Spoilers for Orange is the New Black.
The fifth season of Orange is the New Black started with a bang. Chaos overtook the prison. This has been escalating steadily since season three. The plotlines have gotten less believable, and the show has been increasingly rooted in fantasies of violent revenge. However, questioning whose fantasy is being played out is what has plagued the show as the show has gotten farther and farther detached from life in prison.
The show continues to be entertaining and filled with charismatic heroes and villains you love to hate. Still, this last season was hard to swallow. It seems that the show forgot that it was about trying to maintain normalcy, relationships, and health while incarcerated, and started being about rebellious women taking back what is theirs. This is a fine story, but it’s a strong deviation from the foundation on which the show started.
Orange is the New Black has always struggled to tell authentic stories. One of the biggest criticism of the show is that it tells the story of black women through a white perspective. While I originally disagreed with that analysis of the show, current events have a way of opening our eyes to what we didn’t want to see before. Orange is the New Black has unfortunately followed in the footsteps of the United States’ most recent presidential election: it emphasized where it failed (and where we all have failed) to an extreme degree.
Shortly after the latest season of OitNB aired, women in federal prisons were granted free access to pads, pantyliners, and tampons. A lack of access has been addressed on OitNB before, but those subplots have mostly given way to trauma porn and romance storylines. In this season, the women took over the prison to protest the murder of Poussey Washington. Though the season only takes place over the course of a few days, many different stories are told. The audience is able to linger on Taystee’s struggle to cope with Poussey’s death and we are also able to explore Alison Abdullah’s backstory and wrap up loose ends with other stories that have been put on the backburner. All of these were positive aspects of the season. Still, Piper, who has largely acted as the lead character throughout the show’s run, and other characters have less thought out storylines.
Piper and Alex’s airtime focuses mainly on their romantic subplot with one another. They are vaguely aware of the issues inside the prison, but stay a degree separated throughout the season. They, and the other characters not directly involved with Taystee’s protest, spend a lot of time sorting through their romantic feelings for one another, get makeovers, sexually harass the guards, and wander through the prison freely.
What is most confusing about the season is the makeover subplots. Most of the characters were begrudgingly made over; there was little agency involved. What had the potential to be war paint for angry, disenfranchised characters was merely make up showing the audience how beautiful all of the actresses are. This culminates in the made over characters in various states of undress being tortured by Piscatella. Then, he cuts Red’s hair.
This scene is very uncomfortable, and I question its purpose. The audience knew Piscatella was bad and capable of horrible things. Was this only to get the satisfaction of Piscatella dying very shortly after? If so, why was this at the expense of the female characters? Moreover, it’s worth noting that Red, an older woman, was tortured by having her head shaved, while Alex, a younger woman, had her arm broken, saving her looks for future seasons and storylines.
That seems to be the show’s strategy: they use the tragedies of women (usually women of color) to make a point. The problem is that the show has failed to say anything new or tell an authentic story. The show rightly assumes that the audience craves justice for the characters, but what the show fails to do is provide its characters with enough agency to take control of their situation. Even when Taystee got close to successfully changing an unfair system, the show took the opportunity from her and then blamed her for it.
This analogous to real life in many ways. The women on the show represent very real oppressed people. It’s a long standing strategy of media to exaggerate to make a point, but what point is OitNB making anymore? It’s rehashing the same lessons season after season while failing to provide us with anything except new jokes and references to real world revolutions. What may have been fresh in 2013 is stale now. OitNB was a large part in helping to shed the stereotype that women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ people are not profitable main characters. But that isn’t enough anymore. The answer is not to keep upping the ante on drama, but rather to provide some introspection, and say something new and relevant to viewers in the world of overt white supremacy, misogyny, and bigotry. Litchfield was scrubbed clean when it should have gotten much, much dirtier.