Season five of Orange is the New Black is a riot. Not a laugh riot, but an actual one. Set over three days, the thirteen episodes feel like a whirlwind, and the formal structure that kept the story chugging along in previous seasons is out the window. Many of the familiar elements are turned on their head: the prisoners take the guards hostage, the SHU becomes the “poo” (a port-a-loo where they lock up troublemakers), Lorna “loco” Morello takes over the pharmacy, Nicky nurses Red through drug withdrawals, Piscatella breaks IN to the prison… You see what I’m getting at: it’s quite a lot to take on board.
But amidst the chaos, a lot of important things happened that will have a lasting effect on the show when it returns for a sixth season. Have a look at our run through of the five most important scenes of the season below.
1. Judy King reassures Soso about the resilience of the human spirit
Judy King was a divisive figure in Litchfield Penitentiary. A rich white celebrity who received special treatment while other inmates suffered racial profiling and abuse at the hands of the guards, she became a representation of the gross inequality that permeates our social structures.
But before leaving the prison midway through the riot, she dropped some final nuggets of wisdom which ring true for the series as a whole.
“In this lifetime you will be amazed by what you can get over, darling,” she told Brook Soso, who was struggling to cope with her grief in the wake of her girlfriend’s death.
“Babies are thrown into dumpsters and survive. Adults get worn down and compromise and fail and they’re still keeping track of their steps on their cellphones. We are so f***ing resilient, even when we don’t want to be”, she said.
A major theme in the show’s run has been the dehumanisation of inmates – Regina Spektor’s theme song is a pretty on-the-nose metaphor for this – and their ability to get up and carry on fighting is the driving force behind this new series, and one which prevents it from spiralling into melodrama in the wake of such a dark and harrowing death at the end of season four.
King’s speech is about as optimistic as the season gets, and that was long before the riot got serious.
2. Taystee’s defiant speech
Without Taystee, the riot threatened to descend into directionless chaos. Propelled by grief, she fronted a movement in the prison that managed to give their actions meaning: namely broadcasting the actual circumstances of Poussey’s death to the outside world, and ending MCC’s reign of terror.
In doing so, she faced opposition from both sides: inside the prison, the women had made it clear that, above all, they wanted to achieve better living standards for themselves; on the outside, the media were honing in on all the wrong aspects of the riot, painting Judy King as a victim of the riot and neglecting to discuss the death of her friend.
After coordinating the prisoners’ demands list through a vote – which, to Taystee’s horror, saw Poussey’s name place second to last – the prisoners were ready to let Judy King (on the advice of Caputo’s PR man) voice their grievances to the press. But, at the last minute, Taystee stepped up and took her place to deliver a powerful, heartbreaking speech that put a voice to a sense of racial inequality that has been building throughout the previous seasons.
“Judy King can’t speak for the inmates of this prison”, she announced to the press, “she was kept separate from us, held in a private room with better treatment”.
She repeated Poussey’s full name, reflecting the #SayHerName movement, and put her death into the wider context of social injustice: “Our fight is not with Judy King, our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people, and brown people, and poor brown people”.
3. Piscatella tries to “break” Red
“This is the thing about female prisoners. Men understand violence, they respect it, they’re dogs. If you beat them, they obey you. Women, they don’t fear violence the way men do. They have to be broken in other ways”, Piscatella told Piper late on in season five.
The vindictive CO had been the show’s villain since early season four, creating an atmosphere of terror in the prison by encouraging guard-on-inmate violence. He was so driven by his authority being undermined by Red that he broke in during the riot in order to make an example of her.
Having captured a group of her closest allies in the prison – including Piper, Alex and Nicky – he went about trying to deflate her pride and destroy her influence by torturing her in front of them, and shearing her trademark red locks. It was a harrowing sight, and the women couldn’t help but look upon her with pity.
4. Taystee falters at the death
It was very difficult to imagine the prisoners ever getting what they wanted, but in episode 12, they came agonisingly close to doing so. The governor had granted the majority of their demands, but crucially would not guarantee that officer Bayley would be prosecuted for killing Poussey, arguing that this was outside of his jurisdiction.
It represented the very best possible ending to the riot, but Taystee, driven on by pure emotion, was unable to accept an ending that did not give her direct closure on the death of her friend.
“People who murder people ain’t supposed to be just walking around,” she told Caputo as she shut down any notion of compromise. “Now get the f*** out!”
Sadly, this coincided with Maria Ruiz fleeing with the hostages, marking the loss of their last remaining bargaining chip.
By putting an ideal ahead of the greater purpose, Taystee squandered their chance to make a lasting difference, and the consequences are likely to be major.
5. The final 10 minutes
As Caputo warned at the beginning of the series, riots never end well. The finale opened to police officers in riot gear barging into the prison and restraining prisoners by force, set quite jarringly to the breezy warmth of Ella Fitzgerald’s Stormy Weather.
By the final ten minutes, it was achingly clear that Litchfield would never be the same again. A group of trigger-happy armed guards made their way through the prison and shot down Piscatella after he was freed by a merciful Red. An unlikely bunch, consisting of Red, Piper, Alex, Taystee, Crazy Eyes, Nicky, Black Cindy, Gloria, Frieda and Blanca, were holed up in the prison’s disused pool awaiting their arrival.
The governor had granted the police permission to use any force necessary in order to end the situation, and, if Piscatella’s end was anything to go by, the outlook was grim.
But perhaps most telling of all was what was going on outside: the prisoners were being loaded into buses going to separate prisons. As Maritza and Flaca shared a heartbreaking goodbye after being separated, an officer said “you think they’re gonna let any of you in there after all this?”
If this season has taught us anything, it’s that the writers are unafraid to take the show into new directions, so all bets are off for season six. How on earth can the show exist in a post-riot world? Only time will tell.
Orange is the New Black season 5 is available now on Netflix.