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. I watched 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 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 episode. 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.
great review carmen, thank you.
Thank you Carmen for watching this and then writing about it.
I can’t believe I thought this show was so great on season 1 for how it was “tricking” us white people by using the boring white lead as a Trojan horse to tell the lives of women of colour.
When Poussey died, I cried harder than I’ve ever cried in front of my tv, and I swore that I’d never watch a single episode of this tv show ever again.
Still, I appreciate that Autostraddle is giving us a space to talk about it. I’ve read all the recaps/ reviews and all of them consolidated my choice not to watch this season.
This is so right on every count and so good. Thank you. <3
Great review, CP. and you make an excellent point about Weeds
YES! This was all written so well. Beautifully well!
Thank you for writing this and also for assuaging my FOMO about never finishing Weeds.
I didn’t watch this season, but just from the recaps it really irritated me that Piper and Alex were even in that final scene. It sounded like they were utterly useless all season and then showed up just to look bold at the end?
I need more Danielle Brooks in my life. May she get a million roles and all of them better than this series.
Yeah I never finished watching Weeds too
Right Piper has connections to newspapers and publications on the outside, doesn’t she? Couldn’t she have used those to the benefit of the prisoners?? Instead she just philosophized about grandmas reading about it. Ugh she has influence why didn’t she use it…
I don’t remember the last few seasons of weeds to well, just remember I was kind of feeling weird about the ending.
Side note does the death of Piscatella count as bury your gay trope or the fact he was an awful officer negate all that?
A (VERY) rightfully critical yet somehow still respectful review. I’m sad this show has caused so much pain. It used to be so magnificent… It’s like witnessing a peaceful field of rare wildflowers be crushed to pulp under the thick-soled boots of men too blind to recognise its beauty.
The tragedy of this show is how we are supposed to fawn over representation, but that means nothing if every line is supposed to either shock the viewer or make some ham handed point. I’m sorry but I think the writing was abysmal.
Art has an obligation to be done well in cases like these; it has an obligation to capture reality and not to simply sensationalize a very real world. But maybe that’s what the white writers see: social justice as a means for producing tear jerking drama, and not as a goal in itself that produces life or death outcomes.
By the way, I know almost no non-queer and non-cis-male people who watch this show. And everyone else I know who watches it is disappointed. Who is the target audience? Who is this for?
“Art has an obligation to be done well in cases like these; it has an obligation to capture reality and not to simply sensationalize a very real world.”
This is a sentence I’m going to keep for a very long time.
fantastic critical review. i’m glad you covered not just the frustration of being a viewer for this whole season, but also the stuff that did and didn’t work writing-wise.
one thing i didn’t get in this whole episode was why everyone was running. like, why did nicky run from the swat team? wouldn’t the best survival strategy be to just lie down with hands up? i could understand taystee not trusting that they still wouldn’t see her as a threat or shoot her for being a leader, but i really didn’t get it with the rest of the inmates.
i can NOT agree with you more that the white supremacist / latina last stand was utterly pointless. are we meant to cheer for literal nazis?? and then they get wrapped up to be removed but then when they exit the prison they are just walking around like anyone else. i was hoping them being bundled up would mean they at least would be sent elsewhere and not be on the show anymore.
I’m excited to read your recaps (and whatever else you might write) in the future, Carmen.
And thank you very much to you and all the other reviewers at Autostraddle for taking the time to write about this show and address its creators’ deeply problematic decisions, rather than choosing to ignore it and only focusing on the shows that do get it right and are generally less heartbreaking. It would have been easier – and very understandable – yet it would also have prevented a much-needed space for intelligent and perceptive criticism and a clear message of ‘This is not OK’.
This website is simply unequaled.
Thank you, Rous Rose!
I’m sure I speak on behalf on other writers on the AS team when I say that we appreciate having readers like you (and so many others) who are willing to engage and think critically with us!
i always feel torn, when people argue that more people of color should be in the police force and yet poc police still gun down minorities on the street. we insist that there should be more women writers and yet here is this heaping pile of crap presented to us BY women. We insist that queer writers should tell our stories and I can’t believe some of the stuff Lee Daniels puts forth about qwoc or the stuff Ilene Chaiken releases. I just don’t know.
The white washed Stonewall movie was by openly gay director Roland Emmerich…
and what a mess that was too
Emmerich’s Stonewall isn’t surprising because he’s just another cis white gay man erasing QTPOC from history.
Lee Daniels and Ilene Chaiken are more surprising disappointments, because they can’t even refrain from fucking up stories about people who share their respective identities. I’d also add True Blood creator Alan Ball to that list. That show was horrible for queer people…
Thank you to you and all the other writers for soldiering through this. The only thing worse than the writers killing Poussey to send a message is for them to then get that message wrong. If they spent this season fostering sympathy for a violent police state, making jokes about slavery and white supremacists, and continuing to torture people of color, then they have missed the point entirely.
It’s so disappointing. When OITNB started, with its cast full of black women and queer women and queer black women, I thought, finally, I’d found a show that wanted to cater to me. It seems so obvious now that that was never the case – Piper is the main character, and Piper is the audience. OITNB is for wealthy white women who have no reason to fear going to prison, who have not had their families and futures devastated by mass incaceration, and who want to be (GENTLY) enlightened without being forced to engage with their privilege in any meaningful way. It is PEAK white fragility. It is a BARE MINIMUM level of engagement for people who don’t actually want to do the work. A crash course in race relations for those who never had to learn in the real world.
WHEW I am het up lol. Thank you all for providing this space.
Thank you for both this review/recap and the previous ones.
I have not watched OITNB this season. I spent a very long time crying, feeling sad and angry and mourning one of my favourite characters, one of the few characters I’ve related to in my life. She was killed to teach white people that hey, killing black people is wrong and here’s why! And I can tell you, as a white woman, I already know that black people deserve to live just as much as anyone, and the people who need the reminder are not going to be watching a programme about lesbian WoC in prison.
I told myself after the last season that I would never watch this programme again. Something that has made me cry so much, made other people cry so much, added another dead queer PoC to the list…it doesn’t deserve my time.
Thank you for recapping this. Sometimes I’d wish that I’d had watched it, but I would always realise that the programme I loved is long dead. I hope they listen. There needs to be more diversity in the writers’ room because this is shameful.
I’m sorry this is a bit of an essay. I’ve been thinking about this a lot as Netflix has been trying to shove this season down my throat because I watched the others. Well, Netflix, I counted down to the previous seasons but I completely forgot when this one was coming out. Spend less money on Adam Sandler “movies” and invest in a diverse writing team. Thanks.
Thank you for these recaps. Between this and Pretty Little Liars I am grateful to be able to read critical recaps here for shows I can’t bear to watch anymore.
I’m a little nervous about posting what might be construed as a dissenting opinion, so I’ll start with saying that this is a good article that brings up a lot of concerns and fair points. Thanks to Carmen Phillips for writing it, as I’ve been chewing over it all day and made me think much more critically about the show.
What I want to comment about, though, is the question of: What stories do we want to see? Because I feel as though there’s a lot of contradictory opinions in these comments and (understandable) pain and confusion. It seems that, unfortunately, more often than not when we have a queer writing team and/or queer stories we are disappointed and hurt and rage. I worry that we’re cornering ourselves. If a story has no conflict, the reaction is that queer characters are being sidelined or made to be bland pieces of toast with no character development. If a story has a lot of conflict and moral complexity, we’re in pain when our characters are in pain. My biggest concern is that we’re letting our personal anxieties (that bigotry will influence the story and we’ll either be pushed out of the story or used as a morality tale/cheap bury your gays drama) interfere with our ability to navigate these stories, which enhances the power of studios and creative people to push queer characters and writers out of the process. I sobbed when Poussey died, but should I shun queer writers because they made me love her so much? This is a concern pointed at the commentary and reactions. I apologize if I am being out of line. I am trying to process this season of OitNB and other mainstream queer media myself, and it’s a line of questioning that has been bothering me. What do I want to see? What’s the right way forward for queer writers?
Sidenote: For full transparency, I realize that I have bias in that I have a soft spot for the show. It got my white Republican in-laws to come out against the private prison industry, so… small victories.
Thank you for posting this. I always get nervous when I go against the majority opinion as well so I get it
Hey @squirrelsrevolt– I want to start by saying: Thank you for your response. I’m still very new at this, so it’s really great to hear that someone let my words sit with them all day and think about them. I think that’s the kind of reaction that most writers (or at least I can speak for myself here) strive for.
To answer your question honestly, I don’t know. And, it’s something that I struggle with as well.
I think there’s a danger of saying that “any blanket representation works”- as other commentators pointed out upthread, all we have to do is look at the work of Ilene Chaiken puts forth to see that isn’t true. She has written some of the most ill-advised queer women’s plots on television. Conversely, there are moments within OITNB, particularly the earlier seasons, that are shining examples of what a writer’s room can do even when those writers don’t represent the same race/gender/sexuality of the characters they are writing.
That said, there is an overlap about what blindspots occur when there is NO ONE in the room is either: a) of the group they are writing about and b) taking time to carefully research/ interview/ call in outside opinions of those groups when no one in the room can provide those points of view.
In season 2, OITNB wrote a backstory for Gloria that involved the Afro-Latino religion Santería. No one in their writer’s room that I am aware of is Latino. And no one in the room practices that religion, so they hired an outside consultant for that episode. That’s an example of being responsible to your own blind spots in a writer’s room.
Not to plug my own work, but I also this week wrote a review of the Black Lives Matter themed episode of “Queen Sugar”. This a writer’s room that is majority black and/or people of color, and they put forth one of the strongest episodes addressing the BLM movement. One of the reasons that they were able to do that is because rather focus on sensationalizing violence, they zeroed in on the emotional arc of what happens to a black person when they are stopped by the police, and then also provided another POV of community activists who are fighting back- again doing research of actual grassroots strategies that have been effective. You can read my thoughts about that here: https://www.autostraddle.com/queen-sugar-gets-its-black-lives-matter-storytelling-right-384286/
My problem with OITNB is that they have obvious blind spots in their writer’s room, and they have made no moves in recent years to correct them. If I was the showrunner on a breakout television hit with a 50% Latina and black cast, I would make it my business to at least hire some writers who can help me appropriately navigate parts of those cultures that I know little about. At the very least, when I decided that my majority white writer’s room was going address Black Lives Matter directly, I would be careful about doing the appropriate research of how to best represent it in a way that didn’t cause further trauma to my black audience.
In the first season of “Transparent”, there were no trans writers. Part of the problem was that there were few trans writers who were union ready to begin with. So showrunner Jill Soloway hired trans consultants for the first season. She then implemented a training camp of sorts to get union ready trans writers, and hired some of those women on her staff. When Jenji Kohan (the showrunner of OITNB) was presented with that model, she made fun of it! See here: http://jezebel.com/creators-of-oitnb-and-transparent-butt-heads-at-new-yor-1645663247
So I guess my point here is, no I don’t think we should box ourselves in by saying “only X people can write about X things”. But, I also think we have to call out those people who” are made up of group Y and are writing about X things badly”. They are making decisions that are just irresponsible from a cultural or political POV, but are also lazy from a writing craft POV.
If someone was to write a story about being a chef, for example, then it’s going to be expected that they learned the basics of what that job entails so that they can best represent it in their work. If someone is writing a television show about privatized prisons, they are going to be expected to have learned the very basic 1-2-3 of the ups and downs of the prison industrial complex. Otherwise their work would be laughably bad and called out immediately.
I am saying the same thing here, if a writer decides to take on sensitive issues about a specific civil rights movement, then they should be expected to do the legwork to back it up. What the writers of OITNB did was write about it without getting into the headspace of those characters and the basic facts of what the BLM movement is calling for. Why would anyone who did the research think that the best way to honor Black LIFE Matters is by KILLING an incredibly popular black character? Why would anyone who did the research think that killing a black queer woman to honor a political movement dedicated to LIFE, that was actually founded by black queer woman, was the right direction to take the show? And even if they did decide on that path, why would they take the entire next season and allow it to devolve so sloppily and with little regard to the social justice that is at the core of BLM?
The only conclusion I come to is that they didn’t value it enough to do their proper research and get the necessary help that they needed as writers. That they didn’t think it was important to take care. And I think that they deserve to be held accountable for that.
Thank you for the really well thought out response and examples (and for linking your other article – just saw it and looking forward to it). This is why I come here! I agree that it’s dangerous to say that any representation works, but sometimes I need to be reminded. I’ve been struggling to balance that truth in my mind with my kneejerk feelings about wanting ANY media to address these issues. With OitNB specifically, what really had things click for me is everything you’ve written about consultation and diversity in the writing room. It was absolutely a confusing wasted opportunity on the writers part by not inviting others into the process. I feel as though I understand the discussion around this show better, and I appreciate the patience (and the solidarity on my question – I have no idea! But at least we’re asking it? And hopefully we’ll get more people to create and create and tell the stories they need to tell).
Majestic response. Impressive
I really don’t understand what was meant to be gained from the onslaught of escalating horrors and attacks on women and QTPOC, but I’m relieved to have skipped out on watching it first hand. These reviews have been wonderful, but, hoo boy, these episodes sound like torture to watch, and don’t seem to have done much good for the characters we love.
Seriously, though…what was the point of all this?
“Seriously, though…what was the point of all this?”
^^^ The million dollar question. After watching this season fully, I only wish I knew the answer.