The last season of Orange Is The New Black was, to say the least, an unpleasant affair. Following Poussey’s unjust death at the hands of a corrections officer, Litchfield found itself the setting of a full-scale riot. By the end of the 13 episodes — which covered only about three days — dynamics drastically shifted, two guards were dead, and viewers were exhausted. The writers’ intentions were clear, and somewhat admirable, but it cast too wide of a net and kept spiraling — sometimes into agonizing depths.
Although Orange has always been a dark show, something shifted after Poussey. The storyline, written by an overwhelmingly white writers room, capitalized on black trauma and did a disservice to Black Lives Matter. Season five’s literally tortuous “The Reverse Midas Touch” was the most disturbing of the series’ run — I wouldn’t be surprised if people checked out. Going into season six, the question becomes, “How the hell is Orange going to fix itself after that?”
The answer is by attempting to go back to its roots. Season six, which premieres Friday, feels far more like the first two seasons than the last two. It’s still quite messy (as we’ve come to expect from a show that’s constantly trying to do so much with so many characters) and there’s a great deal of it that doesn’t work, but fortunately there’s also some success. For one, many of the episodes better navigate the darkly comedic tone (last season felt largely humorless), starting with some inventive scenes in the premiere. It’s scaled back in terms of scope and cast (a handful of inmates, such as Maritza and the druggy duo of Leanne and Angie, were sent off to different prisons). Much of the season focuses on a smaller group: the handful of “riot girls” who were shipped down the hill to the maximum security facility.
Even two of the season’s biggest and most captivating long-arcs feel simultaneously high stakes but smaller scale: the investigation into specifics of the riot/Piscatella’s death, and Taystee (Danielle Brooks) facing a harsh sentence while also becoming a cause for the ACLU. Taystee easily gets the best plot, a smart idea considering Brooks’ pitch-perfect, heartbreaking performance continues to reach new heights. It’s the plot with the most emotional investment but, true to Orange nature, it’s too-often used in relation to the people around Taystee (such as Nick Sandow’s Caputo and his inner turmoil) when it should stay on her.