Film & Television · Health

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

Season five picks up at the precise moment we left off, and the tension doesn’t really abate. The thirteen 60-minute episodes transpire over the course of just 72 hours or so, during and immediately after the high-stakes riot and prison takeover. There is a sense of urgency and imminent, predictable doom. The inmates, who have always been fractured by gang allegiance and racial tension, run wild, take hostages, organize, and demand change. But, as Caputo (Nick Sandow), the former warden, now “Director of Human Activities,” warns, “This can’t end well.”

Inmates chant “Attica! Attica!” They raid the commissary, kitchen, and a heretofore locked room of drugs and medical supplies. The most violent offenders, led by Ruiz (Jessica Pimental) strip and abuse the guards. The more thoughtful, led by Taystee (Danielle Brooks), try to master social media in order to publish and promote their demands. Piper and Alex, meanwhile, try to keep their heads down. They, and a small handful of others, understand what’s in store. The mood is one of intoxicated freedom and righteous revenge. But, it also feels a little like the last roadtrip of Thelma and Louise.

Easing the pressure just a bit in this season’s first episodes, OITNB turns to one of its most effective tactics, filling in the background blanks of a secondary (or even tertiary) character. In this case, we learn about Frieda (Dale Soules), an older inmate whom we already know has experience in dismembering and disposing dead bodies. It turns out that as a child, she was immersed in survival training by her conspiracy theorist father, while the other Girl Scouts worked diligently on their arts and crafts badges. At Litchfield, she’s built an underground bunker and filled it with massive jars of peanut butter and other purloined supplies. When the riot comes to a head — and we know it will — Frieda’s going to be prepared.

Like so many in the series, Frieda’s story is engaging and particularly well-crafted. But it’s not as poignant as some. The series may have turned up the volume on a number of timely issues, but it’s always been committed to revealing sad truths. In real life, as in the fictionalized Litchfield, too many women (60% of them mothers of small children) are in prison for non-violent crimes. For many, the path to prison begins early and is punctuated by poverty, lack of education, and physical and sexual abuse. OITNB makes a strong case against prison privatization and mandatory minimum sentencing, which the Washington Post has called “cruel and ineffective.” Season five promises to make an even louder noise about these issues.

“Season 5 is very detailed, very intense, and you better get ready,” Danielle Brooks recently warned Hollywood Reporter readers. “Get your popcorn, your tissues, everything.”

You can focus on Orange is the New Black’s inherent comedy; an MCC executive who finds herself locked in the prison only gives up her suit jacket when Piper and Alex tell her it looks “boxy” on her. Or you can anticipate what promises to accelerate into a tragic end for at least some of its characters. Or, you can appreciate both. The entire fifth season is currently available on Netflix. Which, of course, leads to the question of whether or not to binge. (If you pace yourself, beware. I was careful not to reveal too much too soon here, but there are spoilers everywhere.)

And, regardless of your viewing style, there’s no need to worry; seasons six and seven are already green-lighted. Like the women of Litchfield, we’ve got time.


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