The riot comes to a powerful end
Credit: Jojo Whilden/Netflix

The season 5 finale is an hourlong demonstration of what Orange Is the New Black is as a series. It revolves around a serious subject and therefore contains some seriously powerful moments, but it’s still peppered with scenes of levity (most of which land). It also manages to send the inmates down a new path and while also putting them right back where they started, which is a tricky needle to thread but a necessary one in a show set in prison, where real change is hard to come by.

While it would have been nice to see Taystee and the other inmates prevail in their quest to improve the situation at Litchfield, that also would have been a bit unrealistic, considering the way prison riots generally go down. Then again, the negotiations unfolded in such an organic way that it felt out of character for Taystee to blow it at the last minute. Even she admits in the finale that she failed Poussey by being so narrowly focused. That, to me, feels like a conclusion Taystee would have gotten to earlier, in that scene with Caputo and Figueroa.

But that is neither here nor there now, because now, SWAT is storming the prison and it’s a total s—storm.

To OITNB’s credit, I expected this to be a lot more brutal than it was. With so many supporting characters that viewers know and love, it would have been easy to make the securing of the prison more dramatic by offing some supporting characters. It came as a nice surprise that that isn’t what happened.

Instead, we were treated to the various ways different inmates reacted to the raid. Some were caught early on and had no choice but to be forcibly removed; others peacefully surrendered. Leanne and Angie, who are still the worst, decided to get high and then burn the inmates’ files (more on that later).

Easily the most fun aspect of the episode was Team Latte — Ouija and Pidge joining forces with Sankey, Brandy, and Skinhead Helen to make an Ernest Goes to Camp-style stand in one of the dormitories. That’s the kind of levity that works on this show — it feels realistic, it’s goofy without being absurd or annoying, and it doesn’t really pay off in any significant way. It’s just a lot of fun.

But the high drama for the episode (prior to the last 10 minutes) comes in the form of some of the strongest female friendships on the show: Nicky/Lorna and Cindy/Taystee/Suzanne.

Nicky continues to show Lorna just how much she loves her by calming her down and instructing her on how to get out safely. She also sweetly omits the part she played in getting Vinnie to come around. Lorna needs to feel like Vinnie got there all on his own, and hopefully he has the common sense not to ever spill the beans on that one.

Taystee and Cindy, meanwhile, are in a panic about Suzanne being passed out on lithium and in possible respiratory distress. Nicky says she has a place they can hide, and she takes them to Frieda’s bunker: a convenient and logical way to get most of the main characters into one place.

Cindy and Taystee’s concern for Suzanne is beautiful, as is their little come-to-Jesus moment about the riot. Cindy is right to call out Taystee for the monumentally selfish decision she made during negotiations, but she doesn’t beat her up about it, because Taystee is doing quite enough beating up of herself as it is.
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An EpiPen gets Suzanne back to her old self — which is awfully convenient — and the girls get to see Frieda’s real bunker, complete with Piscatella tied up inside. Danielle Brooks once again gets to be the season MVP when she rails on him for being the cause of Poussey’s death (Piscatella is the most culpable — along with MCC for hiring the guards). And it’s a good thing Brooks is a strong enough actress to carry the encounter, because Piscatella’s “You don’t want to be like me” speech is a bit much.

Yes, yes, we all know what he’s talking about because of his flashback episode, but having Piscatella be the one to ultimately talk her down is kind of gross at this point. Are we supposed to think he’s all changed now? That somehow he’s seen the error of his ways, or that now he has a shred of his humanity back? Gag me. Piscatella was never fleshed out enough as a character for any of this to play, so let’s all just revel in the fact that he is killed by his own sword — oh yes — a scene later and go back to praising Danielle Brooks and how awesome she was all season.

Speaking of awesome, that final scene was powerful. All season, various prison factions have been coming together, even if very briefly, and it’s been a lot of fun to watch. The final scene takes that to a grander, more heartfelt level, and I’ll be darned if I didn’t start openly crying when they all joined hands to stare down whatever fate is about to come through the doors.

Still, before that final scene, the rest of Litchfield got loaded up onto buses to be shipped off to God-knows-where, which is kind of a brilliant reset for season 6. This could be way off base, but it feels like the women are going to be temporarily split apart because Litchfield is a huge mess right now. They aren’t going to be sent to max, but they are going to have to be dispersed because no one facility is large enough to take them all.

Which means we’ll hopefully get to bounce around next season from prison to prison, checking in on our favorite Litchfieldians as they encounter new prison problems and possibly form new groups out of the only familiar faces available to them. Then won’t it be interesting when Litchfield reopens and everyone comes back together? Will they fall back into their old groups and habits?

The potential for great storytelling is huge here, so it’s an outstanding way to end things. This season was a bit uneven, but overall, OITNB pulled off this experiment pretty well. After season 2, this might be the show’s second strongest season yet.

Odds & Ends

  • I can’t wait to see what the fallout is from Angie and Leanne burning the files. Obviously there have to be inmate files somewhere in digital form, but why include that little scene if there wouldn’t be some consequence for it in season 6?
  • “Normally I’d be respectful of the dead, but dude, you were a real son of a bitch when you were alive. Karma, you know what I’m saying?” — Black Cindy
  • “Joe… your heart bleeds in a way only a vagina should.” — Figueroa
  • Did anyone notice that when SWAT did a count, they were 10 short, yet there were actually 12 prisoners missing? There were the 10 in the bunker (Frieda, Red, Piper, Alex, Flores, Nicky, Cindy, Taystee, Suzanne, and Gloria) but Chang and Pennsatucky slipped out through the fence. Was that just a mistake on the part of the writers?
  • Speaking of Pennsatucky, her whole deal at Coates’ cabin is where this story line lost me. I was never comfortable with her cozying up to her rapist, but as I said in a previous recap, there are a lot of points of view here. The show never wrote it as something to be praised or glorified — it was always made to feel weird and icky. But Pennsatucky is a broken character and so is Coates, so their story line never felt unrealistic. However, Penn playing house with him at the cabin feels like a bridge too far. This story line is too disturbing to be mined for humor.
  • On a happier note, MCC Linda is now apparently a ward of the state of New York. She claims she won’t have paperwork at the new prison, so maybe that’s where the burning files come into play? Though she wouldn’t have digital paperwork either, so it seems like a misunderstanding that could be resolved quickly. But it’ll be fun, if she’s around for the first couple of season 6 episodes, to at least show us how Linda is getting on in a real prison situation.

Episode Recaps

Orange Is the New Black

Jenji Kohan’s absorbing ensemble dramedy, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, takes viewers inside the walls of Litchfield, a minimum security women’s prison where nothing’s as simple as it seems—especially the inmates.

  • TV Show
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