Review: Orange Is the New Black (Season 5, Episode 1)

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Right now Litchfield is about as strong and stable as British politics, but hope of revolution hovers on the horizon.

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Much like the British government, Litchfield penitentiary is destabilising into chaos as inmates fight for justice following the tragic death of one of their own, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley). Much of the promotional material for Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season was geared towards getting justice for Poussey, including murals being commissioned by Netflix in cities across America. But as the riot gains momentum, Poussey takes a backseat as far too many inmates fight for adequate screen-time in this rather bloated season premiere.

Given the brilliance of Season 4 and the positive reception critics paid Season 5, I was really excited to see the return of Litchfield’s finest miscreants. Unfortunately, I was left disappointed. Overall, the episode is fine – but it isn’t brilliant nor particularly memorable. In many ways, it feels more like the second-cousin-three-time-removed at a wedding trying to figure out on which side of the aisle they should sit.

Overlapping with season four’s powerful finale, ‘Riot FOMO’ opens exactly where we left off. This technique paid off last season, but this time the arrow doesn’t quite hit its mark. The tension established by the final rotating shot of Daya (Dascha Polanco) holding a gun to the guards’ heads is short-lived and as Daya becomes little more than a tired and frustrated teenager. She moans, and groans, and complains she wants to take a nap or is hungry, and whilst this could be totted up to the creators wanting to convey a realistic portrayal of a young mother grieving and out of her depth it is incredibly frustrating for the viewer. Since her mother’s departure and the loss of her baby, Daya slowly spiralled out of control finding family in corruptible individuals like Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimental), and her snap decision to walk away felt a little too sudden and anti-climactic.

Another momentum killer is the way so many officers do not seem to care that they’re in the middle of a riot and shots are being fired. Two guards sip coke while Caputo (Nick Sandow) is more concerned about where his extension cord has gone. For a man so concerned about the health and wellbeing of his charges, he doesn’t even seem fazed by the glaring alarm of that it continues its rhythmic screaming throughout the episode.

Season 4 suffered from the unevenness with which it treated some of the established storylines and I’m sad to say that thus far the writers haven’t learned from their mistakes. Rather than focusing on select individuals to reintroduce us to this word of crime and injustice, ‘Riot FOMO’ bombards us with too many faces and not enough names. Every character – and I mean every character – gets forced into at least part of a scene, making the episode feel more like a rushed school reunion than a proper catch-up wherein we can see characters developing. Part of the problem is how bloated the cast has become. Whereas before each episode featured a handful of select characters, we now have around twenty main and thirty recurring characters all vying for equal screen-time and narrative investment, making it difficult to be devoted to anyone character’s storyline, let alone all of them. Perhaps it’s time to grant early releases to some of the inmates to give the others have some breathing room. In a way, the disorientation works well to emphasise the inmates forced claustrophobia but it really isn’t paying off.

Something else that really isn’t paying off is the focus on male genitalia as gags. What really strikes me as unbelievable is how a show that handles women’s nudity in such natural ways (in showers, changing in dorms, sex) has no idea what to do with a naked man. Did we really need a close-up of CO Humphrey’s (Michael Torpey) penis? And did a guy who got shot in the thigh really need to be stripped only to find he doesn’t wear underwear?

Last season, Orange Is the New Black broke new ground becoming more disturbing and increasingly critical of the for-profit prison system in the US. The corrupting influence of power loomed throughout the season as a new troupe of unsupervised guards intoxicated with their own power terrorised the prison community we had come to know and love. Season 5 promised to build on that momentum and show us a revolution but so far, the vehicle has stalled. The episode gives the impression that events will take place in real time as this season takes place over three days, however it is difficult to tell what is happening and when so as a result the show has lost the momentum of previous seasons without gaining any of the tension that made this format so successful in 24.

Overall, ‘Riot FOMO’ is forgettable and stuffed with too many trimmings. But despite the lacklustre and anti-climactic premier, I have hope that Season 5 will be a success and that the best is yet to come. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait very long as the entire season is available on Netflix from today.

All thirteen episodes of Orange Is the New Black Season 5 are available via Netflix right now.

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Graduate in Film and an MA student in Creative Writing. Avid reader of YA novels. Cosplayer. Storyteller. Netflixer. Browncoat. Bucketlist includes flying an X-Wing, completing a novel, and working with Joss Whedon and Michelle Fairley.

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