“If we wanna turn this place right, we have to speak as one united group.” – Maria Ruiz
Season four of Orange Is the New Black ended with Litchfield inmates on the verge of rioting after a tragedy. When Netflix released the first minute of season five in April, they revealed the entire season would focus on the three-day riot.
All thirteen episodes were sent for review so they could be viewed as a whole, just as Netflix is counting on fans to binge the entire season this weekend.
The season premiere is free from the show’s signature flashbacks to focus on what’s happening inside Litchfield. Despite Ruiz’ insistence that Litchfield inmates need to be united throughout the riot, factions form immediately. Many of the inmates see the riot as an opportunity for real reform; Taystee (Danielle Brooks, with an award-worthy performance) leads negotiations to end the riot with the Governor to deal with her grief for her murdered friend.
Meanwhile, more militant rioters are holding guards hostage with the gun that was brought into the prison at the end of season four. A third group do their best to separate themselves from the riot by finding a place to wait it out because they want to stay out of trouble.
In the middle of the season, the disorganisation of the riot gives the impression that the show is unfocused, and it’s difficult to know where one episode ends and the next begins. There are so many characters to serve that viewers will go for two or three episodes in a row without seeing their favourites. Everything snaps into focus in the ninth episode, which is structured like a horror film. Director Erin Feeley perfectly captures the sense of dread that befalls the characters, many of whom haven’t slept in days.
Even though the Litchfield inmates are rioting, Orange Is the New Black doesn’t forget to have fun. There are certain pockets of the prison that are peaceful, and at times the ladies of Litchfield are working as a community. They host a talent show and an open mic, and there’s even a coffee shop for a little while. Having taken the guards’ phones, they have access to the internet, the results of which are enlightening and entertaining in equal measure.
Even when it falters, Orange Is the New Black is one of the best shows on television and streaming. Amongst the riot, the production doesn’t forget to tell people’s stories. Every level of production contributes to the show, which is highlighted by a visual gag in the ninth episode in the form of the book that Alex (Laura Prepon) is reading. While at times the season feels unfocused, that lack of focus reflects the chaos of 400 people rioting.
The early episodes can seem slow, but they build to the season climax, which successfully pulls everything together. It’s not the best season of Orange Is the New Black (that title goes to either two or four, depending on the day), but it’s consistently very good, which is remarkable for a show in its fifth season, and a testament to everyone who makes it.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK - Season Five premieres today (Friday June 9th) on Netflix Australia.
The new season will also be available from 5:00pm AEST today on Foxtel's Showcase channel and Foxtel On-Demand.