End of Season Report: Orange is the New Black – Season 5

23 Aug

The fifth season of Orange is the New Black was, well, pretty good. It’s not in the absolute highest of Peak TV but it’s a pretty good, very entertaining show, but it’s a show that should definitely still be part of the year viewing regimen of any serious TV fans, a lot better than you’d hear from those friends who we all have that tells you they just gave up on Orange is the New Black a couple seasons ago, because. The show has had it’s ups and downs (the third season in particular, which somewhat fairly drove people away) and it’s not perfect, but Orange is the New Black earns its place in pantheon. It’s still a worthwhile show for many reasons, and the condensed time period of this season, taking place entirely in the span of a couple days while the riot reigns, which has both positives and negatives in terms of story telling, helps this season standing out.

The best attributes of Orange is the New Black are both the fact that it is a true ensemble and of course that ensemble itself. There are few true ensembles on television these days, and besides the fact that it’s my favorite format and that it’s underutilized on television, what makes it work particularly well here is that there are a couple dozen ensemble members at this point well developed enough to allow the show to pivot and spotlight new and different characters and character combinations in ways that shows with more limited ensembles are unable to do. Every season, some characters are introduced, some are brought from the background to the fore, and some are provided small chances to show off which set them up for increased roles in future seasons.

The choice to have the whole season take place during the three-day period of the riot, while the inmates ran the prison, was a compelling change up from the previous seasons from a narrative perspective but limited the number of characters that got deep, well-developed arcs. It’s more difficult (though far from impossible) to write strong complex arcs that occur over the course of just a couple of days. During this season, we see more inmates on screen with less screen time each. The sheer number of characters is a strength; the prison feels like a full world, and a couple dozen smaller characters feel distinctive and at least minimally memorable only given a few lines in a few episodes. As a method of examining the season, let’s breeze through how some of the characters fared this season.

More than ever a disproportionate number of the characters served as comic relief, often in groups. Martiza and Flaca, who have served this role for a while now, are the best at it, their chemistry shines through. There were also the two meth heads, Leanne and Angie, who we’ve seen before but also the white nationals Kasey, Helen, and Brandy, and Ruiz’s henchwomen, Zirconia, Pidge and Ouija, . The comedy’s great, and the balance of genuine drama and comedy in another quality that has made Orange is the New Black so successful. Howeve,r this season, the preponderance of otherwise relatively shallow purely comical characters probably swung the ratio a bit too far from dramatic character arcs.

Taystee got a big juicy arc as she stood up after Poussey’s death as a reluctant leader fighting for justice. She was the absolute star of this season and she was great. Even if there was nothing else to salvage (and there was), the season was excellent just for her role, and if there had been three other characters that got as meaty roles as she did, the season would be absolutely great instead of pretty good. She reckoned with the loss of Poussey throughout, along with her position in the world and in the jail and her responsibilities to herself and her fellow inmates. Her flashback was entirely unnecessary to feel the loss and neglect of her entire life. I don’t quite hate the flasbhacks in this show because they’re well-crafted but they often reinforce characteristics we already know or learn in prison and take up valuable screen time that could be used in the present.  In that present, Taystee’s willingness to fight so hard for the inmates and put everything on the line in admirable, while her stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise on the final demand is heroic but impractical, unrealistic and without meaning to be, selfish. That Taystee’s behavior makes her both the prison’s savior and possibly ultimate failure is tragic and an example of what makes this show so good at its peaks.

Black Cindy and Watson, who flank posse Taystee throughout the season, both got much smaller arcs. Watson has all the makings of a fantastic character from the little glimpses we get; if Cindy is the more carefree member of Taystee’s posse, Watson is the potentially more militant. Unfortunately, she’s never had much of an individual arc to to build on; she’d be a great candidate for more to do in a future season. Black Cindy is still primarily a comic relief character, but we see a new side of her when she rashly gives Crazy Eyes lithium to keep her quiet, only to sincerely regret it later when Crazy Eyes won’t wake up.

Otherwise unrelated characters Red, Brook Soso, Gloria, and Ruiz had the next best season-long storylines, none nearly as broad and powerful as Taystee’s, but each building on a favorite character in Red’s case, or showing us new sides less developed characters, as Brooke, Gloria, and Ruiz all get to show off more than they had in previous seasons. Red’s desperate need for revenge, to show her own value as protector, and to take it to any length, like Taystee, beyond the practically instructive is both admirable and foolish.

Brook, who doesn’t fit in with many at the prison, both due to her ethnicity, her education, and her personality, has to deal with the loss of her girlfriend Poussey, and how she managed that both alone, and in conjunction and conflict with others, like Tasytee and Watson mourning Poussey was fascinating.

Gloria’s sense of failed responsibility for Daya and her own family runs deep; she’s a better mother to some of the prison inmates than to her own son, but with Daya’s mistake, she can’t even seem to do that right. Ruiz is the fiery relatively militant leader of the riot until it dawns on her that her extra years might not have been added yet, after which she immediately switches sides. Gloria and Ruiz’s dual decisions to trade in their loyalty to their fellow inmates and friends within prison to be with their children were both heart-wrenching and showed the difficulties decisions foisted on inmates and the many claims on their loyalty.

The guards didn’t get much to do, kind of the product of being kept under lock and key all season, outside of, yes, again, some comic relief. Caputo, who may have been the protagonist of the fourth season, was a little bit more involved than the rest of the guards, but far less than in previous seasons.

I don’t hate either character individually, but I’m so done with Alex and Piper’s on-again-off again love-hate relationship., Their plot this season was all about their relationship and I could not care less whether they get married or not.

I’m also about done with Lorna. While I enjoyed Lorna’s schtick for the first few seasons, the character has serious limitations and is seeming more and more one note, which particularly stands out next to other characters who have been around for seasons but still feel like they have plenty more to give. More importantly, involvement with her is holding Nikki, a far more interesting character back. I’d love to see way more Nikki, separate from Lorna.

As the mentally ill characters go, I prefer Crazy Eyes to Lorna, and in her relatively small amount of screen time, her struggle for routine and normalcy as the riot throws off everything she’s become used to her around her, and her own unique sense of moral outrage are moving even in doses.

Pennsyltucky has continued to grow – unlike Lorna, the writers smartly took her in a new direction a couple seasons ago, moving her from the crazy big bad to best friends with Big Boo as a chance to have her develop. The two characters have great chemistry and Pennsyltucky has had one of the most interesting continuous journeys in the entire course of the series.

I’m getting long on words here, but there’s more characters; that’s how big a cast there is. There’s the older women hanging out in Frieda’s sweet basement apartment. There’s Daya’s mom Aleida actually remaining out of jail and getting to appear on TV thanks to the riot. There’s Blanca hanging out with Red. But that at least covers most of the major players this season.

To sum up, the fifth season pretty good but not great. Thanks to the short period of time the season took place over, it was notably different in a way that was welcome simply for the change up in provided but caused a breadth for depth imbalance that led to what shortfalls the season had. I love that the main characters switch from season to season like no other show this side of the Wire and I love how there are so many diverse characters who all get their chance to shine. My primary concern is that too many of them got stuck in place and I hope next season allow for a few more of the inmates we already know and love to get the kind of arcs Taystee got this season.

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