This is Part One of a review in-progress for the sixth season of Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black. This review covers episodes one through three.
*Some spoilers ahead*
The Riot’s Over
It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since Orange is the New Black (OITNB) left us with the inmates of Litchfield crammed into busses, their new lives in maximum security waiting down the hill. Much has been said about season five’s risky decision to confine its story to a span of three days. Plenty felt the pacing was off, justifiably so, as many episodes would pass before the conclusion of menial character arcs, and the near over-reliance on the show’s staple novelistic approach to storytelling via flashbacks. Season five relied heavily on those flashbacks to fill the spaces between the bursts of violence and revelation during the riot, it’s true, but what the truncated time-frame allowed the show to do was put its extensive cast of wonderfully realized characters into noticeable action.
For every lengthy flashback during season five, we were treated to tantalizing bits of character development; normally explained away with a chat in a prison bunk between confidants, now as a rousing monologue before news cameras behind a massive pile of burning junk-food. The anger and humanitarian concerns following both the MCC acquisition of Litchfield Prison and Poussey’s death reached a breaking point in season four, and the galvanizing violence that erupted against the COs made season five not only congruent with the themes of the show up to that point, but undeniably refreshing as a shake-up to the achingly slow pace and structural predictability of seasons two through four. By giving Dayanara that gun in season four’s closing moments, season five was able to hit the reset button on a show that was in trouble of becoming stale – derivative of itself. That didn’t work for everybody, understandably so, but seeing this huge cast of characters interact with one another of their own accord was well worth any storytelling contrivances. They are, after all, what makes this show so endlessly watchable in the first place. But, as Caputo points out early on in season five, riots don’t end well – they never end well.
Now in season six, with the anxiety of the riot’s conclusion retreating to a slight consolation for the viewer, we’re back with our favorite prison troupe and all of their vibrant eccentricities. Now those characters and their narratives have a new central arc to revolve around. Season five, whatever you think of it, has allowed season six to plot a new course in a new setting with an entirely new set of conflicts to resolve. And that’s what’s most apparent from the jump – that OITNB has some of its mojo back.
“Who Knows Better Than I”
Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 54m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Michael Trim
The episode opens dark, into unfamiliar territory. We aren’t in the minimum security compound anymore, or what prisoners and COs refer to as the “camp up the hill.”
We’re in max, general population or “Gen-Pop.” To better illustrate this transition we see it first through Suzanne’s eyes in a wonderful bit of creative interpretation. Suzanne has been deprived of her medication and is sinking back into episodes of delusion, reality warping around her in fanciful ways. To get acquainted with the new normal of maximum security, we the audience view it at first as an innocent bit of theater. Dayanara is brutalized by COs, a vengeful reaction to the death of CO Humphrey in the previous season. Now, more than ever, are the inmates and their overseers segregated by ideology. We see Nichols performing a bit of stand-up as a dog, displaying her tendency for witty obfuscation, and Frieda Berlin performing a “magic trick”, which we later discover was a legitimate suicide attempt. Oh, and there’s a funny bit with Alex Trebek in response to Piper’s unanswered pleading for the whereabouts of Alex Vause. The show, much like Nichols, has always been disarmingly funny, acerbic and dry when presenting the hardships of incarceration.
This, I think, is the best way to open this new season. Begin with unanswered questions, establish our new norm, and work retroactively to answer those questions without lingering for too long. The first episode gives us enough to digest without answering all of our deepest worries following the last season. The fate of many of our beloved characters are still up in the air, but this first episode gets us re-acquainted with the core cast, enough of them at least, and trudges up the connective tissue linking their current predicament to the aftermath of the riot.
Piper is delightfully deluded and self-absorbed – as she’s always been – and seems set to get knocked down a few pegs further as the season progresses. She wants to know what’s happened to Alex, while the rest of the Litchfield “Camp” alum are keenly focused on number one: themselves. It’s endearing that Piper is concerned about her prison fiancée, as she’s always been troubled on her own, but circumstances are changing for the new members to max – the “cookies” according to Gen-Pop – there will be very real consequences for the riot-organizers, and over the deaths of COs Humphrey and Piscatella, whether the inmates had anything to do with them or not. The Feds and MCC are in deep shit, and are unsurprisingly searching for a scapegoat to end their nasty spat of bad-publicity. This is where OITNB excels: Humanizing those behind bars, and turning a critical eye at those who put them there, while also allowing their humanity to peek through.
We have plenty of new characters, and an almost entirely new cast of COs to watch out for. That this show’s ensemble is growing, but each new addition manages to carve out a place for themselves in the narrative and blend almost seamlessly into the dynamic between the long-time cast, is marvelous. The fear of the unknown, though, is what gives this show its edge.
This first episode is well done. We’re immediately dropped into our new conflict, the pesky Feds and MCC elitists scraping pennies from between fiscal reports. More importantly we get to see Suzanne front and center to inform us that the situation our inmates find themselves in is truly and royally fucked. Suzanne is right to lose her cool over the conflicting stories the ladies try to spread before speaking to the Feds. Everyone is trying to cover something up, in or out of prison (especially if you remember who actually killed Piscatella), and you’d be right to go a little crazy trying to work it all out.
Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 58m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Mark A. Burley
An apt title, as a shitstorm is well and truly underway. The episode opens with our federal agents, the Feds, bickering over “ass”-scented lunch. But more importantly, we’re shown exactly the type of case they’re trying to build against the former inmates of the Camp. On the board in their meeting-room (the CO break-room), we see the faces of Frieda, Cindy, Daya, and Taystee underneath the label “MURDER”. Under “RIOT LEADERS” we see Mendoza, Flores, Nichols, and Piper. Between all of this we see “CHARGES”, two life sentences, and three ten-years extensions. This, it’s made apparent, is what will drive a wedge between our characters, as the Feds don’t seem particularly interested in what really happened, just in closing the case as quickly as possible.
A lot had to transpire to immediately grasp the conflict this investigation presents. OITNB has given us years of backstory to each of these characters; the audience knows why they’re in prison, what they have waiting on the outside, and who they ally themselves with inside and why. The relationships in OITNB are predicated on a kind of pragmatic moral-coding. Right and wrong shift according to the usefulness of a specific character at a specific time, in relation to every other character they come across. Very few of them wouldn’t sell out the other for a delayed prison stay, and some are arguably close enough to take a fall on behalf of another. These are the complexities that stain the viewer’s subconscious when one character, say Cindy, is asked to offer testimony against Taystee, arguably her closest friend in prison.
We also understand that the value these characters hold, even in their own eyes, are tied intrinsically to the prison itself. Take Caputo, barking at loud neighbors while watching “dinosaur-cock” porn in his living room, tenderly cradling a box of cereal. On suspension from MCC due to his mishandling of the riot (let’s not argue whether his heart was in the right place, facts are facts), he has literally nothing to do. Everyone he talks to say the same thing – look man, you got your money, an easy out for the PR nightmare engulfing MCC, just take it and be happy. But, as we all know, Caputo is not a happy man, though he may try his damnedest to turn the other way – that pesky conscience of his keeps acting up.
This episode, however, has more to do with loyalty or – more specifically – responsibility. We discover Cindy was a young mother, but chose to care for herself rather than her child. This is juxtaposed with her responsibility to cover for Taystee, and she very nearly does, save for one fatal slip of the tongue. We also see Doggett in the trunk of Coates’ car, smuggled away from the prison the day the riot was shuttered. These two feel a responsibility toward one another, which is handled well enough, but more surprising is that fellow CO and hostage, Dixon, feels responsible (however misguided) in ensuring that Coates is allowed time to process his trauma as a prisoner. Dixon seems to have some experience here, mentioning briefly his own experience with Trauma and of being a former soldier. Though it’s comedic, considering Doggett’s pining for Slim-Jims and Temple Run in the trunk, it’s a quick endearment to one of the more villainous characters of the last two seasons.
That’s what this show likes to do. Present a character as one way, and dive into them. For the audience the character may seem to change over time, and sometimes they do, but in reality it’s the audience’s perception of those characters that changes. Layers, people. It makes for better television.
Piper’s responsibility to her prison-fiancée is driving a wedge in her ability to discern between the versions of herself. She’s suffering an existential crisis, no longer able to clearly identify the Piper outside of prison from the Piper inside. Add to this her new bunk-mate in Ad-Seg, an older woman of a quieter demeanor – like the nervous Piper of the first few seasons. That the woman seems approachable, broken even, endears Piper to her, but it’s revealed later that the woman is in max for killing her children. Which appearances can we trust? What roles are they to portray?
While this is happening, the Feds are turning people against one another. Flores and Mendoza agree to throw Ruiz under the bus as the organizer of the riot. Isolation and backstabbing. Not unfamiliar tactics for the show, but now with far greater consequences. These aren’t petty rivalries playing out, not as far as the “cookies” are concerned, but massive life-altering decisions.
This all serves to reinvigorate the show in ways seasons three and four tried to with their long-game approach to real-world commentary. Now, after season five lit the whole thing on fire, we finally feel some commentary relevant to the stakes of the show.
“Look Out for Number One”
Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 50m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Erin Feeley
Old rivalries are buried while older rivalries burn on endlessly. That’s the tale of the tape here in the third episode. What is possibly the best use of flashback in several seasons, introduces and explains a conflict that is sure to carry on throughout the season – overshadowing even the specter of the riot investigation. Frieda, now on the mend from her suicide attempt and following some careful advice from Red, is seeking a more creative solution to her time in maximum security. It turns out she wasn’t always at the Camp on the hill, she was once involved in a nasty sibling rivalry between two prominent drug-pushers, each occupying a block of the prison. Carol, easily identifiable for her glasses and short-fused temper, runs C-Block. Carol’s sister Barb runs D-Block. To differentiate who belongs to which block, C-Block is clad in navy-blue, while D-Block in the tan we viewers should recognize from Litchfield minimum security.
Things are going to get very, very ugly.
This episode piggybacks off the themes of responsibility and loyalty from the last, and shows just how dangerous those allegiances can be when pitted against one another. I’ll avoid spoiling how Frieda got in trouble in max, or where she winds up in this episode, but it has potential. Everyone else, it seems, is at the mercy of their new relationships. Cookies from the Camp find each other and stay together, but this block-to-block rivalry could pit them against one another again, further dividing them over the riot.
Soon it’ll be every woman for herself as the Feds’ inquisition persists. From the PR side of things, Fig (taking over for Caputo) and Linda (freshly released from her wrongful imprisonment) have to start managing the bad press over the riot and MCC’s handling of it. These women have more in common than their exposure to the soda-can. Both career oriented, they may yet make a formidable pair, especially considering their efforts will undoubtedly be to run with the false-narrative surrounding the deaths of Litchfield COs and the riot-leaders themselves. Linda shows hints of a conscious under that new wig of hers, but we’ll see. This show doesn’t want us knowing everything about anyone too early or too often.
And here’s where the central drama starts to unfold. Red is desperate to get the remnants of her prison family to agree on a narrative. It’s important to recall that barely any of the woman taken into maximum security know of Piscatella’s death. A game of telephone ensues as Red tries to send out the information, using new semi-ally and C-Block gossip queen, Badison (real name Madison). Nichols understands, but Piper does not, leading to incriminating testimony against Red.
While all of this is happening, as if enough wasn’t already happening, Dayanara and her compatriots in D-Block are dealing with their Badison equivalent, Daddy, who has taken a liking to Dayanara and offered her Oxycontin to help deal with the pain of her many CO-beatings. Daddy doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere.
That the show can continuously juggle this many narratives this concisely, while still allowing two major arcs to emerge from all of the character-drama, is commendable. Dialogue in the last few seasons, specifically three and four, felt stilted and weighed down by its overt political commentary. Here, however, the characters are each on the backs of their feet – up against the wall. What they say matters now, because every action they take in service of themself or someone else has real consequences. That isn’t to say that the show is more serious this time around, just more believably so.
After three episodes, season six looks to be as good as seasons one and two in terms of quick, character driven plotting, sharp dialogue, and the oh-so-essential parallels between the people in prison and the people running it.
I’m hooked. The acting is, as always, fantastic. Direction and plotting have always been shaky with this show, but as of right now, it feels lively and imbued with a newly-minted sense of forward momentum. Those orange end-cards are sneaking up on me now. For the first time in a few years I’m genuinely invested in the show. Let’s hope it stays that way.