I’ve been searching far and wide, under bunks, in port-a-potties, in a hidden pool under a prison, but I have yet to find the thousands of awards Danielle Brooks deserves for this season of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. It cannot be overstated how much Taystee Jefferson saves the season and this show. Despite it’s large white supremacist-shaped flaws, season five of Orange is the New Black does an exceptional job of showing the arc of grief in Taystee. Her actions are beautifully flawed and her heart is beautifully broken. It’s the best part of this shaky season, and what holds the family of Litchfield together.
The last four episodes of this season of Orange is the New Black are definitely better than the beginning stretch of this season, though they do fall into the same pitfalls that befell the whole season. A big change in the latter half of the season, however, is that the hardship and uncomfortable moments feel more effective than they did earlier on. A big part of that is that in the middle of the season, we are shown softer moments of the show once more, as opposed to just the hard parts. Then, at the end, when the hardness comes back in, when the situation is dire, there is a need to cling onto the tenderness of the characters.
A big thread and source of much stress toward the end of this season is the resurgence of Piscatella. Episode nine ended with him capturing Red and her “family”, and we pick up with an incredibly hard to watch sequence of him taking her down a peg. It’s cruel and it’s hard, as he has everyone she loves tied up, and is on a mission to destroy her. It’s reminiscent of the first few episodes of the show, of wanting to cover your eyes and not see these inhuman things. However, there has been a big shift since then. Though this incredibly hard torture scene is still unnecessarily gruesome and not the best direction the show could take, it hurts so much because we care about Red, and Nicky, and Boo, and Piper and Alex. The cruelty of Piscatella is still there, but the juxtaposition of him with the emotion of the characters he is hurting makes the scene hold weight, even if it feels unbearable at times.
Additionally, the harshness of Piscatella leads to one of the most satisfying moments of the season, where he is taken down a peg by the women who have been camping out in the secret pool below the prison. They take a video of him torturing Red and post it online before leading him down to the pool where they shoot him with a poison dart courtesy of Frieda. It’s all almost unbelievable, but so gratifying to see him literally go down, that it makes it all worth it.
It also all leads to people on the outside viewing the video, and staging a protest outside Litchfield. It’s finally enough pressure for the governor’s office to give into Taystee and the prisoners demands. All but one, that is, the one they have no legal control over. They cannot prosecute Bailey for the murder of Poussey. Seeing Taystee’s reaction to getting her demands, but not the one thing she rioted for – the one thing she negotiated for, the one thing her grief tells her she needs – is crushing. They are so close to reaching a compromise, and all logic points to the fact that they should, but logic is not going to grant justice for Poussey. Though we can hope otherwise in the moment, as soon as Taystee hears that they cannot meet that demand, we know it’s over.
The choice not to comply is a big reason why Taystee is the best part of the show. It’s not the “right” decision, but it’s so completely understandable for everything her character has been through. She’s such a good character because her caring and love can be a strength and a downfall, but not for a moment does she stop being someone to root for. In the finale, Taystee goes down to the pool and sees Piscatella tied up, and she yells at him for being the cause of Poussey’s murder. The yelling turns into crying, and suddenly, she’s breaking down in the center of the pool, being held by Cindy, entirely exposed to the world. It’s the crowning moment of the episode, and again, shows how and her and her grief are much more powerful than the violence and harshness of this prison.
Speaking of violence and harshness, there comes a choice that has seemed inevitable almost all season: the prison is stormed. The penultimate episode ends with men in riot gear coming into Litchfield and showing no humanity as they take everyone out. This season Orange is the New Black dangled hope for reform in front of our faces, and we knew it would never really happen, but it felt good have it anyway. The finale just further cements that this is a bad place and a cruel system.
One of the smaller, but most upsetting moment in the finale is when they are carting the prisoners off in busses to god knows where, and they seperate Floca and Maritza. These two girls who still mostly exist to be silly and have one liners, have one of the purest and most loving friendships on the show. Seeing them be seperated is another stab through the gut about how little the system cares about these people. And again, this moment would not have hit so powerfully if wehadn’t been checking in with the two of them all season, with a comforting dose of comedy and sweetness. Now, in the world of season five, none of that comfort is safe.
The show ends when the armed men finally find the pool, where essentially all the most beloved characters had been staked out. As the men in riot gear burst in, the women clasp hands and brace themselves for the incoming storm. Then it ends. It’s a classic Orange is the New Black cliffhanger, leaving those we love in danger, but it’s a good way to end the season. They are a united front against and enemy that is impossible to beat. Even so, god, do we want them to win.
It’s remarkable how much the show has tonally shifted in five years, not from a comedy to a drama, but more from a lighthearted drama to a full blown tragedy. Rooting for an impossible hero that we know will only perish is the root of all tragedy, and while these women might not die, their freedom is going to, and has been for five years. As a season overall, the tragedy sometimes scewed toward gratitious violence for no reason, and again gave us way too much time with the Nazis, but by the end, through scrapes and stumbles, the show found its humanity and got us to care.
Season 5, Episode 10-13 (S05E10-13)
Orange is the New Black is now streaming on Netflix.
Raina spends most of her time watching television and trying to find the perfect bagel and lox, because she likes being emotionally distraught.
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Raina Deerwater | Contributor