Thirteen hours after we see Daya (Dascha Polanco) pull the trigger and shoot a prison guard, setting off days of rioting, hostage taking, and a standoff with police, we see what the final reverberation of the bullet is: the lives of 10 prisoners remain in the balance.
The Daily Beast’s review of the new OITNB season centers on the first eight episodes, in which the rioting unfolds in real-time to alternately thrilling and silly result, and, in the meantime, sidelines the show’s best characters and actors (Kate Mulgrew’s Red, Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne/“Crazy Eyes,” Taylor Schilling’s Piper) for huge swaths of the action.
But the biggest reason to focus that initial review on the first two-thirds of the season is because, immediately after, the show takes a jarring, hugely dark pivot, and follows that path for the rest of the triumphant—though horrifying and heartbreaking—final stretch of episodes.
Those episodes tackle genres and depictions of brutality that the series hasn’t attempted before, full of huge action set pieces that would be ambitious for any show, let alone one that has never played in that universe before, and, with the final moments of the season, ensure that nothing about Orange Is the New Black will ever be the same.
Episode 9, “The Tightening,” is one of the show’s most adventurous episodes, and sets the dark direction the end of the season will take. The entire episode is staged as a horror film.
Red, while on her caffeine pill bender (the less on that, the better), misguidedly lured the monstrous C.O. Piscatella (Brad William Henke) into the prison, where he Friday the 13th-style hunts down and captures Red’s closest friends at Litchfield. It’s a well-executed homage to the genre, with the Big Bad-lurking-around-the-corner motif delicately toeing the line between terrifying and camp.
There’s no line, though, when Piscatella starts torturing his captives, specifically Red. As he starts shearing off her hair, occasionally scalping her in the process, OITNB produces its most grisly sequence yet. The series has always spelunked into the caverns of human depravity—just how vile can one human being treat another?—but watching Piscatella revel in this explicit kind of torture porn is a new depth of darkness for the show.
It’s that rare viewing experience: simultaneously riveting, but you have to look away. It certainly has to be commended, but is also an unusual move for a series that has made the empowerment and dignity of women its veritable cause to mine entertainment out of grotesque violence against them.
Regardless of how you feel about that, though, it pulls the lever redirecting the show to the track it concludes the season on: some dark shit.
The stretch between “The Tightening” and the season finale, “Storm-y Weather” is largely spent on negotiations, with Danielle Brooks’s Taystee managing to broker all of the prisoners’ demands except for one, and it happens to be the one she was pursuing with tunnel vision: justice for the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) in the form of criminal charges against her killer, C.O. Bayley (Alan Aisenberg).
When she’s informed that such a thing is outside of the jurisdiction of negotiations, she rejects every offer made. With one good-intentioned ruling of the heart, she screws over everyone. She essentially gives the go-ahead for the riot police to rush the prison, ruin the lives of every prisoner in Litchfield, and maybe gets herself and nine other women killed in the process.
It’s only later in the episode that Taystee realizes what she’s done, that in her dogged pursuit to honor the memory of her friend, she’s instead invoked her name as justification for an apocalypse. “I fucked it all up,” she cries near the end of episode, with the performance sealing Brooks’ status as the season’s unrivaled acting VIP. “I failed her. I’m so fucking stupid.”
And what did that failing bring?
While the blues standard “Stormy Weather” plays, the riot police storm Litchfield. Prisoners are tased and beaten, but mostly they’re scared. There are a handful of clever music cues throughout the episode, but they don’t overpower what ends up being the hour’s true soundtrack: the sounds of the inmates screaming. The percussion: the thuds of their bodies being shoved, slammed against walls, and thrown to the ground.
The undercurrent of all seasons of OITNB thus far is fear—the fear of being in prison, and even the fear of what will happen to them if and when they leave. But this is the first time the palpable, resounding fear in the inmates is a fear for their lives. It’s an intense hour of television, and one that is calibrated impressively.
There are several wrenching sequences that take place in slow motion, like the opening burst through the doors and the tasering of Vicky Jeudy’s Janae, or Soso (Kimiko Glenn) being carried out of the memorial she built for her girlfriend, Poussey, staring at the suspended books for one last time.
The show never denies us its trademark comedy, like when meth heads Leanne (Emma Myles) and Angie (Julie Lake) have the realization, while huffing cleaner fluid, that their actions during the riot where morally ambiguous at best. “What if we thought this whole time we were Ariel but we’re actually Ursula?” Angie asks. “Obviously I’m Sebastian and you’re Flounder. We are lovable clowns,” Leanne replies.
The dramatic beats are harrowing, too. There’s something very eerie and shaming in the act of having the inmates paraded outside in lines while the press and their families look on. And as they’re all separated onto buses and carted off to who-knows-where, your heart breaks. These women have made a family together, for better or worse, and now they’re being separated. Who knows what—or what hell—awaits them. But now we know that they’re going to have to face it alone.
Of course that leads to the final moments of the episode. The riot squad realizes 10 inmates are missing. It’s Red, Piper, Alex, Suzanne, Taystee, Gloria (Selenis Levya), Blanca (Laura Gómez), Black Cindy (Adrienne Moore), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), and Frieda (Dale Soules).
We griped in our review that the first portion of the season leaves most of these characters frustratingly ignored. But this final stretch made up for it in spades, giving them rich, intense material that their portrayers all execute brilliantly. It makes the realization of what’s most likely to come all the more heartbreaking. As the riot squad infiltrates the bunker, armed with permission to inflict casualties, at least some of them are going to die.
Of course, that’s the cliffhanger. We don’t know who. We just know that the show will forever be different.
Inmates will die. Those who survived have all been separated. What would such a fractured OITNB look like?
The show is almost facing a creative dilemma akin to a high school drama when its characters graduate high school. Do you follow them all in separate arcs? Do you concoct an unbelievable, cockamamie plan to nonsensically keep them altogether? Or do you simply say goodbye to a large portion of the characters and refocus the narratives on a small group that makes sense?
It was a thrilling finale that leaves the show backed into a creative corner. Some might wonder if this marks the moment when the show “jumped the shark,” a TV term for a plot line late in a series’ run when far-fetched events are resorted to as a last gasp for interest and relevance, but which actually signal a decline in quality—a reference to when Fonzie water-skied over a shark in Happy Days.
But for as much attention as this show gets for highlighting the very real and very vital issues surrounding prison reform, race, sexuality, and womanhood, it’s also a show that has always lived in its own semi-whimsical universe—one that welcomes the silly as open-armed as it does the intense.
So until we see Kate Mulgrew grinning on skis cruising across the Litchfield Lake, this show gets to revel in that, and in this spectacular finale.