This is a spoiler-free review of the first half of Orange Is the New Black Season 6.
Orange Is the New Black isn’t a show that’s afraid to mix things up. Even since its debut, which took the story of middle-class white woman Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) going to prison, and turned it into a diverse portrait of overlooked minorities, each individual humanised and given their own screen time, Jenji Kohan’s series has stood apart from the crowd by doing things other shows wouldn’t. Season 5 proved that beyond all doubt by ditching its conventional structure in favour of a real-time thriller, charting only a few hours in the middle of the Litchfield riot. It was, to put it mildly, divisive, the chaotic, compressed narrative initially allowing for tension, shock and raw emotion, before its second half collapsed into a jumble of inappropriate tone and uncomfortable humour. Season 6, in typical OITNB fashion, changes everything all over again.
It’s a reboot that’s mostly successful, as we follow the ladies of Litchfield to the maximum security unit they were transferred to at the end of Season 5. “This isn’t home,” cries Suzanne, as they’re led through the new corridors and locked in their new cells. The show smartly takes the chance to whittle down the focus to a few major characters, leaving many supporting faces either back in Litchfield, shipped off to other jails or simply not mentioned at all. The result brings in a stronger sense of focus and consistency, as we see Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Red (Kate Mulgrew), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) and more all adjusting to their surroundings.
Where most seasons have spent time on flashbacks to each prisoner’s backstory, Season 6 primarily flashes back only to the events of Season 5, as MCC conducts an investigation into the violent events that led to the death of officer Piscatella. Cutting from one interview to the next, what emerges is a surprising and gripping game of modern day Rashomon, as each person passes the blame and a scapegoat slowly emerges. With us not knowing the fates or exact movements of several members of the cast at the end of last season, there’s genuine heartbreak and tension in seeing these recognisable characters being pushed and pulled morally, as they try to work out who they’re willing to stay loyal to, and at what cost. There’s an underlying story of unity and solidarity in the face of the dangerous unknown, a fresh way to explore boundaries of privilege and prejudice.
The cast rise to the occasion, with Kate Mulgrew’s weary Red and Danielle Brooks’ Taystee particularly impressing – Brooks is so natural in her delivery that even some more pointedly political passages of dialogue feel normal, while Mulgrew’s once confident facade crumbles more with each season to disarming effect. Dascha Polanco’s Dayanara is even better, as the gentle mother now has to shoulder a reputation as a guard killer, something that marks her out for both the guards and the inmates. (Elizabeth Rodriguez also makes a welcome return as her mum, Aleida, also struggling in her own way to get used to the new environment of the real world.)
The new additions to the series, though, are less compelling. Litchfield Max is divided into two blocks – C and D – which gives us the overriding framework for the season, as it splits up the characters and pits them against each other. That divide is driven by a long-standing feud between two sisters, Barb (Mackenzie Phillips) and Carol (Henny Russell). In the season’s first half, neither get much of a chance to define themselves beyond that plot device, leaving the bullying Badison (Amanda Fuller) and her lackey, Daddy (Vicci Martinez), to play the big bads of the story. With neither given much depth apart from their antagonistic streak for antagonism’s sake, though, you wonder if they’re only there to try and bump up sympathy for Piper. (A shout-out, on the other hand, must go to Max’s entertaining radio DJ.)
Where both of those might benefit from extensive, sympathetic backstories, when the flashbacks do return, the show instead gives them to people we’ve already seen before. We spend time with Nicky during her bat mitzvah, something that – while it’s great to give Natasha Lyonne more material to play with in the present – doesn’t really feel relevant to what’s going on. Likewise, the inclusion of former warden Joe Caputo (played superbly by Nick Sandow) and Matt Peters’ stoner guard Luschek, only highlights the bits of Orange Is the New Black that are still attached to its old roots – the programme’s writing team, which underwent some major changes following Season 5’s misfire, seem caught between a soft reboot and a full reset.
This season is best when it fully embraces the show’s potential to do things differently. The opening episode, which filters everything through the lens of Suzanne’s childlike hallucinations (all based around old TV shows) is a masterclass in bold, unique television. Aduba relishes the chance to soak up the screentime, juggling heartbreaking reality with amusing, innocent fantasies and an infectious energy. Other times, though, don’t distinguish between old Orange and new Orange nearly enough; the new guards prove to be as much comic relief as the old ones (a game of prisoner sweepstakes is a nice touch, but could be played much darker), and equally easily manipulated, which means that Max doesn’t raise the stakes much at all. That’s partly reflective of the show’s success in normalising the brutality and mistreatment of people in prison, which allows it to explore tone and character with levity as well as weight, but with a narrative that’s based around moving into unfamiliar ground, there’s not much sense of transition. A slightly aimless subplot involving Pennsatucky only highlights that further. There’s potential in this new season, its more reflective tone and its more overt villains, to recapture the heights of Season 2, the show’s best to date. Whether it will happen by the end of these 13 episodes, though, is something – like the ladies of Litchfield – that we can only found out by moving forwards alongside them. Orange Is the New Black isn’t a show that’s afraid to mix things up. Here’s hoping Season 6 doesn’t get scared to do so.
Orange Is the New Black Season 6 is available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.