New season of ‘Orange is the New Black’ highlights grief, malleability of power

"Orange is the New Black" | Netflix Grade: B+
Cara Howe/Netflix/Courtesy
"Orange is the New Black" | Netflix
Grade: B+

“Orange is the New Black” has never been shallow or easily digestible, and the newest installment is no exception. Season 5, despite taking place over the course of less than a week, is fast-paced and tough as nails.

After the murder of Poussey (Samira Wiley) at the end of last season, the Litchfield Penitentiary inmates staged a coup. This season begins with the eruption of a riot: the inmates overthrow the corrections officers and take them hostage, before joining together to compile a list of demands. They want fair wages, better education and healthcare, an end to racial profiling and reduction of cruel and arbitrary bodily searches and solitary confinement.

Set in the throes of the riot, season 5 demonstrates the impossible choices that the women are forced to make — such as the ultimatum facing Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) — give up the hostages, or risk never seeing her son again. Such compromising situations reinforce the huge emotional commitment that “Orange is the New Black” demands from its viewers.

Yet, several viewers have also recognized that this show can be traumatic. There’s always an argument to be made for television to be gritty, hard-hitting, to make people question their morals (the way “Dexter” has done) — and for television to reflect and work through social issues. This is certainly true for “Orange is the New Black,” where the narrative world reflects concepts such as social media, mainstream media (mis)representation and the prison-industrial complex.

This season, because of the riots, the inmates have access to smartphones for the first time since being in prison. Their use of the internet juxtaposes the utility of social media as a tool for both institutional accountability and community-building. Inmates use the phones to share videos of a guard abusing them, makeup tutorials and to say Poussey’s name.

Additionally, the inmates now have several screens informing them of how the outside world is portraying their riot. The media misrepresents them as self-victimizing “crazy” people, with “no intention of rejoining civilized society.” It’s an incredible reflection on how society characterizes incarcerated folks as less-than-human — and then turns around to laud shows such as “Orange is the New Black” for “humanizing” them.

We wouldn’t need to “humanize” inmates if we saw them as human in the first place.

This season, like others in the past, brings mental health to the fore. When Lorna (Yael Stone), also known as “Lorna la Loca,” takes control of the inmates’ pharmacy, she decides that no one needs medication. It’s her belief that those who are demeaningly labeled “crazy” are given medication in order to stifle their uniqueness and force them to meet the arbitrary standard of “normality” — and she’s right, to a point. At the same time, when Lorna denies Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) her medication, Suzanne spirals into self-destructive behavior. While Lorna is right that mental illness is stigmatized and medication can be stifling, denying medication to those who need it can be just as detrimental. In this way, the show demonstrates two approaches to mental health, and neither is entirely right or wrong.

This season also saw a returning character rise to an immense challenge: Taystee (Danielle Brooks), speaks on behalf of all the inmates to defend their demands to the media, as well as administrative and governmental representatives. The hours she spends negotiating are both tense and powerfully poignant. The inmates’ demands themselves are entirely valid, and largely a direct result of the widespread patterns that accompany prison privatization.

Taystee’s articulation of these issues and her multi-layered advocacy demonstrate something vital: that injustice is both institutional and personal. The prison system operates systematically, but they are run by individuals — and their impacts are far-reaching, from the lives of inmates to their children’s lives and beyond.

This season finale ends on what I’m convinced will go down as one of the biggest cliffhangers — no, the biggest set of cliffhangers — in the history of television. Few conflicts saw any resolution. Everyone’s fate, to varying degrees, hangs in the balance — mostly by narrative choice, but in some cases, because characters are placed in forgotten conflicts. Such is the result when a show bounces around so quickly that it trips while trying to catch up with itself.

It’s challenging to pick up the pieces of the many stories presented with such a vast ensemble cast — let’s just hope that next season isn’t neglectful in giving some of these inmates a sense of peace, or at least respectful continuation.

Sophie-Marie Prime covers television. Contact her at [email protected].