TV Review: Netflix’s Orange is the New Black is a combination of salvation and suffering in its fifth season

In the second-to-last episode of season four, Orange is the New Black presented the death of one of the show’s main characters in a supremely upsetting, but flawlessly executed scene that referenced America’s senseless police brutality against African Americans.  It was in stark contrast to the previous season’s more uplifting closer where the inmates of female prison Litchfield bathed in the sunlight and fresh water of a nearby lake following a momentary escape.

For season five there’s a combination of season three’s salvation and season four’s suffering, and it’s a mentality that simultaneously helps and hinders this 13 episode instalment.  Foregoing the usual seasonal time period of setting its course over a few weeks, season five takes place in only a few short days, picking up directly where it left off as inmate Daya (Dascha Polanco) held a guard at gunpoint following an inmate uprising.  Without detailing any spoilers, the riot consumes the entire season with the prisoners establishing their own rules and society within the compound.

And it’s this narrative choice that brings out some of the show’s darkest material whilst also highlighting an inability to competently fill each episode with substance; sequences involving the guards taken hostage during the riot amount to little more than being made to entertain the inmates for their own amusement, and a near whole episode devoted to a “talent show” highlights the misjudgement of the writing staff.

But just as easy as it is to be frustrated with the show’s seemingly initial lack of character investment, it introduces enough segments of drama and genuine horror to keep longtime viewers answering “yes” when Netflix asks if they are still watching.

By the time season five comes to a close it is more than evident that the future of the show will be presented as an entirely different beast than what we have come to expect so far; the show has been renew for at least two more seasons, taking it currently through to 2019.  But different should only play to Orange‘s strength as it has already manoeuvred from being Taylor Schilling‘s one-woman show of her freshly incarcerated Piper Chapman working out the prison system, to a larger ensemble piece where Piper is a mere cog in a larger machine; and no disrespect to Schilling, but she’s certainly surrounded by stronger, more interesting players.

Perhaps that is where the strongest, most appealing aspect of season five lives, in the performances of its immense cast.  And as competently dedicated to each of their roles as they are, it’s Danielle Brooks as “Taystee” that walks away as the season’s MVP.  Her character was always going to be shifted into a position of importance following the fatal results of last season, but she adopts a commanding presence far more than what Schilling was ever able to do as Piper.

As to be expected in a show such as this, the final moments of the closing episode are where it really hooks you in with all the dramatic possibilities of where the story can go.  And as much as this season dropped nuggets of humour and comedic lunacy (and not always for the best) there’s a sense that the comedy aspect that used to run more rampant will be done away with – and given that this season proved stronger when handling the more serious material, that may not be such a bad thing.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Orange is the New Black streams on Netflix from this Friday, June 9th.