SPOILERS THRU SEASON FIVE
This fifth season of Orange is the New Black ended as most of the seasons do – on a cliffhanger. The difference is that for the first time every primary lead on the show is in mortal danger as the riot is coming to its inevitable, violent conclusion. Specifically, Frieda (Dale Soules), Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Red (Kate Mulgrew), Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Blanca (Laura Gomez) are holed up in an abandoned pool as the prison rocks from concussion grenades above them. Orange has been building tension each season and layering on the drama which finally came to a head with the accidental murder of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) and the cover up of her death by prison officials to protect the CO involved, Bailey (Alan Aisenberg), at the end of season 4. As the plot thread of an evil guard, Humphrey (Michael Torpey), bringing a gun into the prison against all regulations slammed head long in to Taystee’s inconsolable rage the riot kicked off leaving Daya (Dascha Polanco)with the gun holding the guards at gunpoint as the inmates shouted and the screen faded out.
Season 5 begins exactly where 4 ended and all 13 episodes cover only 3 days in the prison encompassing the entire duration of the riot. While events aren’t unfolding quite in real time it’s not far off which brings both tension and tedium that the show has never explored in such depth before. At the heart of the riot is Taystee’s demand for justice for Poussey’s death. She becomes lead negotiator for the demands of the women and their demands are remarkably reasonable. Better food, better healthcare, properly trained guards, an education program, conjugal visits, and so forth. And of course justice for Poussey by arresting Baxter Bailey.
At first things are going sort of well in the prison without the guards. The women try to create a harmonious society and actually succeed for a few hours. Then it all falls apart because the one thing Orange is the New Black is absolutely consistent on is the inability for these characters to get the hell out of their own way. The riot is finally brought down through a combination of the selfish actions of several characters. Red is so convinced she can take down Piscatelli based on an incident with a male inmate years before he came to Litchfield that she lures him in to the prison to exact a revenge that goes terribly wrong. Gloria is so desperate to get a temporary furlough to visit a hospital after learning son is in critical condition after a mugging that she cuts a deal with the head of MCC to free the prisoners. And then Maria (Jessica Pimentel) steals Gloria’s idea and releases the prisoners in exchange for clemency on her sentence, or so she thinks. And this is after the prisoners’ won. They got every demand met that the state could grant them, all except justice for Poussey because as they explained it is an internal affairs matter. And Taystee throws everything they could have won away when she hears that. It is understandable, but it is enormously selfish and shortsighted revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of how they are being seen on the outside by the powers that be. The state takes her rejection of the deal as evidence the women were never going to come to agreement and, coupled with the release of the guards, send in a SWAT team in force to quell the riot.
As the SWAT, dressed in full armor and carrying rifles that fire non-lethal projectiles, descend on the prison with brutal force the question of “What was the point? Was it all worth it?” was on my mind. Alex asks Piper the same thing as the women hear the doors to the prison blown open with explosives. The last image we see is the 10 women holding hands facing what is coming down those stairs as the doors are exploded off their hinges.
It is a powerful, scary image and I couldn’t help reflecting on the metaphor of passive resistance against an uncaring and corrupt government. Orange is a few years behind real time so the horror of a Trump presidency has yet to be revealed on the show. But it is impossible to watch this season without thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement, or the Million Women March, or the NFL players taking a knee to protest racist actions of police departments around the country. Because as each new revelation about Trump is brought to life, and as he antagonizes and insults a dangerous madman in North Korea, and strips rights and benefits from the poor, I can’t help but wonder “What is the point?”
Because it doesn’t seem like anything we do matters in the face of this uncaring and corrupt system. As white supremacy and Nazism is gaining power in Europe and the US its impossible to feel hope for our future. As we see what this administration values – money – over all other concerns it is disheartening. As we watch the Republican congress try for the 50th time to take away healthcare for millions of people I can’t help but watch and wait for a savior that is never going to come. The only savior that we have is us. And watching the women of Litchfield try to bring about change only to have it unravel through the selfish actions of a few is a near perfect allegory for the current state of the world.
Hatred is a unifying force, like it or not. And as long as they have hate, fear, and mistrust of the “other” on their side the bad guys will win. Because we can’t get our shit together long enough without breaking in to factions along cause lines and voting with our “conscience”. So it doesn’t matter how much we protest, or how long we shout, because eventually we break apart. But hate doesn’t stop. Hate doesn’t end. It burns, it consumes, and is incinerating the world unchecked.
Orange is the New Black used the death of Poussey to force a conversation that ended with Taystee getting almost everything that she wanted. But without 100% victory she threw it away. How different is that than this last election that saw Democrats split over pet causes that ultimately fractured the party and gave the election to Trump? Until we learn to get out of our own way we will never bring about meaningful change and we might as well be making the poetic, but ultimately useless, last stand in an abandoned pool standing hand in hand as the walls fall down on us.