ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK Review: Episodes 1-5

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There’s no denying that things had to change after the ending of the fourth season of . Having been left with the death of a beloved character, and a literal riot, it only makes sense that the levity and sweetness of the show would be replaced by a sense of darkness and urgency. That being said, this season is hard. It almost feels like a different show, even though it is still the familiar halls of Litchfield, with faces we have grown to love over four years. However, too much of the focus of season five is on other characters and stories, harder ones, crueler ones, whiter ones; making this season much harder to digest that the ones that came before it.

Picking up the moment season four left off, with Daya (Dascha Polanco) pointing a gun at a guard, the beginning of season five is a messy and violent story of a riot. The whole season takes place over the three days after Daya got the gun. It’s essentially a 13 episode bottle episode. Five episodes in, the weight of that is already beginning to show. Though there are a few standout moments, the time seems to drag. The obvious reason for this could be the literally time constraint placed on this season, but the more likely cause is how much of the time the chooses to give to each character.

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One of the standout characters of the whole series, and this season especially is that of Taystee, portrayed by the brilliant Danielle Brooks. Having just lost her best friend, there is a deep sadness and urgency in every line she delivers. She is demanding justice for her Poussey, while not having time to grieve her, and the agony is more than apparent in every move that Taystee makes. It’s incredible season one’s comic relief turned into the most emotional and poignant performance in the whole show. Every minute of the riot spent with Taystee makes sense. Her emotional arc is a hard one, but it’s one that is human, real, and tender.

However, the minutes spent with Taystee amount to about the same time as we get with a group of three neonazis that only showed up last season. It’s a mistake that the show makes over and over again, especially in season five, where they focus so much screen time on purely despicable characters. Though there is something to be gained from that device when used occasionally (Pennsatucky’s [Taryn Manning] arc comes to mind), but when used over and over again, it just gives more screen time to the oppressors rather than those targeted by the system. It’s not just the nazis, it’s the cringe inducing scenes of inmates torturing the prison guards, it’s the adventures of the two white meth heads, it’s a subplot entire devoted to one of the hostage’s bowel movements. With every one of these plots that focus on the unlikable and cringe worthy (and all white) characters, it’s a missed opportunity to tell the story of someone who has been hurt by the system. It makes me long for the days when Piper (Taylor Schilling) was the most obliviously privileged person on this show.

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One of the most moving scenes in the fifth season so far is the reason behind the title of the fifth episode, “Sing It, White Effie.” It follows young Janae Watson (Journee Brown), a character sadly overlooked since season one, as she gets shown around a private, fancy and very white school. The last stop on her tour of the school is of the musical theater program where they are mounting a of Dreamgirls, with an all-white cast. Janae watches as white Effie sings the emotional crux of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” her thin white voice failing to capture any of the role’s feeling or even talent. To the world of the school, this is their singer. They don’t “see color,” because they choose not to, don’t see how making Dreamgirls white is in opposition to everything the show stands for. In this moment, tears start to fall down Janae’s face as she sees first hand how white people take every scrap they can from black people. The tour guide notices her face and says, “I know, it’s so moving, right?” Janae just looks on as white Effie finishes butchering Janae’s culture.

This scene is so powerful, because unlike the rest of the season so far, it takes the focus back on people who have been jilted by the system. Furthermore, it focuses on small human moments that are somehow life changing. This experience in the theater informs so much of Janae’s philosophy, and we got it all in this small simple scene. Orange is the New Black is at it’s best when it delves into these characters and shows them as human women who have been hurt by society. Unfortunately, in the first five episodes of season five, those moments are few and far between. For every Janae in the auditorium, there are five scenes of the guards being tortured, or the neonazis holding an auction to buy Judy King. The focus has shifted in this season to something much more gruesome and violence. While, of course, this is a prison riot, and there is no way to delve into it without violence and hard to watch moments, the show almost seems to loose that tenderness that makes it so exceptional in the first place.

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At the ends of “Sing it, White Effie,” Taystee gives a rousing speech to the reporters outside the prison. It speaks the injustice that lead to Poussey’s death, and the system of Litchfield that never looks out for “poor people, brown people, or poor brown people.” Full grown Janae (Vicky Jeudy) watches this speech, and tears form in her eyes again, seeing this black woman speak out against everything they’ve faced. It gives Janae hope for the first time since we’ve known her, and it emphasizes even more that these are the stories the show should focus one; these are the ones that land and bring out emotion in these characters. With eight episodes left in the season, hopefully it can return to these moments that make Orange is the New Black stand out.

TB-TV-Grade-B-

Season 5, Episodes 1-5 (S05E01-05)
Orange is the New Black is now streaming on Netflix

Read all of our reviews of Orange is the New Black here. 
Read our reviews of more of your favorite shows here.


Raina spends most of her time watching television and trying to find the perfect bagel and lox, because she likes being emotionally distraught.
Follow Raina on Twitter: @ItsRainaingMen
Keep up with all of Raina’s reviews here.

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