[Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers for the final episodes of “Orange is the New Black” Season 4, which premiered in 2016. It does not contain spoilers for the new upcoming season.]
It’s official: “Orange is the New Black” is never allowed to call itself a comedy, ever again.
When it comes to awards consideration, the Netflix series about a women’s prison has yo-yoed between the drama and comedy categories since the beginning, and tonally the show has always existed in the realm we usually describe as “dramedy.” But while that has meant “Orange” was capable of offering up great moments of hilarity as well as tear-jerking pathos, it also means that the show’s tone has always been its biggest creative struggle, especially in later years, as it’s taken bigger and bigger swings.
Season 4 was perhaps the most challenging in this respect, as the final two episodes pushed the show into new territory after Poussey (Samira Wiley) died at the hands of a guard. It wasn’t the first time we’d seen death in Litchfield, but this particular tragedy, especially in the wake of how it invoked the other atrocities which gave birth to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, was particularly heart-breaking.
And Season 5, we knew in advance, would be quite different from past years because of the choice to decompress the storytelling: While normally a season of “Orange” would take place over the course of several weeks, this season was almost told in real time, with the 13 episodes taking place over the course of about days.
This period of time begins at the exact moment when Season 4 ended, with the women of Litchfield rising up against the guards, and inmate Dayanara (Dascha Polanco) holding a gun. And without getting into spoilers, said riot consumes the season, the women taking control of the prison and establishing their own society within the confines of these cement walls.
It’s a choice that does elevate this season and give it new focus and directive, which has been lacking in last years — Seasons 3 and 4 were extremely watchable, but did feel a bit meandering from time to time.
But, as the show has always struggled with tone, in later episodes the series delves far more into horror tropes than you might expect, in legitimately horrifying ways. There are sequences which feel more like a “Saw” movie than the “Orange” we’ve known in the past — a very dark look for a series that has otherwise always made some limited effort to find some humor in the reality of incarceration.
The further we go down that rabbit hole, the less fun we have. Seemingly harmless jokes about ogling an attractive man escalate to the point of threats of sexual assault. There are a few enjoyable set pieces, in the proud tradition of Season 1’s Christmas pageant or Season 2’s mock job fair. But the end of the season takes such a dark turn that their memory feels tainted somehow. As the old saying goes, it’s all fun and games until the torture starts.
The other big sea change to come with this season is that if anyone from this season is going to submit as a lead actress at the Emmys, it should not be Taylor Schilling.
The show’s initial premiere put her front and center as Piper Chapman, the attractive white woman who serves as an ambassador for mainstream audiences into a foreign land. The ostensible reason for that, of course, is that the show was based on a book written by real-life Piper (real last name Kerman). But today, “Orange” no longer relies on that crutch, and real talk: If “Orange” premiered this year, would it have still emphasized Piper as the lead character? Probably not.
Because over the last five years, “Orange” has done a solid job of expanding its supporting characters to the point where it’s truly an ensemble drama. And this year, out of all of that talented cast, it’s Danielle Brooks who really shines.
Brooks has always been one of the show’s standouts, a talent recently recognized with a Tony Award nomination for her Broadway turn in “The Color Purple” (she was also freaking hilarious in “Master of None” this year). In Season 5, Brooks delivers a performance that is powerful, soulful and captivating — she was already set up for a leading role by her position as Poussey’s best friend, someone desperate for justice, but she takes command this year on a new level, becoming the show’s heart and soul in a way Piper never managed.
The hardest thing about watching this season is the knowledge that the federal corrections system is not a particularly forgiving one, and that whatever the ultimate outcome, the consequences for this riot would likely be massive, for all the inmates involved. By the end of the season, that nagging dread over what the ladies of Litchfield might experience is in full bloom. Season 6 (which was greenlit as part of a three-season deal with series creator Jenji Kohan) will likely be a very different beast than what came before. While the drama will be as captivating as ever, it’s hard to imagine it being very funny.