Starting off on the evening of Poussey Washington’s murder, the fifth series of Orange is the New Black takes place over the course of three days as the prisoners riot and take over the prison. Once again we are thrown headfirst into Litchfield Penitentiary, seeing the riot from each clique’s point of view, and each character’s reasoning behind overthrowing the prison, be it lack of basic human rights or just for a bit of drama, fun and YouTube fame.
Darker than ever, the series focuses on themes that are more relevant than ever, especially for the United States; the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality and class essentialism are three of the more significant themes. They are explored through the backstories and current issues of the inmates and in a way that you don’t necessarily notice immediately. A particular example of this that really struck me was the story of Janae Watson, a black athlete who is known in the prison for her intelligence and rage. During her back story we see a teacher send her on a day trip to a school for gifted students. Throughout this trip, the image of this young child is repeated, each time showing more sorrow and anger than the last. It isn’t until we see a group of young, white students attempting to put on a performance of ‘Dream Girls’ that we realise the reason for her grief, that she is the only person of colour in the whole institution. The sequence ends with a young Janae crying on her teacher that white people “got so much culture, they don’t even know they stealing ours!”
These themes of oppression are highlighted by the use of white characters throughout the season. Piper doesn’t care about the riot until it begins to affect her and the white ‘tribe’ personally, and the anger directed towards the character of Judy King demonstrates how the more upper class and wealthy citizens are given preferential treatment – even the riot was initially covered by the media due to the presence of King in the prison in the first place.
The writers mainly focused on the theme of police brutality, and how we as a society view prisoners that makes for some uncomfortable viewing. All of the police guards are rounded up by the women and treated the exact same way they would treat the inmates; deprived of sleep, food and basic human rights. They too are subjected to the humiliation, solitary confinement and abuse that was inflicted onto the inmates by the use of public cavity searches, lack of clothing and the use of the ‘Poo’, a portable toilet that undesirables are placed in for solitary confinement. The characters who aren’t supportive of the riot often comment on how the media and society already see them as ‘animals’ instead of humans. This is really hammered home when we see MMC, the company who owns the prison, pitch the women against each other, promising shortened sentences to whoever betrays the people behind the riot.
As powerful as this series is, every so often it does feel like the writers were trying to cram a lot of material and ideas into a limited amount of time, meaning some of the points they were trying to make got lost or were overshadowed by other story lines. It also means that sometimes the narrative is a little jolty, and the show doesn’t flow as naturally as it has done in previous series, which can bring down the standard quite a bit.
Saying that, the characters are as lovable and strong as ever. Uzo Aduba gave an incredible performance as ‘Crazy Eyes,’ who is forgotten about during the riots by her fellow inmates, meaning a lack of medication which leads to a horrific mental breakdown. Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee, and Kimiko Glenn, who plays Soso, both do amazing jobs playing the grieving family of Washington, as well as powerful and passionate women who are determined to make a change in the prison through a peaceful discussion as opposed to violence.
Overall the series is enjoyable and clever. I really enjoyed the weaving of each individual story line in order to give us a well fleshed out view of the riot and atmosphere in the prison. The character writing is incredibly strong & entertaining, and really makes the show. I do feel like the series is let down by the amount of information given to us in the time allotted, as well as the jumpy narrative, but the acting and overarching story save it.