In summer 2013, I fell hopelessly, completely, heads over heels in love with this little “cutting edge” Netflix dramedy known as Orange is the New Black.
I devoured the first season’s 13 hours in a little over 24. I followed Danielle Brooks, Laverne Cox, and Uzo Aduba on Instagram. I was delighted to become reacquainted with Natasha Lyonne. I wrote love letters in my mind to Samira Wiley, whose shy smile still turns my knees to jelly. Y’all don’t need the details; a lot of you were right there with me in your own ways. Which is why the show’s betrayal of its queer, and particular QTPOC, audience cuts so deeply.
I respect Autostraddle’s decision to continue recapping the show. I sincerely believe it’s important to keep forging our critiques publicly, especially for the shows that we once loved openly. I had spent the majority of the last 12 months vowing to never watch OITNB again, to burn any mention of the show to ground and salt the earth upon which it once stood. But, as June began to rear its head, I felt a pull to see where the show would go. Would the production have learned any lessons from last year? Could I really walk away from the queer, trans, feminist, Latina, and black cast members who I had let into my heart over the last few years?
Season five did not give me the answers that I was hoping for. There were very brief shinning moments to be found, but I can’t wrap my head around what on earth Jenji Kohan and the show’s writers thought their audience would take away from this experience.
The season finale opens with Stormy Weather playing as the SWAT team blows upon Litchfield’s front door barricades with explosives. Alison immediately removes her hijab. Janae— our beloved track star— makes a run for it before getting violently tased while Taystee looks on in horror. The first time I saw this scene, I watched from it from behind my arms crossed in front of my face. I struggled to catch my breath. Women are slammed against walls, dragged by their feet across the floor. They are beaten with batons and pepper sprayed. The entire episode is loud and frantic, screams on top of screams. It’s unbearable.
There are some small subplots tied up that I’ll glaze over for the sake of time. Namely, what is the point of the white supremacists and some of the side character Latinas joining forces to create #TeamLatte and setting up Home Alone-style traps for the SWAT Team? Or Angie and Leanne realizing that they are actually The Worst before deciding to burn all the inmates’ files in some form of anarchical penance for the past wrongs they perpetrated against their peers? Most of those files must be backed up digitally; still I guess it’s a nice symbolic gesture. More heartfelt, but unfortunately all too rushed, are the wrap-ups of Gloria and Maria’s plots. Gloria finds out on the phone that Benito came through his surgery healthy, and Maria finally spends five minutes with her daughter in the fresh air. Both actresses put their all into their respective scenes, but we didn’t have enough time spent with either scene to fully connect.
Nicky comes to warn Lorna that SWAT is coming their way. Lorna’s scared and begs Nicky to comfort her. I have loved their arc this season, and it has given Natasha Lyonne some of her best work on the show. Every time she soothes Lorna this episode, her naturally gravely tone warms and her eyes are brimmed with tears. The resulting effect is, obviously, me swallowing my heart in my throat.
Nicky tells Lorna that she has to surrender, even though Lorna wants to stay with the rest of their prison family. Nicky reasons with her; she’s pregnant and it’s only going to get more dangerous moving forward. She grabs both of her hands, and looks straight into her eyes: “I want you to walk down the hall with your hands up. I want you to tell them your pregnant the minute you see them. YELL IT. Make Sure That They Hear You. Go! Go… NOW!” Nicky’s firm, desperate to portray confidence, but she’s scared. This is the end. They embrace one last time.
Lorna does what Nicky tells her. She surrenders. She raises her arms. She screams that she’s pregnant over and over again. But, it doesn’t make a difference. Nicky looks back, crying, and all we hear is Lorna being forced to the ground.
SWAT reaches the corridor that has been turned into Poussey’s Memorial Library. They find Soso sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, eyes focused and stone faced, ready to peacefully resist. She uses her small frame to anchor herself against that floor, never saying a word as it takes two very large SWAT members to finally carry her out. Her body contours between them, so that we have one final shot of the library from her point of view, books hazy through the smoke of the riot. The next time we see the memorial, it is being ripped to shreds in SWAT’s hands. Last season, Poussey’s final act before joining the prison protest that ultimately led to her death was locking eyes with Soso. A silent apology for not believing that any of them could actually make a positive change. This is a painful, final reminder and goodbye.
Away from the riot, Tiffany is still making herself at home in Coates’ cabin. She pops some popcorn and watches the drama at Litchfield unfold on TV as if it’s the greatest playoff game that she’s ever seen. The past two seasons have been so disturbingly committed to rehabilitating Coates and watching Tiffany snuggle on the couch with her rapist is unspeakably horrifying. However, it’s played as if we are supposed to find it sentimental. Between this, Angie and Leanne’s quippy jokes about the sexual assault they committed, and Maria publicly sodomizing a guard earlier this season, it is hard not to see a trend on the show. Jenji Kohan had serious issues of not adequately dealing with rape and sexual abuse in the later seasons of Weeds; I can’t help but wonder if this is an ongoing problem in her writer’s room. Given Tiffany’s traumas before Litchfield, I can empathize with her journey. I am hopeful, though far from confidant, that we are slowly moving towards her moment of recognition that Coates is an emotional abuser.
Nicky leads Taystee, Cindy, and Suzanne to the underground bunker. She’s looking for an accelerant to counteract the Lithium that Cindy gave Suzanne last scene. Of course Freida, ever prepared, has an EpiPen stored away for just the occasion. Suzanne comes back to us all.
Once in the bunker, Taystee’s season-long arc comes to a head as she sees Piscatella chained. She grabs Frieda’s gun and unleashes all of her rage, blaming him for Poussey’s death. And all I can say is, GO OFF DANIELLE BROOKS!!!! The range she displays here is as arresting as it is breathtaking. I think everyone agrees that Brooks was the season’s most gripping player, and as Taystee held a loaded gun to Piscatella’s edge the only thing I could think was: Don’t do this, sis. Don’t jeopardize your own life over his. It ain’t worth it.
Ultimately, Taystee doesn’t shoot. She collapses to the floor and finally allows the grief that she has been fighting in the days since Poussey’s death to encompass her. Cindy holds her as she wails and thrashes, broken down into tears. Red lets Piscatella go free, and he is immediately shot leaving the bunker. He is the takeover’s only fatality. I wish I could tell you that I cared about his death, but I don’t.
Buses line up outside the prison, and inmates are separated randomly before being put into each. Chosen and found families are broken up from each other, emotional support systems lost for who knows how long. Alison and Janae are worried that they haven’t found Taystee, Cindy, or Suzanne among the masses outside. Lorna frantically looks outside the bus windows for Nicky. It’s the separation of Maritza and Flaca that hits the hardest; Maritza frantically pleading and Flaca choking out sobs as they say their parting words to each other: “I love you”.
The second Daya ended up with a gun in her hand at the end of season four, we’ve been on a timer that was barreling toward this. None of these women’s lives will be the same after this riot, and it’s safe to assume that that none of the changes that they are about to face will be for the better. This was always going to be the price of their fleeting found freedom.
The women in the bunker weigh their options. They heard the gun shot that killed Piscatella and they know their time has come. Nicky wishes she was high for this, and I am so thankful that she is not. Freida gives them their only option: Stand together with dignity.
And really, wasn’t that what all of this was about?
1. Replace all the current guards with properly trained professionals
2. Reinstate the GED program
3. Better Health Care
4. Amnesty for all involved, providing there were no hostage fatalities
5. An end to arbitrary, degrading searches and the misuse of solitary confinement
6. Fair work opportunities, No discrimination, Basic Internet access
7. The arrest and trial of CO Bayley for the death of inmate Poussey Washington
8. Quality of Life Improvements, including: the implementation of conjugal visits, Hot Cheetos and Takis available in the commissary, free tampons in medical, and healthier food for all.
That’s it. That’s what they were fighting for. To be respected and treated with basic common decency while they are incarcerated. And for this, they lost what little they already had. For many of them, they lost each other.
Cindy lifts Taystee off of the floor. They stand alongside Gloria, Freida, Piper, Alex, Nicky, Suzanne, Red, and Flores, arm in arm. They are all bracing for whatever happens. I am terrified for them. A flash bomb busts through the bunker. All the women jump back, but still holding together, defiant.
And that’s where we leave them as the screen fades to orange.
I want to be able to tell you that I am glad I decided to come back to Orange is the New Black after last year. I want to end this review saying how glad I am that the producers and writer’s room learned their lessons.
I can’t say any of those things. Thirteen hours of television later, and season five’s cliffhanger ends nearly exactly as season four: with women, many of whom are queer, many of whom are of color, in peril and facing a unknown future. Instead of grounding this season in a fight for social justice, they gleefully reveled in unnecessary violence and humiliation. They wrote lovingly of the white men who abused and raped and killed. The writers once again focused on appeasing their own privileged guilt on the backs of the vulnerable women that they created.
Riese started this season’s recaps with a plea that Orange is the New Black diversify their writer’s room. It was a conversation that many queer women of color fans had last summer and a critique that has been echoed a lot in the reviews this year on Autostraddle. I am going to end our time together by adding my name to the chorus. The writers of Orange is the New Black played a role in redefining the most recent wave of television. They created the first breakout streaming hit. And they did it on their own terms. They’re generally smart, at times hilarious, and have given us a story about women that we’ve never seen addressed in mainstream media. On top of that, the show has launched the careers of countless talented, civically engaged women of color. But there is a profound void in their team.
The choice to honor the Black Lives Matter movement by killing off a beloved black character as opposed to, you know, actually allowing her to live is an example of what can happen without having representative voices in the room. Having a group of black women participate in the auctioning off of a white inmate on a slavery block is an example what can happen without having voices in the room. Having Latina inmates gleefully sexually abuse their hostages is an example of what can happen without having voices in the room. Dedicating an entire season to a prison riot without ANY clear plan of how to justly conclude the arc is an EXAMPLE OF WHAT CAN HAPPEN WITHOUT HAVING VOICES IN THE ROOM.
I ask you, did Poussey’s death and the subsequent riot change one person’s mind about the broken prison system in this country? If you made it through first four seasons of Orange is the New Black, I would bet that you had already come to that conclusion without this most recent foray into white guilt and torture porn.
I said it last summer, and I will say it again. I will say it anytime anyone mentions this once great, now unimaginably painful, show to me:
Poussey Washington Deserved Better Than To Be Their Martyr.
May she forever Rest in Power.