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.

Malcolm Lowe

Image: Cara Howe

Malcolm Lowe is a history finalist at the University of Warwick. He enjoys hip-hop, making reference to psychology in every situation, and being right about things. He’s also an armchair Marxist and makes radio shows of dubious quality, describing himself as ‘the Glenn Beck of the left’. He is aiming towards a Master’s degree in global history, as this will allow him to continue to pontificate all the way to academia. If this doesn’t work, he may pack it all in and move to the Mongolian Steppes. In the meantime expect articles about music with a sociological and historical bent.

One thought on “Orange is the New Black – Season Five Review

  1. Oh I’m so glad that’s settled for everyone. Funny and curious that you think Alex and Piper’s relationship (which has evolved a lot by season 5 – yes I’ve seen it) “remains uninteresting”. The bias is comically transparent. So it was “uninteresting” when they first reunited in season 1 and dealt with the impact of that and their history; “uninteresting” in season 2 when they interacted in the premiere at the max Chicago prison for the trial and later in a call when Alex was out and explaining to Piper what happened & her situation; “uninteresting” in season 3 when Piper brought Alex back to prison and both dealt individually with guilt & power-trip (Piper) and real concerns over safety (Alex), and then Alex rightfully broke off their relationship due to the cumulative shittiness of Piper; uninteresting in season 4 when they, broken up, are dealing with their own problems (Alex being attacked, traumatized and allies helping her to cover it up; Piper and her defusing power trip, and her consequences), and later in the season, confess their transgressions with Nicky beside them, and then start to talk again and finally support each other; uninteresting still in season 5 where they’re actually functioning as a relatively normal couple. Lol. Yeah yeah. The two (white) women with a lot of baggage in a complicated, non-corny, protracted relationship are uninteresting, dull, annoying, etc. Nicky and Morello are on a constant back and forth, and Morello is mental ill and clearly can’t commit to Nicky, but you don’t consider relationship “uninteresting”. Oh and is it not pc to call Poussey and Soso’s corny (and somewhat problematic) relationship “uninteresting”? Vauseman haters are beyond predictable and annoying by now.

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