With Orange Is the New Black Season 5, Jenji Kohan breaks it down and starts again.

Orange Is the New Black Season 5 Is the Perfect Showcase for Jenji Kohan’s Particular Skills

Orange Is the New Black Season 5 Is the Perfect Showcase for Jenji Kohan’s Particular Skills

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
June 19 2017 7:33 AM

With Orange Is the New Black Season 5, Jenji Kohan Leaps Into the Unknown and Finds a Thrilling New Footing

OITNB
Litchfield’s inmates riot in OITNB’s fifth season, which takes place over three increasingly tense days.

Netflix

Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season is shadowed by a sense of pending doom. Breaking with its typical format, the Netflix series’ latest batch of episodes is compressed into a 72-hour timeframe. The prisoners of Litchfield Penitentiary are suddenly in charge; the guards are hostages, abused and degraded. The prison is surrounded by a media horde. Inmates dig into a vibrant collection of stolen outfits to replace their vomit-brown uniforms with costumes that drag the show’s characters into pop culture–tinged fantasies: reality competitions modeled on American Idol, prisonwide disputes settled in the court of Law & Order, slasher-film homages. The season is an outlier that frequently acknowledges itself as such, as if to comment on its experimental positioning. “This is all going to be over soon,” Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) says tenderly near the end of Episode 6, as she awaits a meaningless “trial” verdict. “It’s all going to go back to the way it was, anyhow—none of this is for long.”

It’s difficult to stand out in this oversaturated TV market, especially for a show in its fifth season, and Orange Is the New Black has indeed drifted a bit from its phenomenon status of years past. But from the first episode to the last, its new season emerges as something thrillingly, radically different from what preceded it—and from everything else on TV. The “13-hour bottle episode” is easily the show’s riskiest and most ambitious gambit to date, disowning the narrative beats and character dynamics that viewers had grown accustomed to. It’s messy, frequently exhilarating, occasionally misguided, and always fascinating. Most importantly, though, the season is classic Jenji Kohan.

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Kohan’s first show, Showtime’s Weeds, was a major innovator in the half-hour space, the first non-HBO cable series to be nominated for an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy and a crucial benchmark in the development of the half-hour “dramedy.” Its first three seasons smartly blended crime drama with suburban satire before Kohan literally burned down her setting, wrote out her supporting ensemble, and started testing the audience’s patience. The series relocated to Mexico in Season 5, where it leaned into telenovela conventions and re-invented itself every year from there—a devil-may-care strategy partly anchored by Kohan’s sharp writing and strong core cast.

In the five years she’s been working on OITNB, Kohan has broken plenty more ground, popularizing the point-of-view episodic construct now common across acclaimed dramas and launching the careers of such gifted actors as Uzo Aduba and Danielle Brooks. Orange Is the New Black played with structure regularly over its first four years—its second season introduced a seasonal big bad in Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee, while the fourth was constructed as a slow-burn tragedy—but it fundamentally remained the same show, juggling a massive ensemble while telling intimate character studies that doubled as damning institutional critiques. Yet embedded in its DNA was the potential for a structural explosion, for Kohan to once again transform her creation and demand wholly a new reading of everything within it. Season 4’s cliffhangers—the death of a beloved inmate; Daya (Dascha Polanco) pointing a loaded gun at a guard; the entire prison rioting—all but confirmed that Kohan was about to take such a leap.

Her goal of dismantling the status quo creates problems OITNB didn’t have before—the superfluousness of its trademark flashbacks, to take one example—but it invigorates many of its storylines at the same time. Taystee views the prison’s uprising and the publicity surrounding it as an occasion to tell the world about her best friend’s murder. But as one of Litchfield’s smartest and most pragmatic denizens, she also assumes a leadership role, mourning, negotiating, and seeking vengeance at the same time. It’s a searing character arc that grounds the season and balances its emotional volatility—a quiet point of devastation amid the chaos.

Like OITNB, Weeds lost consistency after abandoning its original formula and evolving into a more straightforward antihero story. But the outlier, its sixth season, was arguably the most thoughtful, emotionally rich stretch of Weeds’ entire run—a family tragicomedy meditating on how its characters and their relationships had changed over five seasons. It was as if, after two years of border-crossing crime pulp, Kohan had stumbled back onto the right track with newfound passion and direction. In many ways, OITNB’s fifth season progresses as an accelerated version of a similar journey: It’s filled with bizarre detours and is never able to fully click into place, until it suddenly, beautifully does—and then soars above everything that came before it.

The season finale, in that sense, might just be the most brilliantly Kohan-esque episode of Orange Is the New Black to date. It recalls, fittingly, the Weeds Season 6 finale, when Nancy (Mary-Louise Parker) finally turned herself in and the show, through a freeze-frame, implicitly asked an open-ended question: What now? It’s a question that generally energizes Kohan, and she returns to it as she concludes this season of OITNB—a show with wider appeal and grander political significance. By the finale, the season’s hazy dream has already turned into a nightmare; over its final hour, it gradually moves toward a bleak new normal. Some characters hold hands as the prison’s doors are blown down; others are randomly bussed to surrounding facilities. It’s another point of no return for Kohan to end on, a despairing but game-changing cliffhanger that leaves her story’s future in the unknown. It’s strange, disorienting, and exhilarating—Kohan at her best.

David Canfield is a writer based in New York. His work has appeared in IndieWire and Slate. Follow him on Twitter.