With its fifth season being met with a mixed reception at best, the inevitable demands for Orange is the New Black’s swan song have been loudly reverberating in the online echo chamber that is social media. However, it is apparent that the newly released sixth season has attempted to reinvigorate the once ground breaking show by focusing on select characters and narratives. Here, we examine whether OITNB is indeed ready to be shelved, or whether its sixth season successfully reminds its audience why they fell in love with it – its sharp writing, pacing and commitment to diversity.
After season five’s attempt to shake up OITNB by playing out a prison riot, in ‘real time,’ the Netflix original returns to its former format with season six. Here, the narrative focuses on the follow-up to the riot, its implications and the implicated, all the while, splicing its episodes with character-driven flashbacks. Specifically, season six strives for concision by focusing on the key cast members who, following the riot, have been transferred to the maximum-security prison. This was a production gamble that despite its risks -gauging who are fan favourites, and omitting those who are not – pays off, focusing the show’s narrative. Indeed, the shift in location and a condensed cast help to refocus the show – the maximum-security setting facilitates both the overarching plot and sub-plots that give it weight. In fact, our favourite cast members find themselves embroiled in a turf-war between two old sociopathic sisters, Carol and Barbara, each the de facto leader of their prison block. In fact, the manner in which this gang warfare interplays with certain character arcs is often captivating, and rarely feels like a forced narrative device. In fact, we see fan-favourite characters make choices based on how they react to their new surroundings, and the heightened stakes they face. Naturally, this narrative choice plays into the concept key to OITNB – that individuals are merely a product of their environment. Simply, the politics of maximum-security create a context in which characters are driven to rage-fuelled exploits, acts of desperation, and despair. Ironically, given that the character of Piper Chapman was once positioned as the avatar in which we perceived Litchfield, her storyline, again, cements her as one of the least endearing characters. This presents a failure of the show, wherein Piper, because of her privilege, is shown to be unfairly discriminated against, yet, is unsuccessful in winning the audience over due to her very privilege.
Injustice & Allegory
Simultaneously, series six focuses on attributing accountability following series five’s riot, which, given the nature of the show, is embroiled with corruption and injustice. Specifically, Taystee is presented as the chief suspect in the murder of C.O. Piscatella, and accordingly, is condemned both by the legal system and friends who have betrayed her. This, perhaps, is the show’s most on-the-nose play with the metaphor of injustice, wherein Taystee is a haunting symbol of the powerless and oppressed. Unsurprisingly, this adds a series-wide pathos, which is nicely juxtaposed with its comedic moments.
However, as is with the case with much television, a series that has run six-series long is prone to decline, in that the chemistry that made the show a hit, is hard to maintain. Notably, the storylines pertaining to the prison guards and administrators feel bloated. Primarily, the guards’ mix of wanton cruelty and apathy feels gratuitous when being made to care about the inmates. The Machiavellian manoeuvring of the prison administration feels at odds to the notion of each individual being complex and nuanced, that of which the show makes the effort to foster.
It is fair to say that Orange is the New Black is deteriorating in its sixth season, but it undoubtedly a season much less divisive than its predecessor. In fact, despite its locale switch-up, in many ways, the sixth season of OITNB feels like it has returned to its roots – drama is met with comedy, channelled through the medium of an overarching narrative and humanising character arcs.
All in all, the sixth season of Orange is the New Black is an improvement on the fifth, yet, is not on par with its earliest couple. Ironically, the drama of a ‘real-time’ riot did little for the programme, but following such chaos, comes a well-ordered, and structured season. However, the ultimate takeaway is that OITNB feels like it is building to its finish, and I would be in no way surprised to learn that season six is the Netflix original’s penultimate one.