Analysis

How Orange is the New Black pulls off its riskiest season yet

What is a prison when the inmates are in charge?

It feels like Orange is the New Black has been building up to this.

Its fifth and most dramatic season drops June 9, and after four years of detailed back stories, context, patterns, and mini-crises that established this deep bench of characters, the show takes the structure away. What is a prison when the inmates are in charge?

The series has shown breakdowns in discipline before — the third season ended with an epic swim at the lake, and that was just one of several mini-reprieves — but this is different. In lieu of a bottle episode or two, season five is a condensed "bottle season." Its 13 episodes unpack the three days of a prison riot that began with the season four finale, when Daya turned a gun on a guard.

It's a risky move, but the show has earned it. Season four was a major and appropriate escalation of the show's risks as well as its stakes. In between all that great dialogue — not since Cheers has a show so masterfully baked in occasions for its characters to shoot the breeze — OITNB has carefully documented the slow cumulative effects of budget cuts and privatization on the prison system. Poussey's death at the end of season four was the devastating culmination of a series of events that the inmates were powerless to stop. Last season took on a series of familiar and increasingly desperate protest tactics (like the Armagh Women's Prison Dirty Protest). This season graduated to Attica.

And that careful documentation matches the show's structural changes. Showrunner Jenji Kohan has admirably developed and even reinvented the series season by season, driving it forward without sacrificing its tone, humor, or basic seriousness. Consider the stages through which Litchfield Penitentiary has traveled: It famously began as a grim fish-out-of-water story about Piper Kerman (Taylor Schilling). By the second season, it was clear that Kohan intended to use the pretty white lady as a "relatable" Trojan horse to tell the stories of other, less "market-friendly" inmates. As these other back stories accrued their dynamics and problems began to take over, Orange is the New Black became one of the most compelling, wrenching, and funny ensemble shows on TV.

One test of a series is how it treats its bit players, and by season five, Taystee and Pennsatucky are more fleshed-out protagonists than Piper. This is the show's achievement: Its shifting focus means we've spent years accruing a deep bench of characters whose tics and patterns we've come to know well. We know that Flaca and Maritza love makeup, so we're prepared for their spree of makeovers and ready to think about what they mean. We know how Boo feels about clothes and self-expression, so it's thrilling to see her wear a suit. We've watched Pennsatucky evolve from a megalomaniacal prophet to a humble searcher whose matter-of-fact recollections of past trauma break your heart as she anxiously seeks friendship and love. We know Red and Nichols have a mother-daughter thing, and that Mendoza and Daya do too. We get Morello in ways we didn't before, and if we once thought of her as "Crazy Eyes," we know now that, when she's operating at full power, Suzanne is Litchfield's greatest bard.

These are bizarrely well-rendered characters, and the lengths the show has gone to build up our knowledge of them pays off massively in this differently experimental season. We're prepped to watch what they do without the usual constraints.

The show also intelligently explores the ways information flows (and doesn't) during events like these. As viewers, we know how prisoners are treated in this country, particularly when they step out of line. That knowledge infuses the entire season with an atmosphere of deep dread. We know what feelings headlines like "prison riot" invoke, and the inmates are thinking about this too.

But here's where the show gets really smart: The relief and anarchy inside the prison means that nobody can remain 100 percent serious. The season is shot through with TV and film references, and they range in tone from Attica to American Idol to Home Alone. Everyone is thinking about precedents and survival, but they're also desperately grabbing at other things: revenge and sunshine and fun. The dread keeps slipping into an almost amnesiac pleasure. We always see the inmates fighting over watching TV. They're on TV now.

The show only allots a little time for that particular meta-twist. The PR problems of the prison riot are real, and insurmountable, but the inmates' access to phones lets them get at least a little of their story out.

Some of that story is frivolous: Maritza and Flaca start a YouTube channel and gain a huge following. Some of it is grotesque: Judy King (a Martha Stewart-like celebrity serving time at Litchfield) ends up being "auctioned off" as a slave and at one point gets photographed carrying a cross while being held by inmates in "hijabs."

What's remarkable about these things is that they aren't frivolous. The effect on the viewer watching events unfold inside the prison is double: You're constantly asked to imagine what you would think of these incidents if you read about them, or saw them reported on the news. We live in frivolous times, and I kept sighing in relief at the fact that Maritza and Flaca were creating some good will on YouTube. I was disproportionately worried about the Judy King photo. One celebrity matters more than hundreds of inmates — we all know this now.

This all has the effect of ethically hollowing you out. When things go south for a particularly horrible guard, I found myself panicking over the public relations consequences. That's not exactly new; OITNB has always tweaked the way you care about things. But this season, the events themselves matter less than the coverage they'll receive.

That said, the show goes deep on its own blind spots too. In what I think of as the second stage of the show's development — when it had graduated from centering Piper and started providing different characters with back stories via flashback — it hardened into a formula that the third season explicitly calls out. "Sorry to disappoint you, sugar, ain't no dramatic origin story here. Just a big old dyke who refuses to apologize for it," Boo says, winking at the show's tendency to offer sob stories. This season, Nichols references that familiar OITNB trope, the "origin story" that explains why someone ended up the way they did, in far more dire circumstances.

It's a noteworthy shift. If OITNB's flashbacks at one point had an exculpatory aspect — "she had a bad childhood" — they've since become much less didactic. They're closer to slices of life that help us understand these characters as people, not as innocents. (If the prison riot proves anything, it's that innocence is almost as impossible as amnesty.) The shifting power vacuums during the riot result in some characters developing moral guidelines of their own: When one character tries to blame her mother for something she did, another tells her she has to "own her shit."

That's a free-floating lesson if ever there was one; no one can own or take responsibility for much of anything in Litchfield. And the series' "bottle season" has learned that. Four years in, it's still productively re-examining its own premises. Having given us all these beautifully rendered characters in repressive settings, it investigates how they respond to a very limited and desperate version of freedom. How militancy blooms and collapses, how exhaustion develops when it becomes your job to develop a new way of doing things. How old patterns re-emerge, and how moral judgments become unsustainable and exhausting in a space where everyone ends up infected.

If that's hard to watch, it's impossible to look away.

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