Film & Television · Health

‘Orange is the New Black’ Season 5: Inmates Running the Asylum

Comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin, two different perspectives on the human experience. Going back to Aristotle’s Poetics (circa 335 BC, just a few years before the dawn of Netflix), comedy is typically about ordinary people, engaged in base activities, who experience a happy or humorous ending. Tragedy, on the other hand, centers around the noble or otherwise exalted. The story tends to turn because of some fatal flaw. And the results? Not so good.

In 1957, television comedian Steve Allen neatly summed up the relationship between the two when he told Cosmopolitan magazine that “Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” And as the opening credits of Orange is the New Black remind us, the one thing the women of Litchfield Penitentiary have is time.

Orange is the New Black, or OITNB as it’s commonly abbreviated in these days of Twitter character counts, is the only show that’s been recognized by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with nominations in both top categories: Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Drama Series. It’s been difficult to characterize. Because, along with its phenomenal writing, directing and acting, it has the distinction of being simultaneously terribly funny and terribly sad. The series weaves together the base and the noble, the comic and the tragic, into what has become a rich and multilayered epic poem about our fatally flawed criminal justice system.

The fifth season of OITNB premiered on Netflix this past weekend, and the show’s split personality has never been quite so apparent.

Orange is the New Black is based on Piper Kerman’s bestselling 2010 memoir. Kerman was living a fairly conventional yuppie life when she was arrested for a criminal indiscretion she had committed several years earlier. After graduating from Smith, she had assisted her drug smuggling friend (and lover) by transporting a suitcase of ill-gotten gains. She was sentenced to 15 months in a minimum security federal prison. The culture shock, as you can imagine, was intense. (Of course, most writers I know might consider it time well spent. Her book became the #1 New York Times Bestseller. But, I digress.)

The first season of the Netflix series stayed fairly true to Kerman’s story. Episodes focused mainly on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and her experiences as a human fish out of water. In prison, she was reunited with her ex, the sexy and unrepentant Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), was wooed by the unhinged “Crazy Eyes” (Emmy winner Uzo Aduba), made friends, made enemies, and was forced to do some soul-searching about her own privilege, worth and culpability.

In season two, Piper’s story faded into the background just a bit as we met and learned the histories of the other inmates. A grand and ultimately dark drama unfolded around the prison’s two charismatic leaders, Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). In season three, Piper embraced her inner gangster, building a lucrative used panty business and learning to “trust no bitch.” The show, Netflix’s most popular to date, generated much debate about whether it accurately depicted conditions for the quarter of a million women currently incarcerated (and the additional million on probation or parole).

Last year, creator Jenji Kohan (best known for Showtime’s acclaimed series Weeds) turned to current events for content and the show became more relevant than ever. The conditions at Litchfield (privatized in season three) continued to deteriorate as MCC (Management and Correction Corporation) doubled the number of inmates, and hired cheaper, inexperienced staff. Drawing on the “Black Lives Matter” movement and recent recurring headlines about police brutality, the season came to a climax with the death of a beloved character, Poussey (Samira Wiley). Trying to calm down another inmate during what began as a peaceful protest, she was accidentally suffocated by an untrained guard. “I can’t breathe,” were her haunting (and familiar) last words. When the other inmates realized that Poussey’s death was being discounted in statements to the press, it was the final straw. The last scene was a deadly stand-off, with Daya (Dascha Polanko), until then one of the least violent Litchfield residents, pointing a gun at a guard as her fellow inmates urged her to “Shoot him.”

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