Maybe long-time Netflix viewers started to expect too much from “Orange Is the New Black,” and they were inevitably doomed to be disappointed sooner or later. After four magnificent seasons, in which “Orange Is the New Black” made us re-think what’s possible in a TV series, Season 5 just never lived up to expectations. It’s safe to say that “Orange Is the New Black” Season 5 is the worst one yet.
Bizarre tonal shifts
While “Orange Is the New Black” has always shifted between genres, often interposing scenes of tragedy and comedy next to each other, there’s something distinctly “off” about this season. It’s almost like the series has lost its bearing, veering wildly from comedy to tragedy and then back to comedy, and viewers really don’t know what to think.
The New York Times has compared Season 5 of OITNB to “a speeding vehicle with a wheel missing.” With this season, the show is going too fast, the steering is unsteady, and it’s clear that there’s no slowing down. And this lack of focus can be disjointing – especially since all the action of Season 5 takes place within a very concentrated period of 72 hours. The mood swings are just too intense.
Plotlines and narratives just don’t add up
By now, you probably know that the dramatic narrative of Season 5 involves a prison riot and its aftermath at the Litchfield prison facility. The inmates rise up, take over the facility, take hostages, and reorganize themselves. One prison inmate, Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (played by Danielle Brooks), tries to negotiate with the private company that runs the prison, urging them to change the living conditions within the prison.
So far, so good, right? This is the type of compelling story that “Orange Is the New Black” is known for. But then comes an episode smack dab in the middle of Season 5 that just doesn’t make any sense. Online fans have referred to this as “an homage to slasher films,” and it involves one of the prison guards (Piscatella) acting like he’s a villain from one of the “Friday the 13th” movies, abducting and tying up inmates.
What’s so bizarre about this whole plotline is that even the show’s writers don’t know how to play this. As a result, you get an episode that’s part horror film, and part comedy. It’s campy and cute and also horrifying. At some point, viewers don’t really know what to think. “Are they just messing with us?” is a thought that’s going to come to you during Season 5.
And that’s not all. There’s also the plotline of the prison inmate Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (played by Taryn Manning), who winds up getting married to the man who raped her in Season 3. The show tries to make this into a bigger story of forgiveness and redemption, but it just comes off as a mess.
“Orange Is the New Black” fails to deliver on Shakespearean-sized ambitions
After four seasons of being an “important” series, “Orange Is the New Black” seemingly overdoses on its sense of self-importance. The website Vox.com has called Season 5 “staggeringly ambitious” and “a huge mess” – in the same sentence. That’s because the whole series starts to take itself too importantly.
Here’s just one example: the effort by the prison inmates to reorganize themselves into some kind of new women’s commune. There are all kinds of “important” socio-economic issues raised here, such as the possibility of building a society anew so that it is fair to everyone. But “Orange Is the New Black” constantly interjects its Shakespearean ambitions here, almost as if the show’s writers were trying to combine the very best of Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies into one TV show for the ages.
And here’s another example: the role of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (played by Uzo Aduba), who has a role very much like that of the Fool in “King Lear.” She’s been taking medications for her mental illness, but the more addled she becomes, the more capable she is of speaking truth to power. But when it all comes as a rambling monologue, it just doesn’t add up.
“Orange Is the New Black” has a final cliffhanger scene that may have driven too far off the cliff
The big cliffhanger scene of Season 5 – the one that has already sparked debate and discussion about a Season 6 for “Orange Is the New Black” – is a microcosm of what’s both right and wrong about the series. In that final cliffhanger scene, the riot police have stormed the Litchfield facility to restore order. And the 10 key characters are standing together in one room. For one of the first times in the five seasons of the show, the dramatic action has seemingly transcended racial and tribal lines.
This is supposed to be a big, important moment. It is supposed to be a moment when we imagine what’s possible when people rise up and reorganize into a better, more just society. But instead, the cliffhanger comes off as a tired ending to the season after the show has already careened out of control.
It’s almost as if many of the main characters are being prepared to be sent in new directions (or perhaps written out of the show entirely), and the easiest way to do this is just to gather all of them in one place (the abandoned swimming pool-turned-bunker at the prison) and then have the writers spend the off-season debating what to do with all of them. Next season, when some characters disappear, there will be a good reason why.
In addition, two of the main stars of the show – Alex Vause (played by Laura Prepon) and Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) – seemingly no longer have a primary role to play in the series. In Season 5, they are often reduced to offering snarky commentary on the prison’s living conditions, but do not play a heroic role in changing those conditions. Some fans have even speculated that these characters won’t even be coming back for Season 6.
Ultimately, the problem may be that “Orange Is the New Black” simply raised our expectations too high. It was always one of the Netflix poster children for the “golden age” of binge-watching, but it’s clear that binge-watching (just like binge-eating) can have some pretty negative consequences. You don’t feel so good, and you suddenly can’t stomach the idea of one more episode of the series.
Hopefully, that feeling of a bad binge will wear off and we’ll be just as excited for Season 6 as we were for Season 5. But one thing is certainly clear – “Orange is the New Black” Season 5 is the worst one yet.