Orange Is The New Black has always been political, but never more so than in this post-Black Lives Matter season. This is the explosive culmination of four years of mounting pressure as the inmates of Litchfield engage in a full-scale prison riot. After the escalating brutality of last season, leading to the killing of Poussey (Samira Wiley), the prisoners have legitimate grievances against the prison’s institutionalised racism – but their rebellion is a triumph of hope over experience, and the shadow of a reprisal hovers over the season.
This may be the show’s best season yet.
Initially, however, the riot’s an absolute riot. Uniforms are shredded, food supplies raided and the guards stripped as the hierarchy is upturned and all the characters must find their own way to navigate the new normal. Piper (Taylor Schilling) is working to take a backseat role in prison life after the rise and fall of her criminal gang last season, so she and girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon) keep their heads down, rescue a hostage staffer and move into the prison garden to flirt with domesticity. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) leads the negotiation team, their initial optimism (“Maybe even Beyoncé is going to come”) giving way to cynicism (“You think better food is going to make you NOT a criminal?”) and despair (“Well, democracy is bullshit!”). A French Revolution-style kangaroo court is organised, with the guards paraded before a baying mob, but their fate is far more entertaining than anything Robespierre might have devised.
Amid the mayhem, the pressurised environment still gives rise to delightfully surreal comedy. One white supremacist gives up a major bargaining chip for rainbow unicorn stickers and an old Anne Geddes calendar because “art is a good investment”, and we learn that inmates value Flamin’ Hot Cheetos over justice. There are even moments of beauty, with book sculptures erected in tribute to the dead, Suzanne’s (Uzo Aduba) heartbreaking attempts to feel close to her lost friend and some of the series’ most romantic moments to date.
But this brave new world can’t last. A population of people unable to control their worst impulses is unlikely to contrive a stable utopia, and the exhilaration of near-freedom is coloured by the threat of anarchy and violence. There are food fights and racial tension, a slave auction and stunningly bad decisions related to the prison’s drug supply. And outside the authorities prepare their response, meaning the oppressive feeling of confinement never entirely recedes. This is still a prison, still a closed environment full of women who still have major issues.
But thanks to some of the best writing and acting on TV, this delivers its political points through intensely personal stories. And with Piper receding slightly into the background, there’s more room for other characters to dominate. Frieda (Dale Soules) comes to the fore as a survivalist with some useful tricks in a riot situation while Red (Mulgrew) continues to steal any scene not nailed down. Brooks brings conviction to her impassioned revolutionary, determined to find meaning in her friend’s death, and Selenis Leyva burns up the screen as Gloria, desperate to reach a seriously ill family member. The pop culture chat continues too (“Have fun storming the castle!” calls Lea DeLaria’s Big Boo cheerfully to one racing group of rioters), leavening the more overtly polemic points. But make no mistake: this season comes with an emphatic message. The show speaks through Taystee when she says, “Our fight is with a system that doesn’t give a damn about poor people, and brown people, and poor brown people.” And it’s a message that resonates loud and clear. Politically charged, hilarious and horrific, this may be the show’s best season yet. Long may it stay locked up.