Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Orange Is The New Black season five. These reviews and their comment sections are intended for those who have seen up to this episode—please refrain from revealing or discussing events from future episodes in the comments.

When the Governor is woken up to news about the riot at Litchfield, he doesn’t really even blink (and not just because of the Ambien). When he reads their list of demands, he presumes someone is negotiating on their behalf, and when he’s urged to get out of bed to do something about it he suggests it isn’t necessary. “What’s going to happen between now and the morning?” is his basic argument, and when his chief of staff (I presume) insists that six hours is a long time, he reminds her that it’s “just” a women’s minimum security prison.

This attitude is pervasive in the context of this season. We see it also when Sophia—concerned for the safety of Sister Ingalls—manages to find a way out of Litchfield and expects to be swarmed by the police stationed outside, but is instead casually taken into custody and driven up to Max. And to some degree, we see it in our own reactions: it can be easy sometimes to forget how dangerous this situation actually is when the show embraces its comic side, and the early episodes have struggled at times to fully register that this is a life and death situation no matter how funny that situation might occasionally be.

This changes slightly in “Litchfield’s Got Talent,” where the complicated nature of the show’s tone in the midst of this crisis comes to life in the eponymous talent show (although technically it’s Litchfield Idol). It’s a funny set of scenes: the inmates play the role of judges, while the guards each trot out their respective talents. When we eventually get to the main attraction as Stratman taps into his college stripper days, it’s easy to forget that he is a hostage, and that this carnival is taking place at the bequest of an inmate brandishing a gun. But Angie and her gun each have executive producer credits on spectacle, and the gradual realization of the danger involved makes for the most successful sequence yet at forcing us to confront the chaos under the surface of any given moment during the riot.

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This is especially true during Stratman’s routine. There’s obviously a lot to look at during this sequence, and the camera primarily focuses on Stratman’s body and Leanne’s reaction to it, along with the guards’ looks of disgust at how much gusto he’s putting into his performance. But I spent much of the scene watching Angie, and very quickly grew afraid that she was going to murder Stratman during the routine. Whether out of jealousy or distaste, her gaze is intensely critical, and no one else seems to notice as they’re focused on the spectacle in front of them. She’s losing control of the event, and my mind shifted to what she would do to regain control.

Angie doesn’t shoot Stratman, of course: she simply uses the gun to make sure her favorite—Josh from PR, who was hot and spoke Italian—wins, while a terrified Caputo loses out and is thrown in a porta-potty. Giving the methheads the gun is an unsettling choice, as they lack the intelligence to use the gun in particularly devious ways, but you never know when the good-time carnival that is their life will take a dark turn without notice. While Gloria’s theft of the gun—a compassionate act of violence to relieve Daya of the burden—briefly removed it from the picture, its return adds a layer of dread to any event happening around it, and made for a distinctly alarming striptease.

The talent competition is the inmates’ attempt to bring part of the outside world into the prison, now that they’re the ones who are in control. The other central theme of the episode is how the increased access to the outside world is reshaping the inmates’ perception of their situation. When Sankey goes on social media to check in on her boyfriend, she discovers him cozied up to another woman, who it turns out was an agreed-upon sex partner to ensure that he stayed faithful if not necessarily celibate in her absence. It was an arrangement she was never supposed to see, but internet access means she sees that he’s posing with her on instagram, and she’s around their child, and is essentially replacing her. When the outside world was out of sight, it was easy for inmates like Sankey to imagine that he was only having sex with her, even if she knew in her heart that was unlikely. But suddenly she sees something she had previously been allowed to imagine in whatever way helped her get through the day, and it breaks her.

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The same thing is happening to Alison, also in a slightly different way. This is an atypical flashback for the show, as it is largely disinterested in her criminality: even if the show is playing fast and loose and suggesting that polygamy is a federal crime (there’s no federal laws against it), the fact that it’s criminal is largely incidental to the story in question. Alison and her husband make the decision to bring a second wife into the marriage in order to lessen their burden, a practice among some American Muslims. What results is a pretty rote set of circumstances, as Alison finds herself losing control of her daughter’s childhood, and eventually grows to feel like she’s being pushed out of her own family.

Perhaps I’d have been more interested in this story if I hadn’t watched three and a half seasons of Big Love, but it never added up to anything. I was more invested in Sankey’s story, if I’m being honest, which is frustrating given that Alison’s character is one I generally connect with. But the story just didn’t offer anything you couldn’t presume once you discovered she was in a polygamous marriage, and the only impact it has in the prison itself is that Alison—like Sankey—is getting a glimpse of the family she left behind. Whereas Gloria calls home worried about her children that she’s left without a mother, Alison’s daughter is growing up with a mother: it’s just not her birth mother, and not in a way that Alison might approve of. It’s an interesting conflict, but it would have been just as interesting if Alison had told that story to one of the other inmates, instead of wasting time on flashbacks that don’t offer much more than an initial reveal and then a logical set of events thereafter.

It’s especially disappointing when you contrast it with a prison setup where everyone is on edge, and everything could change at a moment’s notice. There is still calm in Litchfield, as we see in Alex’s peaceful resistance forming in the yard or in the early moments of Suzanne’s séance in the cafeteria. But you never know when Daya—being tiptoed around by everyone after what she did—will lose it, and the séance quickly goes downhill when Taystee and Brooke get into a grief-off. While the outside world doesn’t seem to think there’s any urgency to this affair, we know otherwise, and it makes boring flashbacks seem that much more boring.

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It’s likely the outside world will start to think differently about things when they see photos of Judy King strapped to a board and close to being thrown off the roof. While the circumstances that get her there are awfully contrived and a low point of the episode, it promises to change the dynamic, and help everyone outside of Litchfield understand how quickly things could escalate with proper intervention.

Stray observations

  • This year in “We don’t have access to Laverne Cox”: Sophia deciding to send herself to max, only to find that Sister Ingalls got pneumonia and received a compassionate release. There’ll be a thesis in how much Cox’s limited availability (in this case due to CBS’ short-lived Doubt) kept Sophia’s character arc from adding up to anything to be written by the end of this show.
  • We get a brief glimpse of Gina watching YouTube videos to figure out how to get power back, but I sort of got used to the blackout lighting in this episode compared to the last.
  • This episode is Nick Sandow’s first television directing gig—he will not be the last cast member to make a directorial debut as the seasons wear on, I reckon.
  • While the underlying dread removed “fun” from the occasion, I thought the guards’ talents were well chosen, and enjoyed Dixon’s “Rich Girl” and Luschek’s standup comedy routine, both of which fit their characters.
  • It was interesting to see how everyone reacted to the radio in the yard: they so rarely have access to music, and the show is as a result generally pretty quiet, and the diegetic music both there and in the striptease scene stands out more as a result.
  • Another week, another scene of Red and Blanca searching through files to find dirt on Piscatella with no particular punchline—we learn an inmate died on his watch, but it’s not really adding up to anything significant as of yet.
  • Alex’s guilt over “letting her friend go down for” murder is our first reference to Lolly—it will be interesting to see if we get any vantage point on how the other parts of Litchfield are reacting to the riot.
  • “I hate that stuck-up bitch”—Leanne, on Jennifer Lopez, with no reason given.
  • “Ghosts linger; spirits visit”—in case you were wondering about the distinction between ghosts and spirits.

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