In its first four seasons, Orange is the New Black proved itself an edgy, entertaining, unpredictable, and, yes, problematic show. It broke new storytelling ground as a vehicle for under-represented voices, particularly in its early years, but later stumbled, crossing the line too frequently from earnest entertainment to exploitative misery porn. The tragic events that capped off season four put me off the series for a while, but I finally edged my way back and found myself drawn into a steady catch-up marathon, remembering the reasons I’d found it so initially compelling.
As season five begins, the inmates of Litchfield Prison in upstate New York go into revolt. The death of an inmate at the hands of an inept, corrupt, and poorly trained guard staff leads to violent confrontation, during which a number of rabble-rouser inmates take the rest of the guards hostage. They barricade themselves into the prison, some of them making demands and negotiating with authorities while others run amok, high on unfamiliar freedom. This is a notorious season, all thirteen of its episodes taking place during a three-day riot, and while I largely consider it an unrealistic low point in the series, I also think it’s the beginning of the show’s strategic return to form. It’s Orange is the New Black at its least controlled, flailing its way through wildly uneven plot turns, iffy narrative logic, and more of the clumsy messaging that plagued season four. That said, the riot conceit does have some benefits, drastically changing the prison dynamics in what I suspect the writers found a creatively liberating way. The wild, over-reaching stories of season five don’t always pan out, but they do inject the series with new energy, releasing the shackles literally and figuratively. They also set the stage for the show’s nicely planned endgame, and afford a star turn for Danielle Brooks, whose Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson more or less takes over the series, evolving into its heart and soul.
As it happens, blowing up the prison in season five has another positive effect: it also blows up the show’s formula for season six, which drastically reimagines its world. The quelling of the riot has dramatic consequences for the inmates as the new season begins. Indeed, many of them are spirited away to a different facility, virtually lopping the familiar cast in half. The remaining characters are transferred down the hill to Litchfield’s maximum security ward and distributed across three distinctly different prison blocks, where powerful gangs — lorded over by dueling sisters Carol (Henny Dunning) and Barb (Mackenzie Phillips) — run the show. Making things worse, they’re pitted against each other by cruel, indifferent guards, who callously gamify the inmates’ personal lives in a game called Fantasy Inmate. Season six’s shift to a harsher environment leads to even bleaker storylines. But it also shatters the over-familiar cliques and dynamics of Litchfield, stirs in new blood, and shifts tone just enough to mitigate OITNB‘s sillier tendencies. Following the erratic indulgences of the riot year, season six emerges as one of the series’ most thematically consistent. The tribalist conflicts and the escalating Carol-Barb rivalry give it a satisfying overall shape, while on the character level it delves more deeply into the psychology of the inmates’ experience — with some devolving into even worse versions of themselves, while others labor painstakingly toward redemption.
This journey continues in season seven, as the focus shifts away from rehabilitation (or the lack thereof) towards reintegration. The series’ nominal protagonist, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) finishes out her term at last. She spends the year torn between an instinct to move forward with her post-prison life, and an unhealthy commitment to the anchor of her turbulent long-term relationship with Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), still behind bars with several years left on her sentence. Meanwhile, back at Litchfield the efforts of idealistic, rookie warden Tamika Ward (Susan Heyward) inform the reintegration theme as she struggles to introduce programs that prepare the inmates for productive post-prison lives. Her efforts, despite heartless corporate oversight, reintroduce much-needed hope to the show — not that the hope is entirely warranted. Indeed, another major aspect of season seven is the introduction of a nearby immigrant detention center, spearheaded by the gleeful corporate villainy of Linda Ferguson (Beth Dover). A number of Litchfield max’s familiar faces are tapped to work the kitchen at the ICE facility, where their lives become entangled with those of the unfortunate detainees who have been separated from their families as they await deportation trials. Compared to reality, OITNB’s ICE facility seems positively sanitized. Even so, this story angle takes a scathing stance against the Trump administration’s sociopathic immigration policies — which, when it comes down to it, are a chilling escalation of the casual cruelty and injustice the series has always been confronting.
Orange is the New Back doesn’t land all its punches. Its tendency to take things to absurd extremes, and to inject shocking, heightened-reality squickiness into material that might have been just as effective without it, occasionally undercut its mission. But ultimately it’s a unique and thought-provoking show, full of memorable characters, jarring black humor, and powerful critique of systemic institutional injustice. It wasn’t always easy to watch, but I’m glad I did.