When Dan Savage came up with the “It Gets Better” campaign for LGBTQ youth, little did he know that those three little words would apply so perfectly to episodes six through nine of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. It was a relief, as this middle stretch of episodes shifted back to backstories of characters we like, and further away from men being trapped in port-a-potties. It was not a seamless transition, and some of the larger issues presented in the first five episodes still unfortunately ring true. Despite this, though, the middle of the season shifts focus back to the right characters, making these episodes much more digestible, and occasionally enjoyable.
When the fifth episode ended with Taystee (Danielle Brooks) making a speech about the prisoners reclaiming their own stories, the arc of the season entirely shifted. This reclamation didn’t just involve the inmates of Litchfield, but it involved the nuanced and full fledged characters finally getting their due. Making Taystee front and center is the best move that Orange is the New Black has made this season. She’s compelling by a combination of grief and a need for justice, and has been delegated to a background player for too long.
“Flaming Hot Cheetos, Literally,” the best episode of the season at this point, gives us background into Taystee’s family life, showing her meeting her birth mother, being promised a home and then being ultimately rejected. It’s a heartbreaking story, which is echoed in the present of the governor’s office trying to bribe the Litchfield inmates with Hot Cheetos and Takis. Despite references to the excellent viral video, Taystee soon realizes that the Hot Cheetos and Takis are as empty of a gesture as her birth mother’s invite. She is flanked by Janae (Vicky Jeudy) and Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), but is also joined by an unlikely ally: the almost forgotten once protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling).
The team up of Taystee and Piper is one of the better choices the show has made so far, as they let Taystee take the reigns and Piper be her “white girl with a cause” sidekick. In these past five season it’s remarkable how Taystee went from being comic relief to the heart of the show, and Piper went from being the center of the show to essentially comic relief. She excels in that role as well, with Schilling excellently flexing her comedic muscles, while still being a helpful voice in the inmates’ cause. They end the episode united as a group, showing the governor’s office that they will not accept bribes, as they light the titular flaming hot cheetos on fire. It’s a striking visual to say the least, with the cheetos immediately taking to the flame. More than a visual or clever wordplay, this move gives us someone to root for again. Whether or not most people watching the show like it, Piper has always been representational of the majority of people watching Orange is the New Black. It’s no coincidence that when she finally finds a cause to rally around, the audience is also sucked into that cause. Watching those cheetos set ablaze ignited a dormant passion for this show. We have someone to root for now.
The episode ends with a simply heartbreaking flashback. Once Taystee is in Litchfield, she meets her true family in the form of Poussey (Samira Wiley). They are introduced to each other in the same way they were to the audience, in a shared joy of making fun of white ladies. Watching their first interaction and knowing how much they will grow to love each other, and what eventually becomes of Poussey, is beautiful and pure and tragic. It’s even more clear that Taystee lost the person she cared about the most and she will not stop until she has justice. The memory of Poussey fuels some of the best moments of the season, such as when Piper and Taystee try to get the inmates to make an art project in her honor. It leads a lovely moment between Taystee & Soso (Kimiko Glenn), where their grief finally manifests in camaraderie instead of rivalry, from an art piece that Soso makes for Poussey. It’s a connection between two characters who are so far apart, but both loved the same woman. It’s interactions like these that reminds us why this show is so good at what it does with character.
Of course, amid these good moments, there are still glaring inconsistencies. There is a plot of meth head versus Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) that is cringeworthy, and wholly unnecessary as of now. There is still far too much screentime given to the nazis, and though it is less so, there are still individuals trapped in port a potties. Comparing this stretch of episodes to the last one, it’s easy to draw to the conclusion that Orange is the New Black has found its footing midway through the season. However, comparing it to the previous seasons, season five is still vastly uneven.
Episode nine, “The Tightening,” an homage to horror film, ended on an appropriate for the genre cliffhanger, of Red (Kate Mulgrew) being face to face with the murderous Piscatella (Brad William Henke), ready to fight a fight that will probably not end in her favor. Meanwhile, Taystee is still trying to negotiate after everything has gone to hell. Both these plots could easily end with our beloved characters being shot down, or worse, but even in these dire circumstances there is a want for the, to succeed. Finally, five episodes later, the show gave us people to root for, and characters to love, and that’s what makes it worth watching in the first place.
Season 5, Episodes 6-9 (S05E06-09)
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