A Bridger Cunningham Exclusive -- ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, Season 5 Review

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Written on Netflix Furlough by Bridger Cunningham

WARNING -- This article contains spoilers, as highlighted in orange below.  Black text is spoiler-free, while orange text gives you the meat of what went on during the season.  Read at your own level of knowledge and discretion, as this show is not for the faint of heart and will leave all unsettled.


Those three letters best describe what happened when Netflix unveiled the fifth season on June 9.  The gravitational pull was felt inside the show, as well as the outside in writing and views.  Season 4 bashed the gas valve, boiling temperatures to all-time highs.  With a time-released gas-soaked rag, the finale exploded on our screens as Daya (Dascha Polanco) pointed sadistic Humphreys' gun at his head. And now, the flames singed everything in its path.

Without divulging too much of the culminating season-opener and allowing viewers to enjoy at their own pace, this much can be stated.  Choices led to consequences, and the prisoners seized the prison.  Netflix disclosed the hostage situation throughout the previews, yet omitted the grimy, masochistic nature of the season.  Season 5 followed the rhythm of the movie Blow.  The first three episodes featured an adrenaline spike which should have acted as the compelling hook to keep viewers engrossed.  However, the tone and momentum of season 5 was uneven.  Invested viewers will watch all the way through, while trendy/fickle viewers run the risk of turning their backs and throwing this series in solitaire.

Season 5 was not a terrible entry, yet left several potholes in its uneven rhythm.  Jenji Kohan delivered several rewarding twists to angered viewers thirsting for revenge against the guards and bureaucracy who exploited the vulnerability of the inmates.  This was among many bold risks taken, including compressing the timeline to 3 days of events.  The spoils resulted in an enhanced view of the heavy ensemble's Black-American community, who proved to be the stable line of common sense among the chaotic, aggressive savagery exhibited by the remaining inmates.  Unfortunately, the results also tarnished the show's masterfully-scored, character-enriching flashbacks we yearned for like an on-going annual event.

The prison riot forced viewers to suspend disbelief, as it proved an effective disaster for the first three episodes.  What started as an aggressive, compelling arc lost its punch when the ever-grating, putrid meth-head characters, Angie (Julie Lake) and Leanne (Emma Myles) stole the gun and downgraded the poignant uprising to an asinine talent show among the guards.  Lake and Myles are wonderful performers, yet their alter egos have escalated beyond the guards' villainy, sinking to an all-time low turning a vulnerable black inmate's face white and turning her into a clown.  Every time something terrible happens every season, these two parasites antagonize every plot from Nichols' wrongful punishment in maximum security to slurring insults.  Their vile actions almost resulted in a cliche prison fire, a twist the writers quickly extinguished as it would have jumped the shark of outlandish.

The problem with the pace and tone was the danger came and went like a guest checking in and out of a hotel.  Two characters died, yet no one will care when the dust settles.  What could have been orchestrated as the perfect Greek tragedy became as mild as an ABC Afterschool Special telling kiddies not to make bad choices.  The season was peppered with preachy tones of Norma Rae and social justice, diverting a tragic disaster to a soapbox piece for social issues.  1995's Up Close and Personal, the Robert Redford/Michelle Pfeiffer movie about an upcoming TV reporter, held more tension when Pfeiffer's Tally is trapped inside a prison riot during an exclusive.  The 15-minutes of tension packed more threat, and ended in tragedy as reforming prisoner/interviewee Fernando (Raymond Cruz) perished in the riot.  It ripped open the scabs on society as prison bureaucracy's budget cuts led to the uprising and tragedy.  OITNB failed to capture this escalating tension, perhaps because it had to populate 700 minutes of material vs. Up Close and Personal's impacting 15 minutes.

Still, the season delivered a landmine of greatness.  Episodes 9 and 10 delivered two frightful evenings resembling a mystery/horror film, followed by an intense crime thriller at the hands of villain and sadist Desi Piscitella (Brad William Henke).  In spite of the flashbacks being lackluster this season, the historic nods to the Cold War via Frieda (early 50's bomb scares) and Red (1977, showing the black market of communism leading to her escape).  There is still a story to tell, albeit the cast will need to be reorganized and


WHAT WORKED -- Save for the extreme sadism exhibited, the vengeance against the guards exhibited some humor initially.  Luschek's capture is in character, having thrown a pair of scissors at a converging inmate's head.  Luschek is as boyish as Bayley Baxter (Alan Aisenberg), yet more of a scoundrel viewers enjoyed watching being made a fool of.  Non-inmates rose to character development and prominence as they endured the same dehumanizing treatment inflicted on the ladies.  The first to be expanded upon was Thomas Humphreys (Michael Torpey), who received welcome doses of the same sadism he exhibited on so many.  After a feeble attempt to get Daya to not shoot him by speaking in Spanish, his cowardly attempt was met with a bullet in his upper-inner thigh, hitting an artery.  After being critically wounded, Maritza (Diane Guerrero) savagely kicked him, joined by several.  Retract that word, as Humphreys forced her to eat a live mouse at gunpoint during the last season.

Out of the heightened shooting, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) reached a pinnacle of need as her backstory as an EMT became a valued resource during the disaster.  She saved Humphreys, who faced another trying look at his soul as he was strapped to a bed juxtaposed between Maureen Kukudio (Emily Althaus) and Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Adubo).  After attempting to befriend the very women he ruined, he suffered a massive stroke, as Kukudio blew an air bubble into his IV line.  This led to a slow, agonizing, degrading death, suitable for such a vile stain on this show's legacy.

The black ladies of Litchfield shined, exhibiting a welcome lack of violence.  This hook left enough space to explore the backstory of Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy), a background presence never explored in the show's 5 seasons.  The inner-city tale was trite and weak, paling compared to Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson's layered, tragic tale.  Taystee became the center of the show this season, having rightfully usurped the role from the hot-to-not love story of Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon).  While her grammar needs a little polish, she exhibited the greatest critical thinking and processing among the masses, making her ideal to lead negotiations and keep this outlandish tale grounded.  Such measures included releasing narcissist Judy King (Blair Brown), declaring she was not a hostage and not welcome in their prison.

Amanda Stephen shined as Allison Abdullah, receiving the proper time to explore her backstory as she debuted as a side-player the previous season.  Her backstory was disappointing, yet her front story kept viewers captivated as she made the perfect compliment to Taystee in assembling the demands with an educated, tactical approach.  Adrienne C. Moore completed the trifecta of leading, rational ladies with a dash of sarcasm and force as "Black Cindy" Hayes.  Previously a stereotypical sidekick spitting out wisecracks, Black Cindy became the wise trio's bodyguard against the chaos.

Selenis Leyva continued to take the "den mother" role of Gloria Mendoza from slop to sugar in a two-fold tale.  Initially the voice of reason who helped save the sadistic Humphreys, Gloria towed the line of risk by stealing "the gun" which somehow kept the inmates in charge of a large prison (again, suspend disbelief to keep this tale going).  All changed mid-season as Gloria received a devastating phone call revealing her son was in critical condition.  Realizing her only chance at furlough was to release the guards, she plotted over two episodes to free the guards by locking them all in the outhouses.  Her efforts are voided as she is taken prisoner within the prisoners, yet received a welcome shine of luck when her son survived his critical injuries.

Dale Soules has always provided side fodder as survivalist Freida Berlin.  Her spotlight derived at the proper time of chaos, as she built a bunker out of a pool abandoned since the 1970's.  Her backstory as a pre-teen in post-Korean Cold War stood as the greatest initial flashback to deepen a character this season, tugging at our heartstrings as it appeared as though she was abandoned in the woods by her impoverished father (a sadly common practice during the Great Depression).  However, this was her father preparing her for "The Apocalypse," testing her survival skills as she made her way back to her bunker-style apartment.  Viewers learned Frieda has spent 40+ years behind bars, explained as she revealed the story of the abandoned swimming pool which none of the regimes bothered to fill in.  Frieda eyed the masses and gave select invitations to seasoned prisoners and providing asylum for the calm inmates.

Frieda's bunker became a welcome and remote departure from the bleak surroundings viewers have known during the show's 5-year run.  Suspending disbelief (as a SWAT team would have overtaken the yard as it was merely secured by a barbed-wire fence), the yard also made a nice change of scenery as one-third of the population decided to form a non-violent subculture and lay around outside.  Outlandish, yes, but it provided another non-violent, calm departure from the viciousness inside the building.  Beauty also  became a balancing force, as social warrior Piper decided to round up the prisoners with art projects to create a positive movement.  It inspired a new library-inspired tribute to Poussey, as well as allowing in-limbo Daya to express herself with art in the yard.

Beauty queens Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) used the opportunity to exhibit their style and skills, delivering regular blog videos to the public to depict prison-style.  After the art initiative launched, the girls delivered their own brand -- makeovers.  Their first target project was the unkempt Blanca, who wowed her peers.  Viewers echoed Blanca's sarcasm as she said "All they did was comb my hair and give me two eyebrows."  Ha!  Next, the weathered Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) received similar treatment as she sported a new hairdo which Alex comically described as "Heroin Barbie."  And finally, a softer look for Alex as she played house with Piper.  These twists are not what highlighted the show, but rather led to a future for the beauty queens, who realized how much they loved blogging.  That is rehabilitation as both felons have foreshadowed potential careers outside the prison walls.

The same rehabilitation cannot be stated for Judy King (Blair Brown), who never redeemed her narcissistic soul in spite of a disaster breaking out around her.  Disasters such as prison riots provide the perfect opportunity for people to set their preferences and differences aside to survive.  Judy was given a golden opportunity to champion for the ladies as a frail Soso (Kimiko Glenn) begged her to save Poussey's library.  Judy could care less and fled, leading to nearly every book being burned.  The savagery exhibited this season was appalling, yet viewers could not help but cheer when Yoga Jones (Constance Schulman) tackled and captured her, stringing her to a cross and handing her over to the general population to be auctioned off for goods.  Laughter was appropriate as Brook Soso bid on her with a 20-pack in vengeance as Judy was auctioned as prison slavery.  Though it appeared Judy received mercy when she was released, she capitalized on the situation by going on live TV and betraying her former inmates.  Lest hope Judy King stays away from insider trading, as no one wants her back on our screens again.

Carrie "Big Boo" Black (Lea DeLaria) and Tiffany "Pennsatucket" Doggett (the ever bristly Taryn Manning) experienced a stronger presence where laughter and anguish were needed.  During the first three episodes, the two ran the commissary like two backwoods yokels running a country store.  After the prison brass is disrobed in shame, Boo grabs Caputo's suit. which the white trash dwellers dubbed her "CaBOOto".  "Why thank you!" sniped back Boo, who fit the suit perfectly.  Boo of course stirred the pot, and shined as the MC of Litchfield Idol.  She even experienced a brief reprieve of love, as rogue prisoner "Amelia Von Barlow" (Beth Dover) sought her initial protection then blurred the lines of sexuality as she fell for her protector.  Boo and Pennsatucky sadly endured abuse this season, as Pennsatucky set her beau Charlie Coates (Michael McNenemin) free, earning her the vicious wrath of prison scourges Angie and Leanne.  

The level of disgust Pennsatucky earned being locked in "The Poo" (the prisoners' version of "The Shoe" in the stank outhouses) is indescribable.  But she finally felt the brutal bullying she inflicted on Alex and Piper in season one.  It made a sound departure as Pennsatucky's final moments of the season featured her relaxing in the DO's cottage.  Suspended disbelief, yet again, but viewers welcome a few moments of peace.  Boo's violent kidnapping in the horror/mystery arc was disgusting, yet kept her entwined in the action after being taken captive by sociopath Piscatella.  Even more heartbreaking, her newfound love was a fraud, and Boo fed her to the general population in a welcome dose of vengeance.

The horror/mystery episode was well executed.  It began with the return of uber-villain Piscatella cornering and taking Blanca hostage, similar to the opening act of a slasher flick.  Next came the disappearances of Nicky and Boo,   heightening the terror and danger.  And finally, paying great tribute to horror cliches, Alex and Piper were assaulted in a shower scene.  Laced between, Black Cindy received "ominous" phone calls asking "have you checked the children?"  Her response?  "How about you check yourself!"  She was then spooked  by beauty girls Flaca and Maritza at the end of the corridor resembling the twins in The Shining.  "Oh hell no!" she appropriately snapped.  Most frightening of all, Red experienced the horror while coming down off of a Speed high, revealing a stronger flashback to Russia in 1977 when her friend involved in a bluejeans smuggling scheme went missing.  All great homages to Friday the 13th, When a Stranger Calls and The Shining.

The final praise is a prickly love/hate relationship with the villainy of Piscatella.  A masochist and sociopath, he was one of OITNB's most complex villains.  Openly gay, he revealed his warped perception of women in episode 10 when he lectured the ladies about not respecting violence.  After unceremoniously being dismissed in Season 4, he was called back to the fold as he was the only freed prison employee.  Galina "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) had a less-than-stellar end product this season, yet Red and Pish's jarring adversarial game of cat and mouse left another tense threat.  Red initially sought to smear and defame Pish, posting flamboyant pictures of him all over the prison walls and posting to the internet.

The spoils and overdose of sadism were not in vain, as the ladies finally had a video of the system's brutality as he snapped Alex's arm.  After the video went viral, the public finally took the ladies' cause serious.  Though his backstory fit the fizzled category this season, it demonstrated where much of Pish's damaged psyche emerged as he murdered the man who savagely violated his lover.  Pish's reign of terror ended with a bullet in the forehead, ending one of the greatest villains' runs on OITNB

WHAT DIDN'T WORK -- Extreme levels of sadism ran rampant, making even the strongest cringe and most will not be displayed in imagery.  The sleaze factor escalated this season with higher levels of gross humor, excessive bondage in every episode, and extreme dehumanizing behaviors peppered every 10 minutes of an episode.  Dehumanizing is a large issue in the prison system, and OITNB depicted it brutally accurate to the point it deserves criticism.  Menstruation blood, graphic cavity searches, scalping a lady's hair with a knife, characters soiling themselves and prisoners toying with their hostages' arousal heightened levels of disgust to the point that images of such will not be displayed in this review.

Blanca Flores (Laura Gomez) became washed out in a parade of silliness which made even Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren seem lucid.  Blanca unveiled a rich layer as her spite led to her protest, leading to the events which launched season 5.  So how did the latest activist spend the season?  High on speed and dulling the performance of Red to beige nonsense.  On paper, the pairing of Blanca and Red may have seemed fitting, right down to their color-hued names.  The problem is Gomez and Kate Mulgrew lacked chemistry with each other despite resonating so well with others.  Red jumping up and down on couches was out of character, even if she was on speed.  The problem with Blanca's material this season is it undid the scarlet beauty Red had carried in her character.

The Red we knew from season 2 would never knowingly bait trouble into her home, even for the fruitful product of overthrowing a villain.  These actions placed her girls in danger, out of character for a cold-war refugee.  Blanca paying homage to Home Alone was meant as comic relief, yet voided itself to a puerile degree.  Speaking of immature, Lorna (Yael Stone) became a uneven mess for even an unhinged woman.  She's pining for Nicky.  Wait, she's pregnant.  Wait, she's a makeshift doctor.  Wait, she's a mess.  ENOUGH!  Chemical imbalance is in the mind of the beholder, or from a pesky addiction.  Option number two left every episode with two mosquitoes named Angie and Leanne, who sucked the joy and blood out of the scenes they touched, like true meth-heads.  

They followed Pennsatucky in persecuting Alex and Piper in Season 1.  They led to Nichols' imprisonment in maximum security.  Every time something negative or contrived occurs, Angie and Leanne are always involved.  The problem with their haughty wrath is it is fueled by stupidity.  Calling these two ignorant does not suffice, as it would imply they can be redeemed.  The ladies exhibit the same sadistic nature as the guards, as they painted black Suzanne's face like a clown, and attempted to cut off CO Stratman's (Evan Arthur Hall) finger to replace Leanne's missing digit to complete her hateful hoof. Either the writers need to give these poisonous, putrid characters a comeuppance or get rid of them.

Jessica Pimental smashed the alarms as aggressive leader Maria Ruiz in Season 4.  The material she played during the first half of the season was compelling, as Maria softened some of her militant edges in the wake of the disaster.  However, she voided out her powerful delivery by impulsively handing over he hostages and nullifying the prisoners' grounds.  Viewers were supposed to feel some sense of reward or joy when she held her baby for five minutes.  The problem is we could care less about yet another selfish inmate throwing her fellow prisoner's needs out the window with little thought.  Maria's choice lacked the dramatic punch and buildup Gloria's tough betrayal exhibited, and perhaps worsened the plight of the inmates.

Beth Dover's Linda Ferguson proved a lost opportunity as a hostage blending in with the general population, thanks to a less than flattering flashback depicting her opportunistic nature.  OITNB has dozens of characters worthy of that space wasted on Linda.  The rogue inmate tale could have opened the door on may plots, including ongoing advocacy having experienced the injustice herself.  Instead, she was thrust into one cartoonish plot farce after another, including a fauxmance with butch Boo.  How are viewers supposed to care about a character whose role in her sorority sister's accidental death only resulted in her rise to ascension after throwing her under the bus?

Given the large ensemble, balance is a difficult task to undertake, even in a compressed timeline.  Michael Harney was absent from all episodes of the seasons as CO Sam Healy has been committed to a psychiatric facility.  This was a poor decision by the writers, as his mental break would have provided the prickling dramatic effect if he was detained with the hostages.  Regardless of choices in displaying characters, Harney's name should have been omitted from the opening credits.  Elizabeth Rodriguez provided a limited performance as recently-released Aleida Diaz, and the writers dropped the ball, centering her on Daya's forgettable floundering through the season.  With the array of reporters surrounding the prison, the writers missed a golden opportunity to have Aleida advocating about the conditions in the crowd.

Alan Aisenberg delivered a tragic performance as Baxter Bayley, yet should have been left out of the season for dramatic impact in absence.  Finding out Baxter has been bumbling around attempting suicide with non-toxic green dye and getting himself arrested produced little impact on stories and would have made an excellent backstory had the character returned in the future.  The two contract spaces offered to Harney and Rodriguez would have better suited Diane Guerrero, Amanda Stephen or Brad William Henke, all of which were present driving plots this season.

Given the ominous ending which it is implied no one will return to Litchfield next season, some cast paring is necessary.

STANDOUT PERFORMANCES  --  Critical acclaim does not discriminate or take on the form of equal representation, as nearly every Black American cast member stood out with critical acclaim.  The previously mentioned performances of Brooks, Moore and Stephen have been highlighted, and Uzo Aduba (Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren) and Laverne Cox (Sophia Burset) deserve to join their elite league as the power hitters in season 5.  Aduba gave an uneasy, unsettling performance as mentally fragile Suzanne who was given the worst threads among the blinged out prisoners.  Crazy Eyes endured the horrors of not being able to process what was going on around her, still viewing the world as a 6-year old would.  Added her medications were tampered with, she was hazed, tortured and treated as an animal.

After the same inhuman treatment during Seasons 3-4, Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) only graced the first half of the season, yet experienced welcome character development as her medical expertise was utilized.  Realizing Sister Mary Ingalls (Beth Fowler) was nowhere to be found, Sophia made the (not-so) difficult decision to go to max to find the woman who saved her, only to sigh relief as she realized the nun flew away from the hellhole due to compassionate release.

Other demographics who shined including Brad William Henke's sadistic run as Pish, and Matt Peters' immature delivery as bumbling CO Joel Luschek.  Rosal Colon played stereotypical jailer Ouija for the run of the season, yet had us in stitches as she impersonated all of the inmates, including Red's impeccable Russian accent.  Her comic delivery was fractional compared to DeLaria's Big Boo, yet made a welcome dose of joy in the savage tone.

TIME TO GO -- The list of characters who need to exit the series expands by the season.  Starting with the contract members, Nick Sandow's Joe Caputo has been a welcome delivery in the male demographic, yet storylines dictate Caputo should lose his job.  He lost several prisoners, experienced a massive walkout of skilled CO's, hired poorly vetted replacements, botched the investigation into Poussey's accidental death and now the riot which claimed two CO's lives.  If Caputo is kept running the zoo, the show will drift further into disbelief.  The riot story showed little impact in the loss of Sam Healy (Michael Harney), perhaps dictating the show can survive without the character.

Previous contract entries into this list included the privileged inmate Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), unhinged Lorna (Yael Stone), caustically floating Daya (Dascha Polanco) and her recently-released mother Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez).  It was revealed Piper has three months to serve out, foreshadowing the character will exit in two seasons.  Though Piper's role delivered pleasant results this season, her story purpose is limited.  Plot developments appeared to have pushed Rodriguez and Polanco off the canvas with limited futures, while Stone's Lorna now has a wrinkle in her tale as she is pregnant.  If OITNB plans on keeping Lorna, deeper exploration into her background and growth are needed.

Rest assured Blair Brown will likely not return as Judy King, yet have the unpleasantness of Angie and Leanne stirring up trouble via Julie Lake and Emma Myles.  While both lovely performers, their exit would be a sigh of relief.  OITNB needs to figure out where to center when it returns next season, as it will have another bloated mess on our screens if they do not retool the cast.

WHAT'S NEXT -- The fate of Litchfield Prison was left ambiguous as prisoners were loaded onto various buses and divided.  10 inmates stood in the makeshift bunker, holding hands and anticipating what will happen when the door breaks down, similar to doomsday.  The direction for the next season has yet to be declared, and perhaps some reveals and PR may get viewers invested again as there are two more seasons ordered by Netflix.

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