When season four of Orange is the New Black came to a close with one character dead, another character pointing a gun at a guard, and the entire prison heading for a riot, we found ourselves caught up in the emotion of it all, even if it was hard to shake the fear that the show had turned a corner … by writing itself into one. Taking the characters to this point was not something that could be walked back once the show committed to it. And the show, we thought, could never return to the days where panty smuggling operations and scheming over who gets to control the kitchen could ever take center stage again. Orange is the New Black decided to go dark heading into this season, and we found ourselves fairly ambivalent about the choice once we started considering what it meant.
Cast your mind back to the finale of season one, with Piper beating the crap out of Pennsatucky after an entire season of being tormented by her. Remember how it felt watching Piper make a dangerous enemy even more so, and ensured the likelihood of a much greater sentence than the one she was currently serving? Remember that sense of defeatism and nihilism that defined that ending? Remember how, when the show returned for season two, absolutely none of it mattered in the long run? Pennsatucky got new teeth, Piper saw little in the way of lasting consequences, and the two of them mostly nod at each when they pass in the hallway now, if they even show up in the same scene together. Showrunner Jenji Kohan, who also give the world the occasionally entertaining but narratively infuriating Weeds, has a history of big season finales where everything blows up, followed by slow-fizzle season premieres. The more we thought about the show during its time between seasons, the more likely it seemed to us that we were headed for a truly disappointing fifth season. In the end, we were correct about our fears – the show really did write itself into a an unworkable corner – but we were wrong to think that it would merely whistle its way past a solution. No, every character clearly paid a price for their actions this season. It’s just that, for so many of them – the majority, we’d say – the route to those actions and decisions didn’t make much sense. And worse, a good deal of the actions and decisions themselves strained credulity to its breaking point.
In the middle of a prison riot – in which there are many women involved shown to be prone to violence; in a setting where racial tensions have always run high; in a prison stuffed to the rafters by overcrowding and a population systematically abused by psychopathic caretakers and fiscal mismanagement, leaving them living in near-squalor; after watching a guard kill a fellow inmate, the population of Litchfield prison…
Put on a talent show.
And held a mock trial, with an inmate dressed up like a lawyer to complete the fun. And gave each other makeovers. And redecorated the hallways and held craft fairs. And painted sheds and hung out in secret rooms playing videogames, smoking pot and eating peanut butter. And flirted and played house. Considering the launching point of this entire storyline arose out of the show’s desire to address the Black Lives Matters movement, all of this stuff was borderline offensive in its silliness and in the way it abandoned any sense of real-world believability.
It’s not just that it all strained narrative credulity – which it did; but that it strained emotional credulity. Over and over again, we kept coming up against the same question with practically every character at some point in the story: Why is she acting this way? Suddenly, Red is downing uppers and losing all sense of self-preservation and control; the two traits that defined her character. Suddenly, Taystee, who has always been portrayed as the most intelligent character on the show by far, can’t see the consequences of her actions. Suddenly, Yoga Jones is partnering with the white power girls to physically torture another inmate and drag her to the roof in chains. Caputo’s girlfriend is treating the whole situation like a sorority pledge. Daya never really explains why she shot a guard. Sophia simply walks out of the story. She’s more or less followed by Soso, Judy King and other characters who barely got a line or two all season. At the end, the white power prisoners and a couple of the Latina prisoners team up to make a last stand against the encroaching SWAT team … WHY? Leanne and Ange are absolutely thrilled to be caught by guards engaging in arson during a prison riot … WHY? Why did any of these characters do what they did this season? Why did so many of them act like none of it mattered?
To its credit, the story ended “correctly,” in our opinion, in the sense that it ended in one of the only ways that made sense. There have to be permanent, long-term consequences to the characters after this, otherwise there was no point at all to any of it. Any attempt to return to the status quo after everything that happened would have been a betrayal of the audience. On the other hand, spending a dozen hours watching characters pretend not to see what was clearly coming felt a bit like a betrayal of the characters. Yes, there’s a point to be made that many of the women in Litchfield, while not necessarily bad or unintelligent, nonetheless have problems parsing out the consequences of their actions and decisions, not to mention that many of them feel desperate and at the end of their ropes after years of abuse or neglect. But for every character to just throw her hands up and say “Fuck it,” in this situation – if not actively engage in behavior that was going t0 clearly make life worse for everyone involved – simply didn’t work when forced to watch hour after hour of it.
Even if we accept the show’s implication that virtually all of these women suffer from a near-total inability to see the consequences of anything they do (which strikes us as incredibly reductive, if not downright condescending) as a way of explaining how they all acted, it’s still difficult dealing with the tonal whiplash that plagued the season. Aforementioned scenes of flirting, house-playing, and talent contests are peppered with scenes of inmates engaging in torture and sexual abuse. At the end, when we watched Pennsatucky snuggle on the couch with the rapist she spent part of the season protecting, we felt mildly nauseous. A story like this one, by it’s very nature, could not have a happy ending in order to be true to itself, but that doesn’t mean the characters all have to act so stupid.
The major issue surrounding all of these story problems came down to how the season was structured. Not only did the show’s creators make the bold choice to turn the story in this direction, they made the bolder choice to stretch out three days of a prison riot to an entire season of television; seventy two hours told in thirteen. Turns out, that’s not the best ratio for this kind of story. Much of what bothered us – Red’s sudden addiction, Leanne & Ange acting like assholes over and over again, Caputo’s girlfriend, Piper and Alex’s bickering – would have worked if roughly one quarter of the storytelling time was devoted to each of them. After a while, you just keep returning to these characters over and over again, as the show stretches the story out, delaying any sort of growth, movement or change in direction for any of the characters because it’s all happening in such a short period of time. Much of the writing on this season used the word “ambitious” to classify it, and we think that’s right, for the most part. But a more ambitious, not to mention more satisfying season would have had the riot end in half the screen time, with the ensuing half of the season devoted to the fallout.
Worse, the show made the, in our view, horrible mistake of devoting significant amounts of storytime to people like Caputo, Figueroa – and worse, Piscatella and Bayley. We’re sitting here watching a couple dozen characters we’ve come to love make the worst, most catastrophic mistakes of their lives and wondering if any of them are going to survive. Pardon us, but we could not give less of a fuck about Bayley’s road trip of absolution or Piscatella’s doomed gay romance. Again, there’s the sense that the show has skirted right up to the line of offense by focusing on these aspects. What’s the point? What did we learn about Piscatella or Bayley or Caputo or Figueroa that made it worth focusing on them at this time? In earlier seasons, characters like Healey and Pornstache said something about the prison industrial complex because they were portrayed as three dimensional characters, even if they were flawed and/or psychopathic. Now, characters like Humps and Piscatella are just psychos; characters like Caputo and Fig are just annoying, and characters like Bayley should not be focused on at all.
Remember when this was a show concerned with telling the stories about the complicated lives of women and the choices they made? The types of stories and the types of women who don’t get that kind of attention normally? Is it too much to ask for a return to that show after all this narrative ambition? Because for us, virtually none of the risks taken this season truly paid off and we’re left wondering if the show is better or worse off heading into its sixth season.