This season of Orange is the New Black is the series’ most serious, yet also its silliest. While the women of Lichfield have a tangible opportunity for political gain, and even liberation, they use that opportunity in bizarre ways. This is evident from the first episode’s title alone – ‘Riot FOMO’. While Taystee leads a sincere battle for justice in the name of Poussey (killed in the previous season by Officer Bailey), most of what we get is either chaos or sadism.
The treatment of the guards is an interesting inversion of power relations – unlike the guards they do not privately mistreat their subjects, but make it a public spectacle. It’s important to recognise that this is the behaviour of women who have been mistreated and disenfranchised for their entire lives, and it’s really interesting that the way they exercise their power is highly sexual. While this show has been criticised for its ‘pornographic’ sexual focus, the fact that women choose to exercise power by stripping people near naked and objectifying them is highly revealing; this is how they felt the guards – like some men and agents of patriarchy in their lives – had behaved towards them, so they turn this on their ‘superiors’.
While Ruiz starts out as the de facto leader of the riot – though the current owner of the gun is in charge – when she realises she might be in jail for longer than planned, her desire to see her child convinces her to go back to the gentler figure she was before Season 4. Gloria’s arc is also highly interesting in this series. Her choice to sabotage the hostage situation in an attempt to see her comatose son in hospital is moving, but also utterly cruel to the other women. In a way, the tension present throughout is between self-interest and camaraderie. Kohan is somewhat cowardly in portraying the riot as ultimately unsuccessful and wayward; would it not have been far more revolutionary to see the prisoners successful and in charge of a new situation? This is something of a general issue with the television show format: if you give the fictional characters what they want, there’s nothing for the viewer to be excited about.
But this is also a problem of Orange is the New Black‘s corporate sponsorship: the show’s success limits its counter-hegemonic potential. Flaca and Maritza quoting the Snickers slogan word for word – “you’re not you when you’re hungry” – is the most alarming example of this. While the show exists as a critique of corporate structures and the impact of these and the prison-industrial complex on women, it is one of Netflix’s biggest shows and therefore subject to capitalism.
Piscatella is the perfect pantomime villain, but it was wonderful to see his relationship with a gay inmate in his previous prison presented so kindly. Furthermore, it was unsurprising that his extraordinary cruelty is the result of both homophobia and impossible love. The other major relationship is between Big Boo and ‘Von Barlow’, the new alias of Caputo’s lover Linda, who poses as a prisoner with the help of Alex and Piper (whose relationship remains uninteresting, if anyone’s wondering). Their relationship is in itself a betrayal, and it allows Boo some happiness, but in the end she is left furious and frustrated once more.
In spite of all the reasons to criticise it, Orange is the New Black continues to be near-unique in its portrayal of the multiplicity of women’s experiences. Putting women in the centre of the story is laudable even if the implication of the plot – that there is ultimately no hope in collective action – is less than ideal. Another exceptional performance from Kate Mulgrew as Red is unsurprising but worth mentioning, and Dale Soules as Frieda continues to deliver a powerful performance. In fact, it’s worth saying that every performance is excellent, as is the writing – the only critique of this brilliant show is thematic.
Image: Cara Howe