Sunday, 11 June 2017

Orange is the New Black: Season 5 Review


The day Orange is the New Black premiered on Netflix, I eagerly woke up and tried to avoid spoilers on Twitter until I had enough free time to start binge-watching. I ended up watching the whole season (consisting of 13 episodes in total) in two days. Four seasons in, I assume the audience pretty much had pretty much the same expectations, as we are all used to OITNB's patterned format: a broader topic for the season, this time being the riot; several secondary topics, one for each episode; and one character under our microscope during each episode, whom we follow throughout the episode and whose backstory will be revealed in flashbacks. This season however turned out to be a little different in format, something that surprised me since many of the things I mentioned were what made me fall in love with the show. Were the changes worth it?

This is my spoiler-free quick review of the season, including differences from previous seasons and my impressions.

The biggest difference of season 5 strikes you immediately but seems more obvious as you go from one episode to another: it is the built of the season itself, the episodes and the way the story is handled and stretched within them. The series is no longer broken into smaller independent pieces/episodes. Instead we get this continuous, several-day, almost real-time-portrayed story of the riot. The episodes are no longer self-contained nor have a unique topic that differentiate each one from the others. Instead the season feels like a really long movie broken into shorter parts. While this is something new to the show, it works well with the fact that the topic itself is something on-going, where every second matters. We get to experience this riot along with the inmates and see them as day-by-day and hour-by-hour they try to negotiate while surviving on their own. Like them, we don't get to rest as the episode concludes, we don't get to wrap-up stories in the middle of the chaos, we don't get conclusions, we are constantly on our toes. This format wouldn't have worked on previous seasons. Bringing it in at this point of the series was an excellent decision.


In previous seasons, one of my favourite parts of OITNB had always been the parallel narrative of past and present. The flashbacks so far had been interesting not only because we got to see a different side of our characters and get to know them better, but also because most of the time they had some kind of connection to the present plot, some parallels in both stories. The character-in-focus was the protagonist of the episode, even if the rest of the season (or series) they remained a background character that barely spoke. This season however, things changed. We don't get to see these interesting flashbacks. Instead we have 3-4 lukewarm and generally indifferent flashbacks each episode, with the exception of one or two episodes where there backstories were actually fun to watch, and about three episodes that lack flashbacks completely. Since the flashbacks were ultimately unnecessary and barely had any connection to the present plot, I would much rather they ditched them completely. After all, we no longer had a character-in-focus, which led to a chaotic switching between unfolding stories. Like I said before, this "chaos" works perfectly with the topic of the riot. Characters wander around the prison all day, their lives get complicated and intertwined. No one is a single protagonist anymore. However, as the tradition goes with this series, many secondary characters were brought to the front this season. I liked this until I noticed that many of the older characters got lost and were barely seen, including my beloved Mei Chang and Sophia.

Something new to this season was the inmates' interaction with modern technology. As the inmates react to things they've been missing out on, we get to see a different view on them, from people who see them with fresh eyes. The internet, social media, memes, trending topics, internet-fame, everything was somehow included in this season leading to comical, and sometimes tragicomical, results. On top of that, we get wardrobe changes for many of the characters. All of them get new roles within the prison as well, whether that's that of the leader, the negotiator, the doctor, the coffee-maker, or the guard. We also get to see a reversing in the roles of the inmates and the guards, as it started with the season 4 finale (Daya holding the gun, the kneeled guard). All those new elements make the series feel new and original, while keeping the essence of OITNB. It's a successfully refreshing twist of style and plot.


Without spoiling anything, I will say that the plot itself didn't lack any action, romance, horror (yes, horror) or comedy. The show continues to tackle serious racial, class, and gender discrimination issues despite the big turn in plot it takes this season. Speaking of which, as the plot progressed I felt things getting more and more serious. Friendly bantering and pranks begun to be put aside as life-and-death moments begun to arise. The tone of the season goes from light to dark and back and again through the season but eventually reaches a very fitting serious tone as the finale approaches. What I love about this show is that the heroes are flawed and ultimately human. No one is perfect or purely well-intented and this season we get to see the darker side of many of the protagonists, many times blurring the line of the victim and the offender. Revenge and egoism lead many of the heroes, making things difficult for many other people and many decisions are to be made between the broader good or the benefit of a single person.

Overall, these changes in the show's format and plot, made the series feel fresh. I admit that I was not a fan of the latest seasons as they felt dragged out and tedious. However, this seasons just wasn't enough for me. It left me asking for more, devastated by the long wait we have ahead of us until season 6. It even got my hopes up that the show won't go downhill season after season until it's over. The episodes grow progressively more intense and powerful as they go, with the finale being my favourite of the season. Not a single episode felt stuck-up, the plot is continuously unfolding and new information is constantly rising up. I wish there was a way to see more of some characters but the stories were already too complicated to bring in more material. I am definitely looking forward to the next season.

Have you watched the new season yet? What are your thoughts on it?