Season 5 of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black opens where the last season left off, with Daya holding a gun to the head of CO Humphrey surrounded by other inmates. The chaos of the scene leads to Daya firing the gun and starting the riot that will last the duration of the season.
As the guards are rounded up by the inmates, we see a flip of the switch. With the “good guys” on the receiving end of the cruelty the inmates generally face (random cavity searches, degradation, insufficient food and hygienic conditions), we see the utter lack of humanity in the U.S. prison system.
Though the show has been challenging the conditions in U.S. prisons and the discrimination against inmates since it aired in 2013, this season takes it on with renewed gusto. Fresh off the death of Poussey at the hands of CO Bayley at the end of season 4, Litchfield is still shaken by the injustice and is thus thrown into turmoil.
Taystee, Cindy, Janae, and Alison spend much of the first half of the season in Caputo’s office, trying to get justice for Poussey. With the guards of the prison held hostage, the inmates are now in a position to negotiate for better conditions.
The show is split into two narratives: the inmates who want retribution and the ones who simply want change. Taystee leads the charge for reform, discovering in the process that negotiating is something she is good at. To watch her realize her talent in the midst of the chaos is refreshing, though it is eventually lost when she aims too high.
In getting stuck on retribution against CO Bayley for Poussey’s death, Taystee throws away a deal that would benefit the whole prison, all while Gloria and Maria try to sneak the guards out for their own gain. We are forced to watch as the resistance formed against a powerful enemy splinters under the pressure of managing a divided front.
While the resistance is crumbling, Red, with all her usual intensity tries to take down Piscatella while unknowingly under the influence of speed. She pushes until she finds the information she needs to take down the cruel guard, but by the time she finds it, no one believes her in her state. We watch then, one by one, as the show turns horror movie tropes on their heads while Piscatella, who has snuck into the prison, begins capturing Red’s “family” one by one.
Watching the women be rounded up and taken to watch the fall of their leader whose warning they did not heed cuts deep. As Piscatella tortures the women he goes on a diatribe about the nature of inmates, as though his violence and hatred were somehow less offensive than theirs, leading to his claim about the difference between male and female inmates – that men understand violence, whereas women have to be broken in different ways. And he tries desperately to break them.
Once the guards are returned, the inmates lose their bargaining chips. The powers that be stop caring about the possibility of casualties and allow the prison to be stormed. As the armed men roam the halls of the prison, taking down inmates in an unnecessarily violent manner we are forced to watch the reality of sadistic men being given power.
Alison removes her hijab. Brooke sits passively, allowing her body to become dead weight when the officers try to forcibly remove her. Lorna screams she is pregnant when she encounters the crowd of violent guards. To watch these women be taken down is to watch their identities be stripped from them. The guards would find Alison’s hijab threatening, so she removes it to avoid further violence. Brooke’s peaceful resistance finds her forcibly removed. Lorna’s pregnancy draws no gentleness from the armed men in riot gear.
After tearing through the prison, the guards come up short of inmates, eventually heading down the pool to find those who had hidden. On the way they run into Piscatella, who is shot to death at the hand of an overzealous officer. Somehow, in spite of his own noted cruelty and lack of humanity, this is painted an unfortunate death.
Every season Orange is the New Black shows us the humanity of people known to do cruel things. It shows us that though some things are despicable, unforgivable even, there is no justice in an eye for an eye. Treating criminals with cruelty helps no one. They are not rehabilitated and the people in power are no more righteous than those they try to punish. In a world where discrimination and cruelty still run rampant, it’s important to challenge those biases. It’s important to acknowledge the gray areas. It’s imperative that we do better.
Kelly Livingston is a freelance writer with a passion for intersectional feminism. After four years studying English and Anthropology at the University of Florida, she remains fascinated by the ways we can use writing to comment on and change our culture.