The fifth season of “Orange is the New Black” has been out for almost a month, which means that everyone should have had a chance to watch it, even if you’re not a binge watcher. In the past, my husband and I have binge-watched entire seasons of “Orange is the New Black” in two or three sittings. We typically have the season finished within days of its release. But not with Season Five. This season was way too intense for us to binge watch. We’d watch a few episodes at a time and then have to step away because it gave us all the feels and we couldn’t deal.
“Orange is the New Black” started to take a turn for the super intense last season and that theme definitely continued in to Season Five. This season takes place over only three days and focuses almost entirely on the events of the riot, which started at the very end of Season Four. All of the flashbacks focus on events that somehow tie in to the events of the riot. This condensed time frame spread out over thirteen episodes adds to the intensity of the season.
The subject matter also gets more intense in Season Five. Past seasons addressed issues like racism, classism, substandard living conditions, the problematic private prison system, and violence against inmates, but those seasons did so in subtle ways. In Season Five, these issues are all brought to the forefront and depicted in ways that border on downright disturbing.
To say that Season Five was tough to watch would be an understatement. Here are some of the times that Season Five was just too much to handle.
12 When the rioters violated the prison guards
Early on during the riot, the inmates start to take the guards prisoner. They sweep the prison in groups and capture any guards who were unlucky enough to be inside. Initially, they keep the guards locked in one of the observation rooms in the dorms. Then Maria, who has become a leader of the riot activities, decides that she wants to get the whole prison together for a kind of riot pep rally. She instructs some of the inmates to bring the guards to the chapel.
Maria gathers the prisoners on the stage of the chapel and tells them to strip down to their underwear. She then announces that the guards will be undergoing “cavity checks” just like the ones the inmates endure whenever the guards want. As they perform an improvised cavity check on one of the guards, they begin to cry in front of the crowd. Of all the inmates watching, Alex is the only one who vocally objects.
The scene is probably meant to be a commentary on the fact that guards are allowed to violate inmates any time they please. The inmates are just “getting back” at the guards for violating them at will. What the scene fails to explore is the fact that violating the guards is just as heinous as the guards violating the inmates. The scene justifies and glorifies retaliatory violation. It’s painful to see the guard violated and humiliated, just as it is when it happens to the inmates.
11 When CO’s Bayley’s guilt became a major part of the storyline
Poussey’s death in Season Four at the hands of CO Bayley is the reason the riot began in the first place. The inmates are violently protesting the violence they’ve faced at the hands of the CO’s. But instead of allowing that storyline to be the sole focus of the season, the show’s creators chose to focus part of the story on CO Bayley and how he’s dealing with the guilt of killing Poussey.
Throughout the season CO Bayley is shown being consumed by his guilt. He gets drunk and attempts to turn himself in, but the cops don’t listen because he’s drunk. He tries to kill himself, but does so by drinking non-toxic pet hair dye. Bayley even goes to visit Poussey’s father to apologize to try and alleviate his grief. We get to see his entire, painful grief and guilt riddled process.
The problem with this is it takes away from the narrative of his violence. Whether or not he intended to, Bayley’s violence led to the death of a woman of color. He’s just another white cop whose fear led him to murder. By humanizing him and focusing on his guilt and pain, the show is implying that his actions are forgivable because of his feelings of remorse. Watching the creators of the show try to explain away his violence feels like an insult to all those people of color who have died at the hands of scared, white, male, cops.
10 When Luschek admitted his fetish for adult films featuring prisoners
The imprisoned guards have all sorts of interesting conversations while they’re locked up together. At one point, the conversation turns to how they can escape from the room they’ve been imprisoned in. They’re talking about ways to trick the inmates in to opening up the door when Luschek comments that an adult film he loves starts with all the inmates of a women’s prison chained together and locked up in a room, similar to their current predicament.
When the guards look at him weird, Luschek admits that he has a fetish for adult films featuring prison inmates. Coming from Luschek, who’s always been portrayed as sleaze, the comment isn’t too surprising. But it does drive home the disturbing trend of guards at MCC who get off on exploiting inmates. Though Luschek is usually portrayed as mostly harmless, it’s beyond disturbing to think about a guard working at a prison who goes home and gets off to female prisoners. It’s not okay for a guard, who has power over the inmates, to be continually sexualizing them in his head, which is what he must be doing if he likes adult films set in prisons.
9 When Donuts spied on Pennsatucky
The inmates spend many of the early episodes scrounging the prison for things they’re not normally allowed to have that they can now use with impunity. Many of the prisoners end up finding cell phones and start using them to contact loved ones, check Facebook, and, in the case of Maritza and Flaca, getting YouTube famous.
When Pennsatucky finally finds a cell phone, she’s got other ideas in mind. She takes the phone to her bunk and is seen setting multiple alarms. She then sets the phone to vibrate and sticks it down her pants. She’s clearly having a very good time.
Then a ceiling tile above her moves and CO Coates, aka Donuts, peers down at Pennsatucky. He proceeds to watch her pleasure herself, without her consent. In a previous season, Donuts molested Pennsatucky, but she forgave him and has since fallen for him. Their budding relationship is skin crawlingly gross because it ignores the fact that he violated her in a violent fashion. Watching her pleasure herself is just another violation Coates perpetrates against Pennsatucky, one more in a series of violations, yet this is never addressed.
8 When Red cut off CO Humphrey’s thumbprint to access his phone
Much of Season Five depicts Red’s slow descent in to obsession and compulsion driven by her need to exact revenge on Piscatella. Her revenge quest starts by searching through Caputo’s office in an attempt to find incriminating information about Piscatella. In Caputo’s office, she finds Blanca, who offers to assist her in her search and also offers her “vitamins,” which are actually speed.
Red proceeds to go on a speed binge. She discovers that Piscatella killed an inmate at his old prison. She and Blanca decide that they’ll lure Piscatella in to the prison, capture him, and force him to confess to the murder. Red gets her hands on CO Humphrey’s cell phone and begins texting Piscatella, but soon discovers that she needs his password every time the screen locks. Blanca informs her that she actually only needs his thumbprint and in a speed fueled haze, Red slices off Humphrey’s thumbprint. She proceeds to carry it around the prison with her and use it every time the phone locks.
This act is gruesome enough in itself, but it’s even harder to watch because it’s the ultimate demonstration of how far Red has descended in to her obsession with revenge. Watching Red spiral out of control is painful for anyone who’s grown to love the character.
7 When Lorna told Suzanne to stop taking her meds
Issues of mental health have not been handled very well in previous seasons of “Orange is the New Black” and Season Five is no exception. Often, the show has treated mental illness, especially Suzanne’s, as kind of a tragic farce, funny but also sad. The show has removed a lot of the seriousness and nuance from mental illness and they’ve failed to address the fact that, in reality, the majority of women in the prison system deal with mental health issues.
In Season Five, when all the staff who typically dole out medication are gone or locked up, mental health takes center stage. Lorna, whose nickname Loca Lorna becomes more prominent this season, decides that her mental health issues aren’t real, they’re just people’s inability to accept her as different. She then convinces Suzanne that her mental health issues aren’t real either and refuses to give Suzanne her meds.
This storyline is harmful to anyone with active mental health issues. Portraying people going off their psych meds without the supervision of a doctor is irresponsible. Trivializing refusing meds, the way Lorna does without fully examining the consequences blunts the severity of this decision and the impact it has on people with serious mental health issues.
6 When Leanne and Angie whitewash Suzanne
After Lorna refuses to give Suzanne her meds, Suzanne has a complete mental break. Cindy, Janae, and Alison try to mitigate this by creating a pretend prison within one of the dorms so Suzanne can return to her routine. They bring the guards in to her dorm and Suzanne is allowed to play in her fantasy world with the guards for a while.
When the Mexicans come to retrieve the guards they are rough with them and Suzanne gets upset. To control her, the Mexicans use handcuff style zip ties to tie Suzanne to her bed post. Suzanne is stranded there for some time.
Eventually Leanne and Angie find her while looting bunks. Suzanne asks them to let her go, but instead they literally whitewash her. They use baby powder to make her skin look white and tell her that life will be easier for her if she looks. When Suzanne is finally freed she examines her face in the mirror and breaks down as she washes the white off her face.
The image of two white women standing over a restrained black woman preparing to “make her white” is nauseating and watching Suzanne process her “white” face is heartbreaking. Like with so many portrayals of racism on OITNB, these scenes miss their mark and come off as plain tasteless.
5 When Piscatella victimized, humiliated, and assaulted the prisoners
In Season Five, Piscatella’s hatred of the inmates and his blatant sadism come to a head. He gets tired of waiting for the authorities to resolve the riot peaceably and breaks in to the prison in full SWAT gear. Piscatella begins stalking the halls, assaulting and capturing any inmates he can find. It becomes clear that he’s looking for Red and when he finally finds her, his true intentions are revealed.
He systematically humiliates Red, beating her and shaving her head in front of her closest friends, all the while telling her how vain and awful and useless she is. When the other inmates he captured, including Piper, Alex, Blanca, Boo, and Nicky, try to intercede, he beats them ruthlessly, even breaking Alex’s arm with his bare hands.
The scenes are trying to make a point about the violence that often occurs in prison because of guards who exploit the power imbalance between them and the inmates. This definitely comes across, but the depictions of his physical and emotional violence against the inmates are so unsettling that the point is lost in the visceral reaction to seeing this kind of despicable violence. The scenes are also super triggering for any woman who’s ever faced violence at the hands of a man.
4 When Piscatella killed an inmate in a flashback
We rarely ever see flashback scenes for the guards, but in Season Five we’re subjected to the story of how Piscatella became the monster he is. In his previous prison he was a relatively sane and stable guard, who fell in love with an inmate. When his relationship with the inmate is discovered by another inmate, a group of inmates assault and violate Piscatella’s inmate boyfriend.
Piscatella vows to kill the ringleader of the assault and he follows through on his promise, in a shocking way. He and another guard are seen alone in the bathroom with the inmate who led the assault. The inmate is chained to the shower, unable to get out. Piscatella turns the shower up to a boiling temperature and leaves the inmate in the shower. The other guard suggests they should stop when the inmate begins to scream in pain, but Piscatella denies hearing screams and leave the prisoner to die.
As with the scenes of Piscatella assaulting the inmates, this scene is just too visceral and raw. Instead of cutting away from the inmate dying in the shower, the scene lingers on him screaming and writhing in the shower. It’s just gratuitous. The same impact could have been made by cutting the scene earlier and implying what happened. We already knew that Piscatella killed an inmate in a shower. We only needed to see the setup to get the point, but the show’s creators went for overkill instead.
3 When the SWAT team was unnecessarily violent while clearing the prison
The riot became such a PR nightmare for MCC and the state government that they sent in negotiators to meet with the inmates about their demands in an attempt to end the riot peacefully. Throughout the season, Taystee has been acting as the inmates’ representative in the negotiations. While negotiations are going on, SWAT teams are waiting outside in case negotiations fail.
Eventually, the negotiations do break down when Taystee finds out that representatives of MCC can’t guarantee that CO Bayley will be prosecuted for killing Poussey. The SWAT teams are sent in to clear the prison and, of course, all hell breaks loose.
The SWAT team is almost immediately violent with the inmates. They slam them on the floor and in to walls much more roughly than is necessary to retrain them. In a few scenes, prisoners who are willingly surrendering are violently assaulted by the SWAT team. In one scene a member of the SWAT team punches an inmate in the face simply for talking back and in another scene the SWAT team members are instructed to use their fists or tasers if they’re looking to have fun with the inmates.
We get it. Men in uniforms with power over the inmates are likely to be physically violent with them. After an entire season of seeing the inmates treated violently by men, these scenes were just too much. It seemed like the show had devolved in to depicting violence for the sake of violence.
2 When Alison was forced to walk out of the prison without her head covering
After the prisoners are subdued inside prison, they are put in shackles, shackled to each other, and marched out of the prison. All of the women look beaten down, physically and emotionally and watching them be paraded out of the prison is hard. When Alison is shown coming out of the prison, her head covering has been pulled down and her hair is exposed.
This may seem like a really small detail and you might not have even noticed, but this depiction of Alison is actually a really big deal. Alison is the first Muslim character to be depicted on the show and she’s the first character to be shown wearing a religious head covering. For Muslim women, these head coverings are a way for them to protect their modesty as a sign of their piety. Forcing Alison to remove her head covering and parade in front of news cameras without it, is a massive form of humiliation for her character.
This depiction is a visceral reminder of all the non-violent ways that women, especially religious women, can be degraded by people who hold power over them. After an entire season of watching women being degraded in every way possible, this final degradation targeted specifically at a Muslim woman is just too much.
1 When Pennsatucky played house with Coates
Before the SWAT team stormed the prison Pennsatucky discovered a hole in the fence and managed to break out. She fled in to the woods where the CO housing was set up. There are a few scenes of Pennsatucky raiding the CO’s houses for food and resources. Eventually she ends up in CO Coates house, where she makes herself at home. She even curls up in his bed.
When he comes home, the two have an affectionate reunion and she suggests they curl up on the couch and watch TV. They proceed to do so, in a scene that looks very much like a regular night in for a committed couple.
The scene is haunting and sickening. Throughout the past two seasons, the show has normalized the idea of having a romantic relationship with an abuser by romanticizing the relationship between Pennsatucky and Coates. Big Boo has often voiced her opposition to the relationship, but this is the only way the show has addressed how messed up it is. Often, it seems that we’re supposed to be rooting for Pennsatucky and Coates’ relationship, even though it’s completely toxic.Normalizing their relationship by depicting them as a regular couple at home watching TV creates the dangerous perception that women can develop healthy relationships with their abusers.
“Orange is the New Black” has never shied away from honest, visceral depictions of difficult things. The show’s creators and writers seek to highlight the problems present within the prison system by presenting unflinching depictions of the awful things that happen behind prison doors. While this is an admirable goal, in Season Five, this goal gets lost in its own execution. The content is so hard to watch that the viewer is more likely to focus on the awfulness than the message. Like so many shows out there right now, the question becomes do these unflinching depictions actually help to create conversations about the problems, or do they just glorify the violence they seek to depict?
Sources: Orange is the New Black Season 5, Refinery 29