leaving “camp,” and Nicky’s previous experiences in the max facility were cast as unbearably harsh. Nothing about OITNB makes any prison experience come off as an easy, safe, or at all rehabilitative experience, of course, but season six doesn’t use its new max space in a stable way. Sometimes the rules are lax and sometimes they’re harsh; some spaces seem as lenient as “camp,” while others are unquestionably restrictive. Like much of the season’s storytelling, there’s little reliable logic from one space to the next, or from one character’s arc to another one. It’s a collection of aimless bits and pieces that sometimes peter out into nothingness, or go dormant and then return with no obvious purpose.
But other times, one of those dallying, wandering stories swerves into an unexpected new tension, and the show finds itself in a newly suspenseful or abruptly poignant sequence. When that happens, OITNB can still be magical. Many of the major performances are still strong, including Adrienne C. Moore as Cindy, Dascha Polanco’s Daya, Nick Sandow’s Caputo, and especially Brooks as Taystee. Even when the season isn’t going anywhere in particular — when it’s dawdling along on some side path — spending time with these characters is often still compelling. In its own way, OITNB has become a sardonic hangout show, where the goal for viewers and characters alike is to just get through this time together. Maybe you do it with a lethal feud, or maybe you do it by trying to start a kickball league.
Whatever the problems with this sixth season, OITNB is still stacked with absorbing characters, and wanting to know what happens to Red and Cindy, Suzanne, Blanca, Alex, and, yes, Piper, is still a persuasive reason to watch. As they deal with the fallout of the riot, settle into a new place, and try to grapple with the way the world is changing outside their prison, Orange Is the New Black remains a worthwhile series, retaining its place as one of the strongest Netflix dramas. But the show’s commitment to telling all of its stories has become wildly overgrown, like a tree desperately in need of pruning. It has everything it needs, but it also has way, way too much.