Starring Taylor Schilling, Natasha Lyonne, Danielle Brooks, Selenis Leyva, Nick Sandow and Kate Mulgrew.
Warning: Minor Plot Spoilers follow for Season 6. Major Spoilers for Season 5.
Season 5 got mixed reviews. I personally loved it, but I can see why some thought it got too fan-service-y in places. Even it detractors have to admit the riot made for compelling viewing. But there were always going to be consequences. The first half of S6 is all about those consequences, and the two key themes of the season are betrayal and redemption.
The opening episodes see the feds out to pin the blame for both the riot and Humphrey and Piscatella’s deaths on at least 5 of the inmates, which leads to a lot of backstabbing and mud-slinging as the various inmates try to save themselves or settle old scores. Some betrayals you really won’t see coming, others are what season 5 was all building up to. The remaining episodes deal with the consequences, as the inmates in question seek revenge, struggle with guilt or fear retribution.
While most of the regulars are back this season, a lot of familiar faces are missing (because they were put in a different prison, while we follow the ones sent to Litchfield Max). Characters like Big Boo and Helen get mere cameos, while ones like Watson, Norma and Chang are entirely absent. A third of the guards from last season are gone too, though Dixon, Luschek, Donuts and McCullough are all back to some extent.
There are various new characters too, both prisoners and guards, some of whom are more memorable than others. The main plot of the season sees the inmates caught up in the tension between C-block and D-block in Maximum Security, driven by a long-standing feud between sisters Carol and Barbara, who are the two major players in Max. Other newbies include their enforcers, Badison (who might just be the nastiest piece of work OITNB has given us) and Daddy (who strikes up a surprisingly sweet relationship with one of the series regulars). The new guards are similarly hit-and-miss, but chief Hopper, Luschek and McCullough’s arcs make up for the less interesting ones.
Things feel a lot more tense this season – the very nature of Max has you constantly worried that someone is about to get shivved or beaten up (both of which happen) while some of the guards are beyond brutal in how they treat Daya and the riot leaders. Orange is the New Black has always been good at mixing humour and drama with the darker side of prison life, and that balance remains as compelling as ever here. If had to criticise, the central conflict between the blocks peters out a bit too much, and there’s no shocks here up there with Poussey or Piscatella’s deaths, but the season as a whole is still pretty great viewing regardless.
The humour is still on point, with highlights including Flaca and Black Cindy teaming up as the new prison radio hosts and Suzanne and Freida becoming cellmates. While most of the romance focus is on Piper and Alex, there are several other compelling pairings throughout the season (including a somewhat unlikely love triangle involving Luschek and two of the prisoners, as well as the conclusion of the Doggett/Donuts arc). Surprisingly the best pairing of the season is Caputo and Fig, who’s relationship plays a much bigger part in the story than you might expect.
Meanwhile it’s Red, Taystee, Daya and Ruiz who get the lion’s share of the drama side of things. The flashbacks remain mostly interesting – Freida’s is arguably the most important, though its Nicky and Cindy’s snapshots that will probably leave a lasting impression. The majority of flashbacks tend to focus on the new characters rather than existing ones, but this was pretty inevitable given the number of cast changes this season.
Overall, I wouldn’t say this is OITNB’s best season, but its a damn good one, even if the finale lacks the punch of recent seasons. Focusing in on a smaller section of the cast seemed to work well, but the quality of the newcomers varied. The show still remains the best Netflix has to offer though.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5