Heated and gruesome, ‘Orange Is the New Black’ season 5 remains essential

This post contains spoilers about Orange Is the New Black.

For those who need a little refresher, the final episode of Orange Is the New Black’s fourth season ended with the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary rising up and starting a full-on riot following the death of inmate Poussey Washington (the effervescent Samira Wiley, currently killing it on The Handmaid’s Tale). This event capped off what had already been an intense set of episodes, and cemented season 4 as the show’s most polarizing ever. Some found it to be Orange’s best season yet. For others, Poussey’s death was a cynical act of exploitation which failed to adequately address America’s police brutality crisis, effectively ruining everything that came before it.

So, yeah, expectations were always going to be high going into season 5.

I was in the camp that found season 4 to be OITNB’s most complex and impressive. While I was on the edge of my seat right up through the finale and couldn’t wait to dive back in this year, I also understand why the death of Poussey was great cause for concern. Forget the political implications for a second, and let’s remember that Poussey was often considered the most likable character on the show. Killing a fan favorite off like that has to have repercussions for years to come. The announcement that all of season 5 would take place over just three days intrigued me, but also gave me pause.

The first episode of the new season picks up right where season 4 left off, with Daya (Dascha Polanco) pointing a gun square at the head of a security guard. Without spoiling too much, things only ramp up from there. Episode 1 moves at a frenetic pace, heightened by the sound of alarms which ring throughout most of the episode, never failing to remind you of the high stakes.

Orange Is The New Black Season 5 Photo by Jojo Whilden//Netflix

Which is why I was surprised by how funny the first few episodes of season 5 were. OITNB has always vacillated in tone (remember all the confusion about how it should compete at the Emmys?), but after the seriousness of season 4, it was strange to see how many moments of levity its writers were able to inject into the otherwise grim opening of season 5. A particularly dark running joke in the first episode involves one casual reference to mass shootings after another—a device which would be offensive if it wasn’t so pointed. Throughout the first part of the season, OITNB uses the presence of a single gun as a key plot point, but it’s hard not to imagine that this isn’t also a comment on how the use of one firearm can affect so many lives.  

Certain moments feel like attempts to address criticism leveled at the last season. When psychotic CO “Humps” (Michael Torpey) tries to generate sympathy by sharing intimate, vulnerable details about himself, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) slyly mentions that he’s “doin’ that thing where he’s trying to make us think he’s a person.” Indeed, some were unhappy with how the episode in which Poussey was killed last season went to painstaking lengths to make her murderer, CO Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), a sympathetic character. Bayley pops up again this year, and it’s hard to say how fans will react to these conflicting gestures.  

As per usual, the ensemble continues to be the strongest part of OITNB. Almost all of the series regulars (too many to list here) are back, and they’re better than ever. It’s a strong year for Brooks in particular, as Taystee proves herself to be an unyielding force for justice on Poussey’s behalf. Some are already suggesting that she may be able to compete in the lead actress category next year.

As for the show’s former lead, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) leans into the dumb, privileged angle, which is an unfortunate decision. OITNB works better when Piper is not the anchor, centering the show yet not weighing it down. Piper is better as a part of the ensemble, and there’s no reason to always play up her worst traits.

The more interesting characters on OITNB are the ones who are more than a single thing. Take the crusading, bass-playing, masturbating Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow). He cares about the inmates of Litchfield, and in the wake of Poussey’s death, he did what he thought was best for everyone. But what makes him so compelling is that his best intentions often have terrible consequences. OITNB has many likable characters, but sometimes it’s the ones we are most conflicted about who yield the most memorable moments.

The use of the flashbacks in season 5 are somehow both more necessary and more redundant than ever (wait till you get to the character they chose to focus on in episode 3). They are less important this year for telling the larger story, but with all of the action crammed into such a tight timeline, they also help to break up the occasionally grueling pace the show has set for itself.

It’s easy to think of shows which have used condensed periods of time less effectively. But the decision to tell the entire story of season 5 in the span of three days isn’t a good call. While the effect should increase the show’s desire to be binged in a weekend, season 5 also makes it clear that OITNB functions easier when it has some room to breathe. People often complain justifiably about Netflix shows having a lot of filler, but in trying to make this more urgent, writers partially lost the “every sentence is a story” charm that made the show so wonderful in the first place. There is more plot than ever this season, but less surprises. And as the show takes some gruesome turns in the last few episodes, it’s clear this over-stuffed approach wasn’t the best course of action for season 5.

But don’t miss it. The increased choices on streaming and beyond have made OITNB look less revolutionary than when it first debuted. But OITNB has already earned its place as one of the most important shows of all time, and even a lesser season of the series still feels like a significant piece of work.

This is the third Netflix show in a row I’ve reviewed, and it’s the third I’ve really liked. Maybe I’m getting soft as a critic, or maybe I’m nostalgic for the days Netflix had 10 shows rather than a thousand, but I can’t help but wonder whether my positive reactions have something to do with the fact that all of these shows were among their first major successes. OITNB was the second original show the streaming giant made its name on, after all, following House of Cards. The decision to renew it through season 7 indicates a fierce loyalty to Netflix’s original talent. (Creator Jenji Kohan has another Netflix show, GLOW, debuting later this month.)

As executives keep forcing more content onto our plates, giving us too many shows for any reasonable person to ever consume, don’t forget the titles that made us love Netflix in the first place. If the continued strength of OITNB proves anything, it’s that sometimes first loves burn the brightest.

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.