Slowing the Clock and Losing Track: ‘Orange is the New Black’ Season Five

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Orange is the New Black‘s fifth season is going to take place over three days, they said.

It’s going to pick up where season four left off, they said.

It’ll be exciting, they said.

Okay, they may not have actually said that last one, but how could I not be excited?! Season four was one of the most affecting season-long arcs I’ve ever seen! The myriad of main characters were laden with anguish and fury! The prison was so seething with torment it practically grew legs and trampled the town in its rage!

But instead of launching from season four’s catapult into something extraordinary, season five squandered all of that beautifully built dramatic tension. And quickly. But how? How could an established show dismantle everything it built for itself? The answer is glaringly easy: three days in thirteen episodes just didn’t work.

I imagine there were at least couple of motivating factors for condensing time the way they did. We already know OITNB has been renewed up to seven seasons, and if television history has taught us anything, your garden variety narrative drama can’t really sustain itself past a seventh season. If the showrunners are eyeing the end of the series in another two seasons, they don’t have much physical time left.

Let’s use Piper’s sentence as a timekeeper. Even though the show has successfully moved beyond her as the singular lead character, she’s still the reason we were introduced to this world, so it would make sense to conclude the show as she leaves Litchfield. And if that’s the case, they’ve only got about another seven months to cover, since the show has taken place over the course of about eleven months. (Keep in mind that Piper started her 18 month sentence in a September, and using context clues it’s reasonable to believe the show is taking place in summer now.) Ergo, a three-day-long season slows down time a bit to leave room for the last two seasons to take up the remaining months of Piper’s sentence.

Additionally, the events of last season, particularly the last three episodes, carried a lot of that aforementioned dramatic weight and circumstance; most notably Poussey’s death, but also the mistreatment at the hands of incompetent (at times sadistic) guards, deplorable living conditions, and general prison industrial complex woes. So in order to properly address everything, the showrunners may have assumed that pumping the breaks on the passage of time would allow for a thorough examination of all of the characters’ motivations and reactions to the events of season four. And let’s be real, there are more than enough characters to follow with enough kindling from previous seasons to fuel season five’s narrative arcs.

But the self-imposed time constraint forced Orange is the New Black to write itself into a corner, and thus confront the very mechanics of television storytelling. Newsflash: in an hour of TV, something has to happen. Characters have to learn something. Plot lines have to progress. Ideas need to develop and grow. But all of these concepts need to occur organically in order to preserve the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

The problem with season five of OITNB is that little of substance can happen organically when time is forced to move so slowly. The tension of the beginning of the riot can’t sustain itself for thirteen episodes, which is ultimately what the season wants to do. Had the show shoved in constant epiphanies or crises to give the characters something to do, it would have felt unnatural for so much to be happening so frequently. So we were left with the alternative: adhering to the strict timetable, and biding time until a handful of major plot developments unfolded. Season five tries too hard to do too little, and the result is frustratingly dull.

The main reason Orange is the New Black was so engaging from season one was its deftness in juggling multiple lead characters from a variety of backgrounds. It’s an enviable trait that’s done in such a compelling way that it’s hard to find a point of comparison. (There’s a reason we’re reminded of this annually come award season speeches.) I really thought that would be this season’s saving grace. That rich tapestry of characterization woven into the very framework of the show could have been what the writers relied on if the restrictive timetable became overwhelming. But when given more room than ever before to explore these characters, season five’s time stretch made them less empathetic, less sincere, and more irritating than they’ve ever been.

Overt and frequent fan servicing was certainly the most annoying tendency of this season. I imagine it’s a tempting realm to explore; when in doubt, make a character do something you know the audience will luxuriate in. But lean too far into fan servicing and you get something like the empty pool. I guess it’s fun to see Freida using survivalist skills we never new she had. And the bunker was one thing. But it is actually impossible to believe she would create a whole underground world without ever being caught, no matter how long she was in Litchfield. Oh, and there’s a working computer and weed and beer? Even if the plot found a way to legitimize the forgotten underground pool, I was too tired from all the mental gymnastics trying to justify its existence to come around.

The self indulgence only got more ridiculous from there. Why, when given all of the existential grief of season four, did Orange is the New Black double down on silliness? Particularly when silly has never been its strong suit? Red and Flores, once a leader and a strong supporting figure, respectively, were on speed for half a season for minimal payoff. Gloria’s Gotta Get the Hostages to the Poo montage was eye-rollingly nonsensical. And it’s one thing for Leann and Angie (always OITNB‘s goofiest degenerate duo) to find themselves in a heroin-fueled lark, or worshiping a piece of toast. It’s quite another to make them centerpieces of a power trip.

Case in point: Litchfield Idol. An immense and almost insulting waste of time, culminating in a striptease that lasts so long and amounts to so little that I have to wonder if the writers thought that it was something the straight female fanbase was just dying to see.  Were we supposed to be titillated? Think it was funny? Think it was grim? (And remind me why they made that CO finger Leann until orgasm?) None of the above. I was bored and confused.

The “talent show” was not only the lamest thing to ever happen to OITNB, but it also proved how the season’s attempts at trying to make the prisoners into the bad guys was too obvious and messy to be effective. The flip of the prison power dynamic could have been worthwhile if it had the show committed to it. No, it’s not cool for Maria to almost (maybe actually?) probe Dixon’s naked butt on a lit stage in front of several hundred prisoners. Yes, it is unpleasant and problematic for people we’ve grown to care about to do bad things. But the closest the show got to Stanford Prison Experiment levels of control was blowing an air bubble into Humphrey’s IV, causing him to have a stroke. And even that’s unsatisfying, considering Humps’ track record of torment. Season four set up a litany of opportunities for the prisoners to lash out against the guards, but this season didn’t follow through with any of it.

But even done well, subverting the prison’s power structure is mostly a lesson in futility, because we already know these people are kinda bad people. They’re in prison for fuck’s sake. The whole series up until now has been about how to adjust the lens to see how kinda bad people are troubled but misunderstood, or victims of influence, or succumbed to matters of circumstance. You can’t create and establish a show about redeeming antiheroes and expect to land a moral backflip.

A general sense of missed opportunities is season five’s greatest failure, particularly when it comes to addressing the political and societal commentary the show introduced in recent seasons. I hesitate to say that a TV show has a responsibility to make such commentary; in general I don’t think that’s art’s job. However, if a show has taken active steps to comment, as OITNB has done, there needs to be some follow-through.

Some issues were dealt with worse than others, but none of it was done well. The first episode of this season mentions just about every mass shooting in this country’s history, and then went exactly nowhere in examining gun control. There’s various examples of how ubiquitous internet and social media culture is, particularly trolls, but to no certain end. The best it could do with season four’s commentary (and at times even pretty sharp satire) on privatized prisons was to attempt to give Linda from Purchasing a heart. But why lock her in and spend time with her if only to show her backstory, cementing to us that indeed, she is a manipulative sociopath?

Elements of Black Lives Matter coursed throughout last season, culminating in Poussey’s death that was directly reminiscent of both Eric Garner and Sandra Bland. It’s not that that wasn’t dealt with this season, it’s just that nothing came of it. Taystee has been working towards becoming OITNB‘s solid core since season two, so it’s important that she was the one prisoner in power actually trying to make a difference. It’s also important that she was pointedly working to hold Bailey accountable for killing Poussey, however unintentional the death may have been, as is often the real-life struggle to hold police officers accountable for their actions.

But the show took her hard-earned victory away from her. Taystee successfully negotiated all of the conditions, but everything fell apart because she held out for justice for Poussey. That’s not to say that the narrative solution would have been to convict Bailey of murder in three days, but it certainly wasn’t to let him get on a bus to live out his guilt-ridden days in New Orleans. And to have Cindy reduce Taystee’s determination for pride as a way of absolving the breakdown of negotiations was a shitty excuse for allowing it to fall apart. Taystee may have been obstinate to a fault, but I don’t see any way you can view her determination as self serving.

The entire season built up to the last twenty minutes of the last episode, and turned Taystee’s resolve into failure for the sake of tragedy. It’s an unfair and cheap ending for the best character on the show.

The most baffling misfire came in not utilizing the goddamn kismet OITNB happened upon by introducing white supremacists in season four. I’m not sure anyone could have guessed that white supremacists (nationalists, Nazis, the like) would become a common news headline in the year between seasons. It seemed like the tumult of the current American social climate was the perfect breeding ground for further examining Sankey, Brandy, and Skinhead Helen. After all, the white power inmates had nary a line in season four that wasn’t a direct (at times almost too overt) commentary on their hatred, or how a lack of knowledge begets ignorance. I was almost excited to see where the show would take these characters after the year we’ve had.

Instead, OITNB treated them like any other inmates. It asked us to laugh with them, to scheme with them, even to root for them. Any commentary the show may have built around white supremacy was entirely forgotten. And for what? So we can play Fuck Marry Kill? More than any other inmates in a prison, these are ones we do not have an obligation to humanize, particularly with the events of this last year in the rearview mirror. Not only is it tone-deaf for a show that is almost wholly about compassion, it’s actually irresponsible storytelling.

I have other minor gripes:
– The flashbacks were tired and unnecessary. Every single one of them.
– Did they really think breaking Red’s bunkmate’s nose was going to be funny the seventh time it happened? And at what point does she sustain permanent damage?
– What’s with the oddly off-brand homophobia aimed at Piscatella? He can be a bad guy and also be gay, but we do not have to use his gayness as a punchline to undermine him.
– I’m sure that Laverne Cox has a lot going on to justify her near absence from the last two seasons, but it sucks she couldn’t have something heftier to do.
– Why in fucking hell was Coates in the goddamn ceiling the entire season?!

Also, does Orange is the New Black not have a show bible? Taystee’s flashback has her obsessed with Toddlers and Tiaras, when back in season one she had this gem:

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Lack of continuity is so frustrating.

And now for a compliment: season five did Piper well. I was worried that after four seasons and a branding Piper still wouldn’t learn her lesson about minding her business. They addressed her compulsive need to be involved, worked through the reasons why. And even when Piper did participate in the goings-on, she was never in the position to become haughty or cocky. She proved herself useful and sympathetic in a newly understated way.

That, at least, was a relief. A welcome, if not thin, ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary season. Because more than anything, it was just such a bummer to sit through this season. It was a bummer to wait a year only to be disappointed; to not get better moments out of great characters; to not resolve the beautiful intricacies of the issues raised in season four. Here’s to hoping season six gets back on track now that the show is unencumbered from this season’s unconventional but ineffective constraints. Hey, Orange is the New Black writers! Please remember: you’ve got time.

 

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