‘Orange is the New Black’ (Season 5): A Mostly Successful Experiment

orange is the new black season 4

From the never-ending wedding weekend of How I Met Your Mother’s final season to real-time structure of 24, numerous TV shows in the past twenty years have experimented with extreme decompression. By using an entire season to show the events of very short span of time, a TV show can theoretically dig even deeper into a specific narrative or situation.

This year, Orange is the New Black took its own crack at this decompressed storytelling structure, allowing the entire season to be dedicated to the three days of the Litchfield riot. The main question with any experiment of this nature is how successful it was. For Orange, the season hit about as often as it missed in its fifth season, but I’d overall say that it proved successful.

Where the show hit hardest was, fortunately, with the storyline it absolutely needed to: Taystee’s fight to bring change to the prison and get justice for Poussey. More than anyone else, Taystee saw the need for the riot to actually bring about real change, to prove that the women of Litchfield were people, not just criminals. From her early attempts to go viral through the negotiation progress, Taystee was in charge of the riot despite how removed from its actual goings-on she was. It have the season a strong backbone that it could constantly come back to and reference when other stories, such as Humphrey’s injuries or Daya’s assault, took center stage.

Of course, for most characters, the riot was just a chance to experience a break from routine and the oppression of MCC. This lead to wide variety of stories with different levels of intensity and tones, which has often been Orange’s strong suit. However, the decompressed timescale meant that stories weren’t always allowed to progress quickly, and that made for some wonky pacing. While major characters like Suzanne, Red, and Flaritza were well-represented throughout, others, such as Brook and Doggett, vanished for large stretches of episode, despite how prominent their arcs had been in the previous season. Several other characters were also written off quickly, either being shipped off to Max or just not appearing at all.

It’s a tricky balance, of course, but frustrating when some of the stories felt like they were getting screen-time without any significant developments. Red and Blanca made for a surprisingly delightful pair, but their mission to take down Piscatella took forever to get going and was a bit on the wacky side with all the pill-popping. Really, this storyline was the most problematic, both taking forever to get going and ultimately centering on a villain – Piscatella – that the show never truly made into a fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional character.

Still, what ultimately worked about the riot was just how much it shook things up. It allowed new dynamics to form, let past relationships be viewed in greater detail, and examined the show’s ongoing critique of the American prison system from a new angle. The season’s end leaves it uncertain exactly where things are headed from here, but after such a bold, if uneven, season such as this one, I’m excited to find out next year.