What do you do after four seasons of a TV series? In the case of Orange Is the New Black, the answer is simple: throw out the rule book completely. That’s true in more ways than one for Jenji Kohan’s prison drama, which ended Season 4 with a one-two gut-puncher of a climax: first, the harrowing death of Poussey (the much-missed Samira Wiley), and second, the brutal riot that ensued, leaving Daya holding a gun pointed at the head of Humphrey. Season 5 carries on immediately in the aftermath of that finale, not only riding the wave of uprising that occurs, but doing so in real time.
For those expecting Jack Bauer to turn up and start taking out bad guys, you’re both way off the mark and disturbingly accurate: within the first few episodes, we’ve only moved a few hours on from Humps at gunpoint, and while inmates have slipped from seeking retribution to debating torture of their cruel guards, Piscatella (the still-brilliant Brad William Henke) is planning to infiltrate the prison from the outside with any force necessary. It’s a shocking onslaught of new sympathies, fresh surprises and a sharpened sense of urgency over the injustices of the US justice system.
That is, as ever, thanks to the impeccable cast. Orange Is the New Black has never been more of an ensemble show, with Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) now mere bit-players on the sidelines of a juggernaut narrative that has steamrolled past them to something bigger and more important. And what becomes clear are the differences between each group, sub-group and clique, which evolve, disintegrate and are reinforced by each person’s reaction to what’s going on.
Piper and Alex are trying to keep their heads down. Nicky is trying to get into the prison’s medicine stash. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) is still negotiating an awkward almost-relationship with the abusive Donuts (James McMenamin). Half the guards are trying to keep order over one or two prisoners in tiny rooms locked safely away from the carnage. But this is far from business as usual, and nowhere is that truer than the time we spend Taystee. As Gloria, Flaca and more all get caught up in the fight to rule the roost, she’s simply mourning the loss of her friend.
Danielle Brooks stole the show in Season 4, as she took on a new role as Caputo’s assistant, but she blossoms into the heart of the whole programme in these initial chapters, with a turn that somehow manages to carve out time for reflection and tragedy amid the chaos that is unfolding.
Combined with the comic relief provided by veterans such as Red (Kate Mulgrew, still incredible) – “We Russians have no proverbs. We have vodka and misery.” – Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season has never had such an uneven tone, rushing from sadness to silliness without pause for breath. But where that might be a criticism in another show, Kohan’s juggling of tone only gets better and more nuanced – and that’s where the decision to condense the storytelling into such a compressed timeline really pays off. Much like 24, it allows the series to rapidly switch pace and mood, resulting in a confused jumble of shifting emotions that captures the unpredictable nature of the riot with remarkable sincerity.
“It’s not so easy to shake this mortal coil,” says Judy King, dramatically, as she finds her attempts to get out of Litchfield thwarted by the inmate-imposed lockdown. “Until someone sits on you until you die,” comes the poignant reply from Taystee.
In such a short time period, with everything moving so quickly and yet characters adjusting and adapting so slowly, such beats are vastly heightened – if you thought Season 4’s finale was shocking, Orange Is the New Black is only just getting started. Underneath the unrest still lies the scathing criticism of real life penal systems, as MCC employee Linda (Beth Dover, one of last season’s MVPs) provides a thematic throughline from Season 4, getting trapped in the jail and taken under Piper and Alex’s wing – watching her flirting with Big Boo is hilarious (“I have anterior pelvic tilt” / “You have anterior white privilege”), while she gets the flashback treatment in this season, which manages the surprising trick of fleshing out her entertainingly selfish, shallow character.
The role-reversals and cosplay that ensue not only provide wit, but also drum up dramatic tension, as she and boyfriend Caputo are split up on opposite sides of the prison bars. And, in the middle of it all, the calm presence of Alison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen) gives a voice to the Litchfield ladies’ demands. Between food fights and fond memories of departed friends, the stage is set for a rollercoaster of a season like no other – and to be able say that is testament to how good Netflix’s flagship original drama is. Whether it will be able to sustain that pace over 13 episodes is yet to be seen, but five seasons in and Orange Is the New Black is still finding new colours.
Orange Is the New Black Season 5 is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.