A Gloriously Messy Fifth Season of Orange is the New Black Dives Further Into Its Political Roots
By: Steve Hladik
The fifth season of Orange is the New Black debuted on June 9th, a week before Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges in the fatal shooting of Philando Castile. For more on the tragedy of Philando Castile, read here. While the new season of OITNB aired and the acquittal took place only a week apart, it feels eerily relevant that this show would tackle this subject matter in it’s new season as another African American life is disregarded by our criminal justice system. The show began delving into the Black Lives Matter movement and prison reform last season, after the painful death of one of the show’s most beloved characters, Poussey Washington, at the hands of a correctional officer (CO). When Warden Caputo took to the television cameras for a press conference discussing the tragedy, not one word of Poussey. It instead focused its attention on making the CO responsible the victim. Enraged, the women of Litchfield prison began a riot that ended in a standoff between an inmate holding a guard hostage with a gun. The new season takes place over a three day prison riot, with the inmates finding themselves in the midst of chaos and a new sense of power.
At the heart of this season is Taystee, played with undeniable fierceness yet still maintaining fragility by Danielle Brooks. Ms. Brooks is the absolute MVP of this season and steps into her role with command and bravado. Many of the show’s big themes and ideas of the season come through her character, and she brilliantly executes all of them with harrowing intensity. Taystee was Poussey’s best friend, and witnessed her dying right in front of her, unable to help or fight back. As the other women find themselves using their new found freedom to harass guards or get high, Taystee takes matters into her own hands and begins fighting for justice for Poussey. She finds herself in the position of a leader, making deals and demands to politicians and prison officials, all while navigating the grief that comes with losing one’s best friend.
The show has political and social issues embedded in it’s DNA. It focuses on the marginalized members of our society and how the world fails and disregards them, while featuring one of the most diverse ensemble casts in television history. Season five of the show has embraced its ability to be a mouthpiece for so many of the pressing social issues going on today. By diving deeper into the prison-industrial complex and the treatment of people of color, particularly women people of color, Orange is the New Black has allowed itself to fully step into power.
Not too many other shows on television are even mentioning the BLM movement, let alone structuring entire seasons on it. There’s an amazing moment where Taystee is on the phone with one of the higher-up officials at the prison. They are negotiating the hostages and the demand list of the inmates, to which the official responds she will “do her best” to accommodate those actions. Taystee immediately reacts to such a suggestion, noting how terms like “do our best” and other lazy arguments are so often made at the expense of brown and black people’s livelihoods. If we just say we’ll try, it’ll shut them up. Many other television shows would just leave it at that, not try and dig deeper into the motivations and structures in place that make so many of these situations ignored, but not Orange is the New Black. When told to shut up, the women of Litchfield are throwing it right back in their faces.