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.

“What happens in a riot stays in a riot.”

Now close to halfway through its experimental fifth season, the riot is changing the way Orange Is The New Black tells stories in a number of ways. In some cases, we see the impact of a macro-level serialized storyline that affects the entire prison, with a larger purpose organizing the decision-making of characters who might have previously thought more selfishly. In other cases, however, the lack of structure created by the anarchy within the prison also allows for the show to explore interpersonal dynamics that would have been more difficult to consider in the rigidity of daily prison life. The show also has greater license to explore the world outside of Litchfield for the first time since Larry—ugh, remember Larry?—in the first season, as Litchfield is in the news and the after effects of the riot are being felt far and wide.

As mentioned previously, the riot is designed to allow the show to remain fresh despite growing older, and this season definitely does feel noticeable “new” as a result of these changes. However, these storylines are not all equal, and it’s becoming clearer that the show doesn’t necessarily know how it wants to balance these approaches to telling story within a given episode. In “Flaming Hot Cheetos, Literally,” the show runs the gamut in terms of the potential storytelling approaches emerging from the riot, but they vary in effectiveness, and showcase the natural growing pains of experimentation as the season reaches its midpoint.

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As has been consistently the case, Taystee’s storyline is the most effective, and is here bolstered by a mostly perfunctory but well-rendered flashback. It adds very little to our understanding of Taystee on the surface: we knew she had a bad history with the foster system, and we also knew that she more or less chose to return to prison after being released, suggesting that she might prefer it to whatever it is she left in the outside world. A central theme in the episode is the idea that the women in the prison see the riot differently depending on whether or not they have something to return to: Taystee doesn’t have anything waiting for her on the outside, which makes her that much more willing to fight for justice in Litchfield. Whereas she thought the answers to her unfulfilling life were going to come when her birth mother reached out to her at 18, her real purpose came in her first encounter with Poussey, and the originating rendition of Amanda and MacKenzie. As predictable as the collapse of her relationship with her mother played out, it was thrilling to realize what we were seeing when we see Taystee’s first days in Litchfield, and it serves as tremendous fuel for Taystee’s push back against the governor’s delivery.

It’s clear to me that the season is strongest when the big picture of the riot is at the center of this story. Although the arrival of the Governor’s negotiator in some ways de-escalates the situation—pushing aside Piscatella and delivering the Cheetos, Takis, and tampons—it wakes everyone up to the fact that they can’t embrace these small victories if they want to achieve real change. For those who simply want to embrace the anarchy of the riot, the snacks are a bonus; for those who are content to sit out the riot and hope it concludes sooner than later, the deal offered by the negotiator—release the hostages and we’ll “do our best” to attend to the other demands—might actually be desirable. But Taystee and the black inmates—joined here by Piper, who embraces a chance to be a part of the movement because she’s stir crazy doing nothing—are the ones who see the big picture, and their symbolic burning of the snacks points to a clear line in the sand that the story needs in order to remind us that the stakes are very high, and characters need to act accordingly.

We see something similar happen in the resolution to Pennsatucky’s “trial,” although that story points to one of my biggest issues with the riot. The show uses the “freedom” of the riot as a license to embrace some of the absurdity that is often on the fringe of the series, and the trial was for me an example of why that material so rarely works. Boo’s initial entrance to the Law & Order theme is inspired, but the rest of the trial is a series of silly premises, and “silly” just fundamentally doesn’t work for me at this point in the riot. The story’s resolution—the inmates agreeing that they should not replicate the prison system’s version of “justice” and should focus on rehabilitation—is productive, but wouldn’t that have been better following a trial that had an edge instead of an absurd run about Saved By The Bell? That ending would have been so much more powerful if the storyline had created a real sense of danger instead of comic relief, which I’d argue feels more out of place during the riot than it did before. It hurts me to see stories that could be nuanced reduced to nonsense, much as it hurts me to see Red forced into the position of comic relief despite the character’s dramatic potential.

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Alternatively, we also see stories that have very little connection to the larger riot: Janae introduces Brook to running as a way of dealing with her anger in a tiny story, and we get effectively a two-hander between Nicky and Lorna isolated from the story happening around it. On the one hand, it’s good that the show is able to take moments to showcase its supporting cast without necessarily having to follow the rhythms and restrictions of prison life—it was fun to drop in on Nicky playing therapist, and allow Lorna’s horniness to move forward unabated. On the other hand, though, there needs to be a point where no one can be ignoring the riot: although Frieda’s bunker—which appears to be the remnants of an abandoned underground pool—might allow some to effectively shield out the outside world, we have to get to a stage where even delusional people like Lorna—whether or not she’s pregnant, she’s still delusional—feel the direct impact of the riot, and that point needs to be coming sooner rather than later.

By comparison, I think the jury is still out on whatever the show is planning outside of Litchfield. Aleida’s appearance on cable news seems like a potential turning point but fizzles in the midst of her profanity, leaving it unclear what the show intends to accomplish in that story thread. And the return to Bayley—now released from the drunk tank—feels perfunctory yet again, his suicide attempt with non-toxic dye devoid of meaning outside of potentially foreshadowing the show justifying a future trip to visit a series regular who has thus far been absent from the season. So far, having the perspective of the outside world has been something of a tease: the storyline provides a clear reason for it, but we’ve yet to see something that lives up to its potential, and I’m awaiting the moment where this changes.

As with any Netflix season, the “table setting” is always a little different: many people will have watched these six episodes in quick succession, and thus there isn’t the typical “waiting period” where viewers might grow impatient with the logic behind all these stories choices not being readily apparent. But what strikes me in isolation is how the show is moving at so many different speeds, with some stories that feel trenchant and important and others that, well, don’t (at least as of yet). The badass final moment of “Flaming Hot Cheetos, Literally” showcases the dramatic potential of this riot: the rest of the episode shows that we still don’t entirely know the extent of that potential, which keeps me from being able to properly evaluate the success of this experiment on the whole.

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Stray observations

  • It was nice to be able to see a glimpse of Bell—very pregnant—and O’Neil, even if it had to be part of Bayley’s story: a good reminder of the simpler times left behind.
  • Shocking no one, I was disappointed with the verisimilitude on the Facetime call with the lawyer that concluded the episode: the lighting struggled to sell how video calls actually look, it’s not just about basic pixilation.
  • Is Freida’s bunker an excuse for some supporting characters to disappear for a while—like she did since her episode—or are we going to spend actual time there? Outside of Gloria, everyone who went down there—Yoga Jones, DeMarco, Norma, Gina—doesn’t really have much of a story outside of the marginalization, so I’m not sure what the story would be exactly.
  • I enjoyed the return of the musical motif from Frieda’s time in the wilderness as she maps out her plan to invite others to her bunker.
  • Look, I’ll admit I’m more tolerant of Piper than most, but I feel like it is objectively dumb for Alex to be so critical of Piper taking a stand: it’s not her fight, perhaps, but she’s embracing a legitimate cause and seems suitably self-aware that everyone already hates her. This season is never going to be Piper’s story, but I continue to think the character has a compelling place in the story, so I’m glad to see she may become more central as the story evolves.
  • “The whole point of life is waiting to see what comes next, but I already know exactly how mine’s gonna go”—Bayley’s story is maybe not worth the time it’s getting, but I do love the idea that he now sees his life through the same lens as the inmates in Litchfield.
  • I remain skeptical about everything about the “meme” storyline from earlier in the season, but “popular coffee-oriented meme” is a turn of the phrase I can get behind.
  • I had speculated after the previous episode that Judy King’s exit and the loss of the fun might change the Governor’s approach, but it seems to have barely registered—curious to see how Judy comes back into things, given how affected she seemed by Taystee’s speech.

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