Let me start this post off by saying there will be spoilers.
For any of you who may have lived under a rock for the past five years and aren’t familiar with Netflix hit Orange Is the New Black (I’ll be referring to it from here on out as OITNB or Orange for simplicity’s sake), the show follows privileged, entitled, wealthy, tall, blonde Piper Chapman as she completes a fifteen-month sentence in a minimum security women’s prison for her association with a major drug ring ten years prior to the events in the show. We watch Piper learn to deal with life in prison while confronting the terrible person she really is, forge new relationships and rekindle old, sadistic ones, and indirectly cause the death of a fellow inmate (that’s a rabbit hole I’ll go down some other day, but here’s a thread if you want to quickly read my rationale for such an accusation). It’s honestly one of the best shows I’ve ever seen; once I got into it I couldn’t stop. I wanted to tweet about it constantly, I wanted all my friends to get into it, I’ve even put the book that inspired the show on my to-read list. Orange (I could be exaggerating here, but I really don’t think I am) is nothing short of a masterpiece. There’s a reason why it’s one of Netflix’s most popular original series. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s thrilling, it’s thought-provoking, it’s just f*cking great. At least it was until it seemed the writers wrote the show into a situation they didn’t know how to write themselves out of. Now the show’s gone totally off the rails and is quickly heading straight into a shit-filled grave.
The new season takes us through the fallout of the riot that took place during the entirety of season five, brought about by the death of a fan favorite inmate in season four (that Piper caused, feel free to debate me on that). The Litchfield inmates have been subdued and taken to separate facilities from the minimum security camp while the “justice” system determines who to take down for starting the riot and causing the death of our favorite “hairy, neckless sadist with pituitary issues” aka, Correctional Officer Desi Piscatella. Piscatella was shot dead when Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) officers stormed the prison to round up inmates and it is his death that drives the majority of season six’s story line. None of the inmates know he had been killed, and when they find out during interrogation they need to figure out how to not be framed for a murder none of them committed.
Orange has had great and not so great seasons prior to the dumpster fire that is season six, but it always did a great job of humanizing what so many of us deem the scum of society: prisoners. Normalizing a group of people that we’ve been told aren’t worth much is what OITNB does. Through flashbacks we learn about these women’s lives and gain insight into choices they made that eventually stripped them of their freedom; through current scenes we learn how these women survive the hell those actions have landed them in. We’ve gone from hating certain characters to loving them and vice versa. Each season deepens the complexity of Litchfield’s inmates and blurs the lines of what makes a person and their actions good or bad. Our ideas and perceptions of prisoners, the penal system, what constitutes as fair treatment of law-breakers, and even our reaction to injustices within the correctional system are constantly challenged with each season. Season six, however, completely fails to do that.
Instead of focusing on the inmates we’re already acquainted with and how they’re handling surviving a prison riot, OITNB’s writers decided to scrap over half the cast by lazily writing them off as being sent to a different facility in Ohio. In their place, we meet tons of new inmates, none of whom are particularly likable or complex in backstory enough to be compelling additions to the show; they’re just… there. These new characters are pretty flat and one-dimensional; there’s nothing about them to challenge us as viewers. Their backstories aren’t that interesting, and they just feel like useless filler written into the show to help certain episodes reach that 50-minute mark. Why the writers decided to split up the minimum security squad and leave us with only a handful of familiar faces, I don’t know, but it was unnecessary and the shoddy quality of the season reflects that poor decision. OITNB has always had characters who were just fillers (like that crying inmate or Leanne and Angie, characters who were present for quirky little side plots but nothing that would distract from the overall plot) but the new inmates in season six are quirky little side plots that the writers gave WAY too much screen time. They ended up hijacking what we see in the fallout of the riot.
Orange’s flashback framework is great for introducing characters who play pivotal roles in the show. It helps us learn more about the inmates without explicitly saying “this is why she’s the way she is,” but my problem with incorporating the framework with these new characters this far into the show is that there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight. They’re bringing in these new women and their stories, but where is it going to end? Like I said, half the cast is still in Ohio. Those are loose ends the show doesn’t seem interested in tying up. Are we just supposed to forget about them? Do the writers expect us to forsake the characters we’ve come to know and love for this new uninteresting batch? Who cares that Piper’s new roommate was teased in school because she farted? Were Taystee and CO Ward’s friendship years back really necessary? Was this really the season to introduce Daddy, max’s head lesbian in charge? She’s a fine character, but was this really the time for it? To me, none of these additions were needed, they were just glaring and annoying distractions from what I really wanted to see: the interrogations and trials of inmates accused of starting a riot and killing a CO. At some point adding backstories has to stop, especially when they’re not that interesting and the characters to whom those backstories belong don’t add anything to the show except being minor antagonists. OITNB’s writers found an interesting framework that worked in earlier seasons and decided to continue it through to the sixth season, but it’s getting out of control. It felt to me like the writers didn’t know how to dig into the court case aspect of this season, so they just threw in more flashbacks to keep us occupied. But this wasn’t a season to dwell on the past. A woman is on trial for a murder she didn’t commit, I couldn’t care less about Nicky’s bat mitzvah.
Speaking of Nicky, I’m reminded of her stint in maximum security back in season four. From the little we saw of her in max, there was no leniency, there was hardly contact with other inmates, everything was strict and orderly and soul-draining. It was what you’d think a maximum security prison would be like, no freedom for anything except to keep living until you die. Max in season six, however, is nothing like that. It’s a lot more lax than we were led to believe it’d be from earlier seasons. There’s semi-outdoor time, plenty of contact (verbal and physical) between inmates, and seemingly less structure than you’d think there would be for maximum security. Sometimes rules are enforced harshly, sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes it feels like we’re in max, sometimes there’s literally no distinction between max and “camp” (minimum security). Make up your mind, OITNB, where exactly are these women? In hell or super hell? The back and forth is giving me whiplash.
And what was with that whole kickball subplot? In an effort to bring the inmates together Piper (of course) tries to get tensions between inmates to settle by getting everyone to play kickball, something inmates did decades ago until one kickball game turned dangerous and the game got banned. This is the kind of distracting, nonsensical stuff that I hated about this season. We get it, Piper, your prison life is going great. You’re getting married, you got no extra time for the riot, and you somehow managed to get perfect dental work in prison with super glue. Not everyone else is as fortunate. Some of these women have real problems they need to handle: drug involvement, rivalries with other inmates that have spanned decades, guards beating them for the slightest step out of line. For once can this woman focus on completing her sentence and not drag others into her nonsense? The whole kickball plot was just Piper basically going “I’m doing great! No one cares about your problems, let’s play a game!” even if it meant, and it certainly did for a good minute, creating a blood bath.
I could go on for days about what I didn’t like about this season (there’s tons more but for the sake of keeping this post from becoming a novel, I’ll leave them for now), but believe it or not, there were a few things I actually liked about the 13 most recent episodes. The introduction of the Denning sisters, Barb and Carol, the heads of two rival blocks in max was perfect. The casting couldn’t have been better for these two. Mackenzie Phillips and Henny Russell’s Barb and Carol were frightening and tense and I just couldn’t look away from them. Their backstory, while I still think it could’ve been left out, was chilling and indicative of their sociopathic nature. They might have been my favorite part of this mess of a season.
From the moment we met them I wanted to know how two sisters ended up being so hellbent on ending each other. I’d say I’m interested to see what these two have in store for us in later episodes, but for some godawful reason they had to be the one loose end the writers decided to tie up. Barb and Carol are written off the show as quickly as they were written on and they leave us when they decide to shiv and shank each other and bleed out in a storage closet. So there is nothing in store from these two. Talk about an anticlimax. Anyway, regardless of how the Denning sisters’ rivalry turned out, I still enjoyed them. Though their time with us was short, Barb and Carol provided us with a terrifying distraction from whatever Piper was doing and for that, I will always be grateful.
And of course the acting this season was to die for. It was phenomenal. One thing you’ll never hear me complain about in regard to OITNB is the quality of the acting. Each season they pick some amazing women to add to the Litchfield family and each season I am just floored by how well these women breathe life into their roles. It’s like they were born to be in this show; not a single actor in all six seasons has been underwhelming. Even the women who play characters I hate have done a fantastic job. Particularly Amanda Fuller, who we meet as Piper’s obnoxious Boston born and bred cell mate, “Badison” (just typing her name annoyed me). She played that role so well I’m going to hate her in any other role I might see her in. Other standouts from this season: obviously Danielle Brooks for her outstanding portrayal of Taystee, who’s taking the worst of the charges for the riot, and Adrienne C. Moore, who plays Black Cindy/Tova.
Moore did a hell of a job handling her character’s burden of lying to interrogators and basically handing Taystee a life sentence. Cindy/Tova hasn’t ever been one to feel guilt over the many terrible things she’s done since we first met her seasons ago, but finally seeing that she does have a conscience after all and seeing how well Ms. Moore interpreted it was just flawless. Absolutely without flaw.
Other than the quality acting and that thrilling but ultimately disappointing rivalry between the prison sisters, there’s not a lot I can say I enjoyed about this season. It felt aimless and rushed and I found myself being bored and annoyed by most of it. It was as though the writers finally realized the mess they wrote themselves into by having a prison riot and instead of facing it head-on they tried to skate around it and skim over it to make it seem like they addressed the biggest issues of this season without actually doing anything. I’m sure at some point I’ll watch season six again, but that likely won’t be for a few months. I still need time to reflect on how such a compelling show is going so incredibly and quickly downhill.
All the negative reactions I have about this season aside, Orange Is the New Black is still one of my favorite shows. I’m not ready to quit it just yet; it’s going to take a bit more than one botched season to get me to swear off the show for good. All I can do now is hope the writers figure out how to focus their writing, hone in on the meat of this story, and stop avoiding the issues they’ve created for themselves.
We can expect to get season seven in the summer of 2019, and when that season is finally here I’ll look forward to seeing where our Litchfield ladies go from where we left them.