New Season of ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Opts for Optimism in Female-Run Institutions

The cast of Orange is the New Black. Netflix

My initial impression of the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black was that the show had gone off the rails. The premise of having the whole season take place across the space of a three-day prison riot seemed intriguing, but after two episodes it felt tired: the jokes seemed stale and several scenes felt like filler. But as the season moved on I became more invested, as the initial chaos of the situation metamorphosed into the inmates getting organized. Now, having seen all the episodes, I am convinced that this was OITNB’s most optimistic season. The commonality of purpose among an incredibly diverse group of women (symbolized in the final shot)—and the utopic depiction of what the prison experience could be, a space of rehabilitation, personal growth, and collaboration—is what I will take away from OITNB’s latest season.

In arguing that the season was, as a whole, optimistic, I don’t want to suggest that all the inmates are in agreement about the goals of the riot, or the methods for getting their demands met. In fact, several characters, including Alex, Frieda and the other elder stateswomen, and, one of the initial leaders, Maria, choose to opt out of active participation. The sense of optimism comes from the control these women are able to exercise over their own movement and decisions over a period of three days. The premise of a prison riot gives them back, if even for a brief while, a sense of autonomy where they aren’t at the mercy of or being humiliated by (primarily male) prison guards.

The utopic spaces of freedom of expression that spring up during the course of the riot—a community art project, the book memorial to Poussey, Frieda’s hidden bunker, inmates sleeping outside—are clearly designed to show us that if women ran institutions like prisons, perhaps they would fulfill their supposed mandate, to rehabilitate people. We see Nicky playing the role of therapist, the democratic organization of a list of demands/reforms, prioritizing the ones that most inmates voted for, a commitment to non-violence, and accountability: when it becomes clear that Daya must turn herself in as the inmate who shot Humps lest the negotiations get derailed, she does it.

One of the most delightful things about having a season be so compressed in time is that there are no references to last November’s election and its catastrophic consequences. While OITNB is based on the experience of Piper Kerman, who is not currently in prison, much of the material and references are pegged to contemporary events and popular culture. There are clear references to the #BlackLivesMatter movement in terms of the details of Poussey’s death and the demands for accountability by Taystee and the black inmates; in one episode Taystee uses the #sayhername hashtag that was created in the wake of Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas prison in 2015. In fact, I would argue that although the election and the current resident of the White House are never referenced, the spirit of resistance that propels the season forward is a political statement by the show’s writers. This season of OITNB can be viewed as a multi-racial feminist resistance against our country’s current political morass, without ever directly referencing it.

One of the things I’ve always appreciated about OITNB is its rejection of the myth of a post-racial America. As I wrote in a piece about season 4, cross-racial relationships have tended to be the exception rather than the rule on OITNB, with the different cliques being defined largely by race. Season 5 deviates from this trend by emphasizing cross-racial collaboration, but in a way that I ultimately find quite believable. In moments of extreme chaos or tragedy, people often unite across race, class, religious, and other differences. The inmates realize quite quickly that they will have to collaborate with each other if they want to get their demands met, and that it is their institutional marginalization that takes precedence over and above their racial factionalism. It’s notable, however, that the black and Latina factions are the most unified and organized, and it is they who quickly move into leadership positions during the riot.

After a brief stint by the Latinas (led by Daya and Maria), the black faction (led by Taystee), takes on the role of negotiators/spokespeople for the inmates. Several of the Latinas, specifically Ouija and Pidge, take it upon themselves to guard the hostages, while others eventually disengage (Daya and Maria) or attempt to capitalize off their newly gained internet access (Flaca and Maritza). The white inmates mostly either tag along for the ride or refrain from active participation. They are splintered into different groups: the white supremacists, the meth-heads (who are surprisingly heroic in the season finale), and the back-and-forth lesbian relationship dramas (Nicky and Lorna, Piper and Alex, Boo and MCC-employee-disguised-as-inmate Linda).

There are moments that feel forced and too “post-racially,” such as when neo-Nazi Brandy joins the Latinas to sell coffee, but this collaboration quickly goes awry with the characters resorting back to racial stereotypes and mutual animosity. In the middle of the season, Piper, ever chasing after the title of “best white ally,” actively joins the black-led resistance, but her relationship drama with Alex re-commands her attention after a few episodes, suggesting that perhaps her commitment to social justice isn’t quite as strong as she would like to believe.

As the de-facto leader of the inmates, Taystee is the undisputed heroine of the season. She gives impassioned speeches to the media, particularly at the end of episode 5, when she realizes that a famous, privileged white woman (Judy King) shouldn’t serve as spokesperson for the inmates, and makes a heartbreaking plea for justice for Poussey. She takes principled but unpopular stands, taking the Cheetos away from all the inmates once she realizes the governor is attempting to bribe them into backing down from the more substantive demands. When Caputo and Figueroa get distracted from negotiations by the love-hate dynamics of their relationship, Taystee gets them back on track. And finally, she is the only person able to wrench an ounce of humanity and remorse out of the sadistic Piscatella, when she points a gun at him and pronounces him responsible for the culture of violence that resulted in Poussey’s death.

And yet, even as heroic and badass as Taystee is during this season, she makes a terrible decision when she rejects Figueroa’s offer to meet all of the inmates’ demands except to guarantee Baylee will go to jail for killing Poussey. She can’t see past this one goal (even if it is a crucial one) for the greater good of the inmates, when better health care, educational programs, and better-trained guards are all within their reach. This is a well-rounded, three-dimensional, and realistic portrayal of a hero who isn’t perfect, who hasn’t slept for three days, and who loses sight of the larger goal of obtaining better conditions at Litchfield. She isn’t solely responsible for what will likely be the failure of the inmates to get reforms implemented: in exchange for family visitation privileges, Gloria and Maria also undermine negotiations by letting the hostages go free before guarantees are in place. Here, we see the dilemma between self-preservation and sacrifice for the greater good. There are no easy answers, the show suggests.

The show was heavily critiqued following last season’s incredibly unpopular killing off of a major fan favorite, particularly by black cultural critics (for example), arguing that the death of Poussey by an inexperienced, good-hearted, young C.O. served to excuse police violence against African Americans; instead of #BlackLivesMatter, it seemed to send a message of #BlueLivesMatter. One of the most upsetting moments for me was Caputo’s cowardly last-minute decision to issue a character assassination of Poussey, so as not to throw C.O. Bayley under the bus. In retrospect, it seems that the writers were setting up a powder keg, destined to blow up into an all-out riot, with Taystee—provoked by the callous disregard for Poussey’s life and her lifeless body as it was left out for days in the cafeteria—being transformed into a leader. Did the writers have to have Poussey killed by Bayley, instead of one of the more sadistic guards, like Piscatella or Humps, thereby generating sympathy for the murderer? Probably not. I would guess the show’s love of nuance and complexity is why they made this decision, and the lack of black writers in the writer’s room contributed to the problem.

A lot of black viewers turned their back on OITNB after last season, but I think the writers have done better by black audiences this season. Black women were not only the face of the resistance but were also given complex, emotionally charged storylines. Suzanne’s descent into meds-deprived psychosis was painful to watch, and Cindy being put into the uncomfortable position of dealing with Suzanne’s mental health resulted in uncharacteristic displays of emotion and tenderness as she realized how invested she was in this friendship. It was a welcome departure from Cindy’s regular M.O., as a generally self-interested person with a laissez-faire attitude and a flair for sarcasm.

My favorite flashback of the season was in episode 5, where we see teenage Janae’s academic talent being recognized and the possibility of attending an elite (white) school. While touring the school, she sees a production of “Dreamgirls” with an all-white cast, complete with a white girl wearing an Afro wig and singing Effie’s iconic song, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” The sight of this oblivious, tone-deaf act of cultural appropriation moves Janae to angry tears, a scene that is juxtaposed with a current-day scene of Janae insisting to Taystee that it is a mistake to allow a privileged white woman to be the spokesperson for marginalized black and brown women. Taystee finally realizes Janae is right. This storyline is very relevant to the many conversations going on right now, particularly on Black Twitter, surrounding the cultural appropriation of AAVE, black music, and black culture more generally.

All in all, the latest season of OITNB is about sisterhood. Beyond the last image of the main characters—a multi-racial group of women—holding hands as they await their fate at the hands of a SWAT team, we see other moments of solidarity and love between inmates: Taystee and Cindy’s tears of joy as they realize Suzanne is ok, Nicky stepping in to save Lorna’s marriage, Alex and Piper getting engaged, Flaca and Maritza declaring their unbreakable bond, white supremacists and Latinas joining together in a last-ditch effort to go out swinging before they’re recaptured, and even Leann and Angie, two of the most unlikeable characters on the show, setting fire to all of the inmates’ records, effectively erasing their in-prison offenses. There are also ominous signs that these deeply forged bonds will soon be torn apart, as inmates are loaded into separate buses and a SWAT team member asserts that they’ll never be allowed inside Litchfield again. We’ll have to wait a year to find out their fate, but for a brief moment in time, these imprisoned women feel a sense of autonomy and control, and they almost succeeded in achieving institutional reform. In our current political climate of deep disillusionment and even hopelessness, OITNB’s latest season offers a glimpse into how things could be different if women were in charge.