Here’s our review of the Netflix women’s prison dramedy. Hot take: Even with its flaws it’s binge-worthy for sure.

Michelle

How great it is to be back in Litchfield with some of our favorite characters!? Season 5 of Netflix’s hit series Orange is the New Black starts off very strong as it picks up immediately where the fourth season ended. (Note: This is the third series from Netflix to use the continuing timeline format, i.e Love and Bloodline.) The tension is still high and the Litchfield inmates are ready to make themselves heard.

While I’ll say this season was still fantastically written and drove home some key emotional moments in a fashion I’ve grown to love, it was pretty messy. The attempts to shift between it’s tones become as bunched up and constricting as the sometimes missed opportunities to explore sub-narratives of the various characters. The season takes place over three days, so you know there’s going to be ample potential for things to not be perfect when structuring 13 episodes around this timeframe.

Without spoiling much, the inmates are rioting against the injustice and devastating murder of Poussey in the fourth season. After a season of aligning with their respective racial and ideological groups, the inmates are beginning to form an alliance with one another. However, this is obviously not going to be an easy transition from their hate-fueled oppositions. Some of our favorite characters are still in the forefront of the narrative: Piper and Alex, Black Cindy and Taystee, Crazy Eyes and Big Boo, Red and Gloria, and Lorna and Nicky. Other characters start to shine as the season goes on and the writers of Orange Is the New Black continue their efforts to make the show as inclusive as possible.

Some of my favorite moments include diving into the backstory of Freida, exploring Red’s history, watching the sensitively, beautiful Soso deal with the death of her girlfriend and grieve among the chaos in the prison, and watching the inmates react to the nature of the season independently. The season however keeps a tight watch on its short timeframe and, for the first time in at least three seasons, the show isn’t completely bouncing all over the place making it difficult to remember where we are at in terms of time, seasons, and sentences. The narrative is quite linear, only throwing in a few flashbacks, which in my opinion helps maintain the structure of the season. But the motion to incorporate to separate stories and perspectives creates a bit of a mess and sometimes irritability when watching.

Like most of the seasons before, OITNB is entertaining and addicting in the binge format, but it can be annoying to watch. I won’t talk too poorly about the season, because I genuinely loved it, especially the music used this season and the influence of art such as cinematic direction and aesthetic and some evident odes to theater (hello again, Shakespeare). An example comes from an episode that is set up exactly like a horror film, in the slasher category to be precise, and paces itself accordingly. There’s jump scares, tension, tropes, and more and it’s executed well. It’s an episode that stands out to me in all five seasons because of its use of resources and talent. You’ll know it when you see it, and I’d be happy to talk more about it with you guys when you do.

Overall I’d give this season a 7.5/10, but I’ll let Lane take over and explain her position on it.

Lane

Thanks for your recap and review, Michelle! I’ve glimpsed some negative reviews of this season on the internet and, while I enjoyed the season, overall, it did have some major flaws. Often when critics review media they focus on the negatives. The takeaway for the reader is “This show is bad, don’t waste your time.” Yes, I’m about to focus on the negatives of season 5 of Orange. But, please, your takeaway should NOT be to simply ignore the show completely. Rather, I’ve come to expect a lot from Orange is the New Black and I’d like to reflect, critically, on season 5.

First off, I had high hopes for this season’s timeline. I love when television plays with time. This experimentation seemed like a perfect fit for OITNB, in particular, for the reasons Michelle mentioned above: OITNB features A LOT of characters, time jumps, and detailed back stories. I thought the 13-episodes over 4-ish days would allow the writers to go a little slower, give us time with the characters we love. Instead, it felt like a rush to the cliffhanger finish line. To be sure, this pacing is partially due to the fact that there was an actual riot happening, but this season could have used some major story edits.

Going into this season, after just recently watching season 4, I felt a natural, distinct shift in tone. While Orange has inherently tackled issues of race, sexuality, politics, class, religion, etc. since episode 1, Poussey’s death, the “stand-in” protests, and racial segregation of last season was a perfect lead-in to an emphasis of drama and politics in season 5. Instead, I felt whiplash from the tonal shifts of the season. I’d feel empowered from Taystee’s leadership or Nicky lending a hand or Soso’s beautiful memorial to Poussey, and then we’d get a dumb blonde-type line from Flartiza. I remember enjoying those tonal shifts in the first few seasons of Orange. It kept the show light and funny. But I don’t think this season was the correct time for that.

That cliffhanger though. I won’t spoil anything, but there’s a major cliffhanger in the final episode of season 5. Yes, this is a common technique for all TV (Orange included) but man it just pissed me off. I wanted a conclusion to this 13-episode capsule. I expected a conclusion. If you’re just going to focus on 4-ish days of the riot, I expect a clear beginning, middle, and end.

Orange is the New Black has at least 2 more seasons left on Netflix (they signed a contract guaranteeing 7 seasons). I really hope Jenji Kohan and the writers spend a lot of time storyboarding and paring down their ideas for season 6. But, with the way season 5 ended? They’ve tackled a lot and have written themselves into quite a corner. I’m not sure how they come back from this.