I personally fell off the OITNB wagon after the backlash from season four. I agreed with many others who claimed that their attempts to highlight racial discrimination within the prison crossed a line. I wasn’t planning on watching this new season, but I guess I can’t leave a story unfinished.
If you were planning on watching season five, I’ll give you a brief pros and cons list, because this review is indeed ridden with spoilers. We have some amazing break-out stars (Taystee, Gloria, Daya), Piper’s not too annoying, and there’s even some fun to be had with Linda, who goes from MCC’s corporate robot to an undercover prisoner, but there are more issues with the season that outweigh the positives.
This season is a mixed bag. There are moments I absolutely love, but they’re almost immediately followed by scenes that I hate with a passion. So let’s start with the bad first, then work our way back to the good. Starting with the most obvious problem with this season – the tone.
Someone gets shot in the leg and it’s still ‘fun and games’
The tricky balance between comedy and drama that defines Orange practically fell apart this season. Intense, chaotic scenes, with inmates scrambling in all directions (some rounding up COs, others ducking for a hiding space, and a guard bleeding to death on the floor) are juxtaposed with supposedly comedic, nonsense filler of Angie and Leanne . . . pantsing people?
The season starts out strong, at least during the more dramatic parts. It definitely captures the scramble for power among the inmates. Each group has their own agenda: the Latinas (most of them) round up COs in the chapel, using Daya – the gunner – as leverage. Taystee’s crew corners Caputo in his office and demand justice for Poussey’s death. Piper is . . . you know, who really cares about her at this point?
Leanne and Angie take up way too much screen time. Their scenes are so jarring and come off as force-fed comic relief, especially during the first few episodes. Why are we wasting time on them? It only gets worse as the season progresses: their antics escalate from pointless to down-right sexual assault but still are played off as wacky hijinks.
I’m being serious right now. These two straight up take a guard hostage and coerce him into fingering Leanne – as a trade off so they don’t chop off his finger. (It’s a long story.)
“You think he was actually into me,” Leanne asks, girlishly playing with her sleeve, “or was only pretending because we made him do it?”
To which Angie replies, “Nah, I’ve raped guys before and I could tell it was genuine for him.”
Wow, okay, that’s a creative decision. Is that supposed to play as comedic? A commentary on the men can’t be raped myth? I really don’t know.
On the subject of problematic characters, we have to discuss Pennsatucky’s rekindled romance with her rapist, Officer Coates. I find it almost insulting that a female-dominated writing staff would green-light such a problematic on-screen relationship.
I wanted to see how it played out, at first. Everything starts out tame, with Pennsatucky tentatively testing the waters with Coates, despite Boo’s strong disapproval. In fairness, I can see why Penn, a woman who, I imagine, has a warped perception of what makes a healthy relationship, would return to an abusive lover. However, I also expected the romance to take a terrible turn, after which she would realize that she should definitely cut ties.
That’s not what the writers had in mind. Instead, our last image of the couple is a hesitant, but peaceful cuddle session in front of the TV. Which sends a problematic message, right? I still hope that this is a set-up for a larger arc in season six, but this semi-happy ending doesn’t sit right with me.
Moving on, let’s briefly talk about my least favorite edition to the OITNB roster, Officer Piscatella. This abusive, woman-hating hulk-man, apparently has a tragic backstory that totally explains his sociopathic behavior. Years ago, at his old job in a male prison, a young Piscatella came upon his secret lover, an inmate who was brutally beaten (and possibly raped) in his cell one night. In his rage, Piscatella subjected the perpetrator to some cruel and unusual torture, sending himself down a dark path to becoming the harrowed man we know today.
I don’t know if the sarcasm comes across, but I really hate this plot point. Most of the flashbacks from this season fall flat, but this is the worst offender. It’s a flimsy way to garner sympathy for a man who clearly doesn’t deserve it. Also, it really doesn’t explain why Piscatella has such a passionate distain for the Litchfield prisoners, and Red in particular. Am I supposed to feel bad for him when he kidnaps each of Red’s friends, forces them to watch him torture her, and breaks Alex’s arm? That’s a tall order.
Where’d Everybody Go?
The character list for this season practically doubles, and it hurts the show in a couple of ways. To be fair, it gives some of the POC characters their own time to shine. Taystee’s arc is absolutely beautiful, which I’ll talk about later, and I also really enjoy Daya’s and Gloria’s own struggle: Daya, who struggles with coming consequences of her actions as the shooter, and Gloria, who almost becomes a moral compass in the prison.
The problem is that most of the major players in season five are newcomers that I don’t even recognize from season four.
Like who is this girl?
Not only do I not know their names, I also am not passionately invested in their characters. They basically serve the same purposes as Leanne, Angie, Flaca, and Mariza, only they somehow get more screen time.
Meanwhile, most of the other recurring characters have gone underground – literally. Frieda, the badass friend of Red’s, has built a bunker. A nuclear apocalypse level bunker, stocked with food, toiletries, and even some furniture. This is also conveniently explained by her backstory, where her conspiracy-obsessed, survivalist father trained her to prepare for any sort of disaster.
Also, did anyone notice that Sophia basically disappears after like episode four? She probably has twenty minutes of screen time total, and it is insane that the show traded such a complex, morally sound character for the Dumb and Dumber crack-heads.
But enough of the trash talk. Let’s talk about the positives.
Saving Grace: Taystee MVP
Taystee is absolutely the main character of this season. Following the death of her best friend, she rises up as a champion for Poussey and the Litchfield women. She essentially is the one person making actual progress – winning supplies of tampons and negotiating for better living conditions. By the end of season, she comes so close, when MCC agrees to all her demands, proper health care, a GED program, minimum wages, everything – except one thing.
Justice for Poussey – Taystee’s personal mantra – is the one request they can’t fulfill. This isn’t corporate cheating, they really don’t have jurisdiction over the case. Taystee is unable to sacrifice her best friend for the greater good, and this becomes her downfall.
I’m so honored to have witnessed her character arc, from fun-loving sidekick, to a strong, passionate leader. There’s also an absolutely tragic scene where she confronts Piscatella at gun-point that is absolutely heartbreaking, and is possibly the best moment in the whole season. As someone who’s only seen this actress in comedic roles, it was truly incredible to see the extent of her acting chops.
So what about Season 6?
Good question, what is going to happen next season? Is there a next season? The finale leaves everything so open-ended, and it feels like all the inmates are being transferred to separate prisons. I may be wrong though.
In the end, I can’t confidently recommend season 5 to anyone. It’s a shame, because you can easily cut out all the terrible aspects of this season and leave behind a solid story. All the terrible elements are contained to their own plots, but no one’s going to take the time to skip over every Leanne and Angie D-story.