[Editor’s note: The first half of this review will be spoiler-free for “Orange is the New Black” Season 6. However, the second half will contain spoilers.]
It’s strange to be nostalgic for prison. It’s even more strange to be nostalgic for a prison in which you were never incarcerated. But for “Orange is the New Black” fans, that may be the overriding feel of Season 6, as the ladies of Litchfield are whisked away from the minimum security camp of the previous seasons for a long stay in Max.
There’s good reason for the change, of course, following the prison riot of Season 5, the resulting chaos of which led to the death of two guards (and perhaps the show’s worst season yet). However, there were powerful pockets of beauty to be found in those episodes: the defiant burning of the uniforms, Poussey’s memorial library. Life in Season 6, in maximum security, is an ugly, ugly thing.
Within the bleak harshness of the Max cells and facilities, the show’s inmates do their best to survive with some degree of sanity, even while the legal ramifications for last season threaten to take away even more of their freedom. The switch-up in prisons means that there’s some notable cast changeover, with a few familiar faces showing up only rarely, if at all, and there’s a whole new population of inmates and guards for our favorites to confront.
Only a few of these new characters really stand out, but they get plenty of screen time and flashback episodes. Though here in Season 6, the flashback structure, which was such a vital and exciting part of the show’s early years, at times almost feels more like an afterthought than essential to the show’s nature. It doesn’t help that some of these flashbacks (especially for the new characters) serve more to justify why these women belong in prison, rather than make us care about who they are.
Cara Howe / Netflix
But perhaps that’s just the harsh reality of life in Max. The creature comforts of previous seasons are a thing of the past and everyone is on edge, including the guards, as the fact that two of their own died during the riot hangs over the whole season. One of the season’s darkest elements of comedy is the introduction of a “fantasy inmate” league, where the guards draft convicts into their personal rosters and earn points based on their various actions, with the highest scores allocated for suicide or murder. But as we’re constantly reminded, this is a brutal world. Everyone’s just trying to get through the day.
One of the best aspects of the season is that Danielle Brooks really gets to step up for maybe the meatiest storyline of the year: Because Taystee was the most publicly visible inmate during the riot, she becomes a target for the company aiming to reassert their control over the prison population, and her subsequent trial is a striking reminder of how the concept of justice is so nebulous within our existing system. Brooks has always stood out as one of the ensemble’s most powerful actors, and any time the writers can figure out a way to give us more of her, it’s to the vast benefit of the show.
Of course, the other actors are no slouches, and Kate Mulgrew is particularly striking, as Red brings with her a tragic sense of defeat within her new circumstances. Many of the pieces which have made Netflix’s longest-running original drama are still here. But how did they ultimately come together?
[Spoilers follow on the second page.]