Among the more surprising things about season five of Orange Is The New Black is that it proves that even a show like this otherwise riveting Netflix series can squander momentum. The well-received fourth season managed to weave an even more intricate web of stories, only dropping a few stitches here and there. Viewers were divided after the penultimate episode, including several critics right here at The A.V. Club. But whether you saw injustice or tragedy in Poussey’s final moments, a fuse had been lit. The frustration brought on by dehumanization came to a head, and even though it was cut with plenty of levity, that batch of episodes marked a turning point for the overall story. Season five dutifully tries to stoke that fire in its first half, but just ends up stifling its ambitions with clutter.
Jenji Kohan’s dramedy wrapped its fourth season with a cliffhanger, which is right where we pick up in the overstuffed premiere—the series’ weakest opener ever—and where we stay throughout the first half of season five. The show is successful in building suspense early on; as she holds a gun on the cruel Humphrey (Michael Torpey), it’s anyone’s guess what Daya (Dascha Polanco) will actually do with it. Although OITNB resolves that particular standoff sooner than later, the uncertainty lingers, and the protest-turned-riot becomes the framing device for at least the first six episodes.
This mostly feels like a narrative choice, but there’s also the sense that the writers wanted to stick with the aftermath of Bayley’s (Alan Aisenberg) actions given the public response. Warden Caputo (Nick Sandow) might have failed Poussey, but her friends won’t. But it’s when OITNB tries to imagine where they all go from there that the tonal missteps begin. Led by Taystee (Danielle Brooks), the black inmates’ efforts to expose the wrongdoings at the prison are too often interrupted with cartoonish shenanigans. A poignant speech gets a scatalogical chaser, which would be business as usual in previous seasons. This is a show that has usually been able to have both, the pathos and the humor, but for once, OITNB’s earnestness and zaniness work against each other.
Having so many moving parts isn’t anything new to the OITNB writers, but they also struggle with doing right by the huge cast more than ever. It’s the first time we can really see the hamster wheels turning, as they race to recontextualize everyone from Piper (Taylor Schilling) to Gloria (Selenis Leyva), now that Caputo and the Management & Correction Corporation have been deposed. There are disparate factions and near-daily coup attempts, which is impressive considering the whole season takes place over a three-day timeframe. Though they were united in the cafeteria following Poussey’s death, many of the inmates are still looking out for their own best interests, including acquiring some coveted snacks. Litchfield might be divided against itself, but the series still features plenty of slice-of-prison-life moments, like raiding the kitchen for makeup supplies or whipping up a homemade vibrator.
Despite the chaotic start, the new season mostly upholds the series’ honest, humorous look at the prison populace. Even the more absurd moments, like a high-stakes game of “Fuck, Marry, Kill,” reveal just how much optimism there still is in these cinder-block walls, as well as how fluid priorities can be. That’s when OITNB regains its stride and balances the lighter elements with the heavier ones, like just what it is Taystee et al. really expect to get out of all of this. But there’s just so much going on in episodes like “Riot FOMO”—which, naturally, is what Piper is afflicted with—that these newly discovered motivations don’t always take hold.
Less deserving arcs end up getting a more in-depth treatment, as we spend far more time with Piper and Alex (Laura Prepon) than is warranted anymore. Piper’s long since outlived her usefulness as a way in for viewers, but her attempts to benefit from the uprising still get plenty of screen time, to dubious effect. This is just Piper being Piper, but that realization just underscores what a missed opportunity it is to drive home that point once more. Orange Is The New Black says it wants a revolution, but it fails to back that talk up in its execution.