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Orange is the New Black - Season 5 - Review

2 Jul 2017

Orange is the New Black is an incredibly ambitious show. Not only is it attempting to tell a story with huge cast of characters that is only expanding and deepening, but it's using its characters and setting to tell a story of the horrors of privatization, corporate greed, issues of class and race, and the malevolence of the prison industrial complex. Many of these ideas weren't present, or at least foregrounded, in the show's early life, but in the last couple of years have become central to the show's identity. And as the show has grown and become more ambitious on a narrative and thematic level, it's many flaws have become more apparent.

So it's no surprise that the show's latest and most ambitious season is it's most flawed. I'm going to get to some of those flaws in a moment, but for me this season's biggest problem was a frustrating tonal whiplash. For four seasons the show mostly successfully pivoted between comedy to drama, but this season's premise and unique structure made that more difficult. The season takes place in a prison riot that occurs in the aftermath of Poussey's death, leading the time-frame to be far more condensed than usual. Because of this, many of the characters, in particular Taystee, Cindy, and those others who were close to Poussey, were emotionally fraught, and because they were often central to the season's plot (Danielle Brooks basically becomes the show's lead this season), the show's occasional diversion into silly comedy in some of the peripheral story lines feel all the more jarring and unwelcome.

Speaking of the peripheral story lines, they were, as usual for the show, very hit or miss. The sprawling nature of the show means that each season spits into many different, occasionally overlapping side stories, and the results are often mixed. This is often due to the writers taking once quirky supporting characters and giving them more dramatic material, only for that character not to work in such an environment. And so this season gave the meth heads a lot more screen-time than usual, and they quickly became a heavy burden, dragging other, more successful story lines down with them as the show began tying all it's narrative threads together.

But some of the other stuff on the season's margins was far more successful, such as Ruiz and Gloria's desperate attempts to be with their kids, or the way Daya, one of the show's weakest links from the beginning, was given a genuinely moving farewell. Also, the show continues to find success when it uses Suzanne as a tragic representation of the inadequacies of the justice system, as it becomes even clearer that someone who is so clearly mentally ill shouldn't be anywhere near a place like Litchfield.

Another significant problem this season had was Piscatella. For a show that usually excels in making every character understandable and giving them depth, Piscatella is annoyingly one-dimensional, and a frustrating villain because of that. The show attempts to add some nuance to him later in the season with some flashbacks, but those flashbacks proved to be far too thin to work.

Speaking of the flashbacks, they really have to go. While they've always been a part of the show, I can't help but feel like the show has moved past them. While a couple this season were somewhat successful (I enjoyed Janae's and Frieda's, but that's it, really), most felt inconsequential, and took up time that could have been spent on some of the present day material. While the goal of the flashbacks is to develop the characters, the irony is that the present day story lines do a far better job than the flashbacks of doing so. Rarely are the flashbacks bad, but what they are is unnecessary, and that might be worse.

But while the season did have many issues, the show's signature strengths were still on full display. The series has always managed to stand out from other Netflix dramas by no being plagued with the same pacing issues. In the past, the show has partly accomplished this through a relatively episodic structure. This time around, the show became far more serialized to accommodate the season's compressed structure. And what surprised me was that Jenji Kohan and the other writers took a premise that may have made for a good three or four episode run, stretched it out to thirteen, and didn't allow for the whole thing to run out of steam.

This season was also perhaps the show's best use of Piper yet (I think it really says something that this is the first time I've mentioned Piper in this review). Piper has always been a fairly irritating presence in the show (mostly by design), but this season she was far more bearable, with the show featuring much less relationship drama between her and Alex. Instead, for much of the season, the two of them were just happy, and despite some tension later in the season when Piper assimilates herself more into the main narrative, it all comes to a sweet resolution, as she proposes to Alex as they wait for the prison to be retaken.

This season's main engine - Taystee's quest for justice - was terrific, and that was a huge reason why I enjoyed this season so much. Exciting, heartfelt, and often funny, this story line represented the show at its very best, and its tragic resolution, which saw the many accomplishments of the negotiations disappear because of Taystee's grief and demand for Bailey's immediate prosecution, made it all the more impactful.

I've long thought that this show's greatest strength was its ability to craft a story and build to a climax, with each season finale being probably the best episode of each season. The show's ability to satisfyingly bring together its many narrative threads has become all the more impressive with each season, as its cast has only expanded. And no matter how flawed this season was, its season finale was a stunning accomplishment, and a near perfect hour of television.

In immensely powerful fashion, the season ends the only way it could have, with the prison being taken back by force, the makeshift society built over the last few days being destroyed, and the prisoners getting split up and put on different buses. The show's final scene, featuring ten of its most important characters as they wait for law enforcement to come, possibly facing death, is an unforgettable image, and made the entire season worth it. This season saw Orange is the New Black demonstrate that it may not always be good, but it is great.

Grade: B