The new season of Orange Is the New Black picks up exactly where the previous one left off. Daya (Dascha Polanco) is brandishing a gun pointed at one of the prison’s vilest, most abusive guards. Surrounding her is a prison’s worth of pissed-off inmates screaming, shouting, and goading her to pull the trigger.
It’s unsettling. It’s starting with the dial already turned up to 11. Launching with the energy this high is akin to turning on the TV when the volume is already turned up to max, blowing out the speakers, scaring the bejeezus out of you, and leaving you instantly disoriented; it takes a minute to acclimate yourself to what’s going on.
The show might expect you to be at the same level of energy the rioting inmates are when the season begins, but you have to remember what built up to that anger, that frustration, this explosion of protestation violence. Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) is dead, a casualty of the prison’s systemic abuse: inhumane overcrowding, undignified budget cuts, human cattle herding, violence against prisoners, and a blatant disregard for human life.
It’s actually a viewing experience that mirrors what’s happening on screen. There’s Daya, one of the most innocent and endearing Litchfield inmates, suddenly holding the gun—and thus all the power—in the center of absolute chaos, her mind reeling: How did I get here; what is going to happen to me now; who do I listen to; do I shoot?
The trigger gets pulled and we’re off like a bullet, barreling forward at the same pitch the season kicks off with. The big twist, which is a less a gimmick than a smart late-run reinvention, is that the entire season takes place in real-time, 24-style.
Orange Is the New Black’s strength is in these risky reinventions. No season of OITNB feels like the one before. It’s a show that has competed both in the comedy and drama Emmy categories, and won awards in both. It has morphed from character study to horror story to ensemble dramedy to, now with this real-time adrenaline kick, a pseudo-comedy thriller.
Through it all, the show continues to “say something”—about the justice system, institutionalized racism, queerness, femininity, privilege, and more—at an unignorable volume, but with unusual subtlety.
So here we are now. A guard has been shot (a catalyst for yet another of the summer’s jarring, medically-set penis sightings), and the prisoners are taking over the prison. They hold the other guards hostage. At first it’s madness, a bender of binge-eating and indulging in vices, turf wars, and power struggles.
The real-time twist both serves the show well and poorly here. There’s a built-in anxiety wondering how long this could go on for, but also exasperation: Seriously, how long could this go on for? The conceit both heightens the drama and puts an expiration date on it, an issue that presents itself as, after we come down from the excitement of the first episodes, the stagnant middle stretch starts to spin its wheels.
That’s the thing about risks. They don’t always work.
In addition to being OITNB’s riskiest season yet, this is also its messiest. The lows are pretty low. Nearly an entire episode is spent on an interminable talent show. And a prison food fight? Really?
But the highs are the show at its best: profound and funny, and simultaneously spotlighting and elucidating the ways in which women and minorities are oppressed, villainized, and ignored, often all at once.
Still, that surfaces the show’s most fatal and longest-running flaw. There are so many characters—too many, in fact.
The show’s insistence on bringing tertiary characters to the forefront with screen-time and storylines at the expense of the ostensible leads we invested in five seasons ago is so excessively absurd that, as a creative decision, it’s as admirable as it is frustrating.
Huge swaths of narrative space are given to characters you won’t even recall from earlier seasons, while favorites like Red (Kate Mulgrew), Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), Sophia (Laverne Cox), and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) are sidelined with low-impact bordering on ludicrous plots. Red literally spends the first two-thirds of the season tweaking on an addiction to speed.
Part of the issue is that the show has tapped into such a superfluous wealth of comedic pairings—Emmy Myles and Julie Lake as the meth heads, Diane Guerrero and Jackie Cruz as Maritza and Flaca, Lea Delaria and Taryn Manning as Boo and Pennsatucky—that it’s too eager to use them all. Their comedic relief often ends up as narrative distractions and momentum roadblocks.
When the season soars though is when it revisits, if only periodically (maybe too periodically) the reason this riot is happening in the first place: because of Poussey. Because her death didn’t have to happen. And her memory deserves to be honored, and should be the catalyst for change.
It’s here that Danielle Brooks as Taystee rises as the standout of the season. (Selenis Levya as Gloria does typically phenomenal work, too.) She is both broken by the death of her friend and empowered by it.
She becomes the de facto leader of negotiations, at one point delivering a heartbreaking speech that specifies this year’s greater message. “Our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people,” she says. “And brown people. And poor, brown people.”
The show’s poignancy sneaks up on you. If last year’s build up to the #BlackLivesMatter finale was deliberate to the point that it bordered on heavy-handed (though it was certainly effective), this season’s commentary comes more in fits and starts, and on a spectrum of subtlety.
There’s the way, for example, as rumors spread about a shooter on the loose, that different characters make casual references to someone “going Sandy Hook” or “going Virginia Tech,” eventually namechecking a shameful number of real-life mass shootings as part of the running gag.
Amidst all the chaos and comedy, the show is never afraid to take a beat to underline the strength of the women, should you lose the point. “We are so fucking resilient, even when we don’t want to be,” says Judy King (Blair Brown). “The worst thing you can do is take a woman’s voice when she’s finally found it,” says Alison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen).
Even the way one episode pivots to show the way the media would cover a standoff like this—painting all the prisoners as thugs, mentally ill, and terrorists, or, on the flip side, women who can’t possibly sustain something as orchestrated and important as this because of their gender—is pointed commentary on our culture’s biases against and assumptions about women and prisoners.
What the show loses this year the most, though, is plausibility.
There’s a lot of imaginative nonsense concocted to depict how these women would pass the time during a prison standoff. It’s all entertaining. At one point, a splinter group sets up a café that morphs into a hilarious Starbucks parody, while much material is mined from what these women would do with their first access to Wi-Fi in years. But a dizzying number of power shifts and side shows swarm the season with too much Lord of the Flies and not enough meaningfulness.
In the last third of the season, the tone takes a promising, darker shift. But we will say it’s a horrifying turn. “There’s a time bomb on this shit,” Vicky Jeudy’s Janae Watson says at one point, referring to the standoff, but just as well applying it to the season’s real-time storytelling device. Just wait for it to explode.