Anyone who watched through the fourth season finale of “Orange is the New Black” knows that it ended on its most intense cliffhanger yet. The finale, which left off on the question of whether or not Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco, “The Perfect Match”) would shoot a sadistic prison guard (Michael Torpey, “Veep”) and kick off a burgeoning riot, not only kept the audience in very real suspense; it also closed off an excellent season that asked sincere and authentic questions about morality, society and the extent to which life, death and human decency are valued within a system of incarceration. It would stand to reason that the fifth season could either continue meeting the standards of greatness the show has already set for itself or, understandably, fail to live up to them.
It sort of ends up doing both. The fifth season narrows its focus more than any other season before it and tells the story of a three-day-long prison riot, a creative and ambitious move that seems to offer as many opportunities as it takes away. The restricted timeline definitely makes this a unique season, as the audience gets to see what all of their favorite characters would do if they were suddenly the ones at Litchfield with the power, but it also makes the show a little less focused and more jumbled.
“Orange is the New Black” has a sprawling cast of characters, which works better when all of their arcs aren’t packed into the same condensed, chaotic timeline. At times this can feel aimless, when unrelated scenes featuring so many different characters are forced into one episode. Another problem is that since the season encompasses such a short amount of time, each character’s arc is the same throughout; the problems people are dealing with in the first couple of episodes are largely the same ones they’re facing closer to the finale. This approach makes sense for a three-day-long timeline, but it also makes it hard to truly develop the characters and change them by the end of the season.
That being said, this is a show with some truly terrific characters, and many of them have a chance to shine this season. Red (Kate Mulgrew, “Star Trek: Voyager”) spends the season trying to get revenge on Piscatella (Brad William Henke, “Fury”), which both adds necessary tension to the season and pushes her into amusing new territory when she inadvertently takes speed with partner-in-revenge Blanca Flores (Laura Gómez). Linda (Beth Dover, “Life Partners”), Management & Correction Corporation’s oblivious and uncaring Director of Purchasing, poses as an inmate in order to stay out of trouble during the riot, which finally opens her eyes to the unlivable conditions she has helped to create for the inmates. Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero, “Jane the Virgin”) use their newfound internet access to start a makeup tutorial channel on YouTube, which ends up providing some of the comedic moments that work best in this increasingly dark and twisted season.
However, the season’s true standout is Taystee (Danielle Brooks, “The Angry Birds Movie”), whose well-argued negotiations with MCC and passionate determination to make sure the late Poussey (Samira Wiley, “Nerve”) is properly honored are what really anchor this season and get at the heart of what it is trying to say. While other inmates are using their newfound power to get revenge on last season’s abusive guards or passing the time with talent shows and makeshift coffee shops, Taystee — with the help of a brilliant performance from Brooks — is working hard to keep the real conversation centered around the gross mismanagement of the prison. This helps both to keep the focus of the show on what is important and to make sure that the show treats Poussey’s death with the respect and attention it really deserves.
Season Five does face some struggles in its attempt to stretch a three-day-long riot into 13 episodes, particularly when it comes to keeping its storylines tight and organized. However, part of the reason why this comes across as less strong is because “Orange is the New Black” is in most ways a very strong show. The fifth season may not entirely live up to the expectations left behind by the fourth, but it still benefits from many powerful performances and creative bits of storytelling. Perhaps most importantly of all, it continues its well-executed criticism of the innumerable problems that exist within America’s prison system, and its insistence that the audience consider the concrete ways in which those problems might begin to be solved.