“You’ve got time,” Regina Spektor croons in the theme song that precedes each episode of “Orange Is the New Black.” For the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary, that’s not a comforting statement. And if you’re settling in to watch the newest season of Netflix’s hit dramedy, you’re going to need time — and lots of it.
That’s because for all of the poignant and comical moments in Season 5 — and there are plenty — there is also a lot of filler. Litchfield went private at the start of last season, leading to an influx of inmates. But the script has never felt as crowded as it does now.
Season 5, which returns Friday, opens with Litchfield in chaos following the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), who was killed amid a peaceful protest by Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), a naive, untrained guard. Last season’s cliffhanger ending found Daya (Dascha Polanco) aiming a gun at Humphrey (Michael Torpey), an especially cruel (and also untrained) correctional officer who illegally brought a firearm into the prison.
Poussey’s death, which stunned OITNB fans, is the undercurrent to everything that happens this season, beginning with Daya’s heat-of-the-moment decision. Her actions, combined with widespread anger over the system that allowed an inmate — serving time for marijuana possession, no less — to lose her life, leads to a riot, with the inmates taking the guards as hostages.
The riot sets up an exhilarating, if chaotic, premise — the inmates are officially in charge, and for a few days, they have something that almost resembles freedom. They also have Internet access, which leads to both entertainment and useful information. But the riot also presents imminent danger. There’s a gun floating around, for one. We know the riot has to end eventually, and history tells us it won’t end well. Season 5 takes place over the span of just four days.
Taystee (played the consistently outstanding Danielle Brooks) wants to see justice for Poussey, her best friend, and leads an effort to compile a list of demands for MCC, the company that owns Litchfield, to meet in exchange for the inmates ending the riot. First on Taystee’s list is seeing Bayley arrested for Poussey’s killing. But where does that fit on a list that also includes restoring the GED program, bringing better food to the cafeteria and (as requested by scores of inmates) ensuring the prison has a steady supply of Hot Cheetos and Takis?
OITNB is a dramedy in the truest sense, and a big part of the show’s genius has been its ability to straddle the emotional spectrum. But because emotions are so raw in Season 5, some of the sillier moments feel downright superfluous. A scene that finds the inmates forcing the guards into staging an “America’s Got Talent”-style competition wears thin quickly. I’d also argue that ditsy meth-heads Liane and Angie get a little too much screen time. And I feel bad for Piper’s bunkmate (Jolene Purdy), who is seen way too much for her name to be said so little. (It’s Hapakuka, by the way).
There are some successful inmate misadventures. Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero), who insist on being called “Flaritza,” spend their time becoming YouTube stars. In one scene, Maritza demonstrates how she contours her face with Goya spices. “Yes, your face will smell like your abuela’s pork, but listen, you gotta make sacrifices if you want to look DIY fly like me.”
Another detour features an unexpected group of inmates coming together to create a makeshift coffee shop (complete with an open mic), and it becomes a memorable representation of how the women of Litchfield can be at turns compassionate and unspeakably cruel to one another.
“Orange Is the New Black” gains some of its focus back in the fifth episode. After several arguments over how exactly to honor Poussey’s memory, Taystee and Piper (Taylor Schilling) enlist Poussey’s girlfriend, Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn) to commission an art project that surprisingly brings a peaceful, if temporary, calm to prison. Later in the episode, Taystee addresses the media gathering outside the prison — saying Poussey’s name repeatedly “because it can’t never be said enough.” The journalists are hoping to hear from Judy King, the Martha Stewart-inspired character whose story went off the rails last season, but Taystee makes a last-minute call against having her speak.
The flashbacks, generally one of the strongest aspects of OITNB, aren’t as compelling this season. But Taystee’s decision to talk to the media instead of Judy King runs parallel to one of this season’s more meaningful backstories. Janae (Vicky Jeudy), one of the black inmates, recalls a grade-school field trip to a ritzy Riverdale prep school, where she discovered the striking inequality of the education system. While visiting the theater, Janae sees a trio of white students rehearsing for their upcoming staging of “Dreamgirls.” It’s an initially hilarious setup, but it turns heartbreaking as Janae watches white Effie belt out “And I am telling you,” in an Afro wig. “I know, right?” her clueless tour guide says as tears roll down Janae’s cheeks.
Back in the present, Taystee tells the cameras that the rich and privileged “Judy King can’t speak for the inmates of this prison.”
“Our fight is not with Judy King,” she continues tearfully. “Our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people and brown people and poor brown people. Our fight is with the folks who hold our demands in their hands.”
It’s a shame it takes OITNB this long to get to the point. The good news is that Season 5 ultimately becomes a beautiful statement — about protest, resistance and finding dignity in a place where the people in power would do anything to take it from you.
Orange Is the New Black (13 episodes) returns Friday on Netflix.