Early on in the new season of Orange is the New Black, an inmate offers Piper (Taylor Schilling) a book from the prison library cart. “I already read this one,” she replies. “It’s more character-driven than plotty, but intensely well-observed.”
Five years into its run, OITNB is comfortable poking fun at itself like this. The show is also confident enough to blow up its framework (in this case literally) and thrust the characters into an entirely new environment — a largely successful shift that brings fresh energy and some standout new characters to the prison dramedy’s sixth season (premiering July 27 on Netflix).
A short time after the three-day riot ended in a haze of tear gas and charging stormtroopers, most of the ladies of Litchfield have been relocated to the maximum-security wing and isolated in Ad-Seg (administrative-segregation) cells. There they wait in a tense limbo, as the District Attorney’s office tries to weed out the riot ringleaders and determine who killed C.O. Piscatella (Brad William Henke). The investigation gives the first five episodes of the season a welcome boost of urgency, as the inmates who took refuge in Frieda’s (Dale Soules) bunker — Piper, Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Red (Kate Mulgrew), Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), Blanca (Laura Gomez), and Gloria (Selenis Leyva) — scramble to align their stories for the investigators, through coded messages in library books and, in Gloria’s case, by inventing a fake religion called the Cult of the Holy Virgin.
Once the women are transferred back into “gen-pop,” the storytelling settles back into Orange‘s meandering — albeit “intensely well-observed” — style. The characters are split into two gang-dominated cell blocks: D-block, led by the unstable drug addict Barb (Mackenzie Phillips, delightfully erratic), and C-block, dominated by Barb’s sister Carol (Henny Russell), a stone-faced killer in oversized eyeglasses. Barb and Carol have hated each other so long they no longer even bother to remember why; instead they pour their animus into fighting for control over Litchfield’s drug-smuggling ring and demanding absolute loyalty from all they survey.
The war between C and D blocks is a loose stand-in for our country’s current political divide (C-block resident Blanca derisively refers to her rivals as “D-plorables”), and it allows for the introduction of two notable characters: Carol’s loudmouth lieutenant Madison “Badison” Murphy (Last Man Standing’s Amanda Fuller, serving up a Boston accent that is barely passable when it’s not gratingly terrible), and Daddy (Vicci Martinez), Barb’s petite enforcer. Martinez, a singer-songwriter who competed on season 1 of The Voice, gives a star-making performance as Daddy, a charismatic and protective former pimp whose crush on Daya (Dascha Polanco) develops into a sweet, though likely ill-fated, romance. Both Madison and Daddy seem positioned to fill anchor positions should OITNB run beyond season 7, as the show continues to lose central characters through typical TV attrition.
The new episodes spend a significant amount of time outside of Litchfield’s walls, perhaps more than any other season. Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez), still unemployable and couch-surfing after her release from prison, reluctantly begins selling herbal supplements while her resentful children languish in foster care. Her story is a grim but necessary reminder that freedom, for many of these women, will simply be a new phase of a lifelong sentence. (Spin-off pitch: Litchfield: Life on the Outside.) Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and her rapist-turned-boyfriend Charlie (James McMenamin), meanwhile, are on the run and tackling their amusement-park bucket list with romantic abandon. Many fans, including myself, found the rehabilitation of Charlie’s character problematic and queasy-making, but the arc course-corrects this season in a satisfying way — one that showcases the often-overlooked Manning and her growth as a performer.
After five seasons and 52 episodes, it’s still fun to watch the writers combine the sprawling cast (17 main characters and counting) in new and unexpected permutations. With Maritza (Dianne Guerrero) transferred out-of-state, Flaca (Jackie Cruz) teams up with Black Cindy for a prison radio show, and Frieda, the ultimate loner, finds herself bunking with Suzanne, the ultimate extrovert. In the season’s most entertaining odd-couple pairing, the hilariously high-strung Linda from MCC (Beth Dover) — who parlays her temporary captivity as a Litchfield inmate into a promotion — must manage the PR fallout from the riot with Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), a master at devastating disdain.
As always, OITNB maintains its sometimes-uneasy balance of lighthearted sitcommery — Piper tries to revive the prison kickball league! Rats get loose in the kitchen and ruin all the cheese! — with thoughtful social commentary. Taystee, facing a possible life sentence for her role in the riot, becomes a cause celebre for the ACLU, but even with that backing, her lack of power — as a black woman, and an inmate cog in a prison industrial complex machine — is rendered with excruciating accuracy. Brooks gives another fierce, vulnerable performance, and her scenes with now-suspended warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow, outstanding as ever) are wonderful vignettes of bittersweet perfection. When a major character develops a drug addiction, however, it feels like a faded photocopy of a Nicky arc from season 4.
“Everybody’s just one hard decision away from having a whole different life,” Charlie tells Pennsatucky during their time on the lam. He wants her to believe that people can change — and though it may not be true for him, it’s a lesson Orange has taken to heart as it approaches what could be the end of its run. By episode 13, the writers have made more than one hard decision — killing off entertaining characters, sending other favorites back into the free world — and instilled the stories of Litchfield with a risky but invigorating momentum. It’s as though the show has finally taken the lyrics of its theme song to heart: Taking steps is easy, standing still is hard. B