Friday, June 16, 2017

REVIEW: 'Orange Is the New Black' - The Riot Reaches a Complicated Conclusion in 'Storm-y Weather'

Netflix's Orange Is the New Black - Episode 5.13 "Storm-y Weather"

As chaos descends on Litchfield three days into the riot, the inmates wonder what the future holds and seek solace in loved ones.

This was an experimental season of Orange Is the New Black. The creative team chose to shake things up this year in order to keep the formula fresh and the storytelling relevant. It was an important decision to set this season in the three days that cover the riot at Litchfield. It made sure the weight of Poussey's death was apparent for the entire season. After the way the fourth season ended, it would have been strange for all of the chaos to be bottled back up and things return to normal operating procedure. So, it was smart to do things differently. There are moments from this season that are as strong as anything the show has done previously. It had a strong main story and a phenomenal character arc for Taystee. I'm already going to be super annoyed if/when Danielle Brooks gets snubbed for an Emmy nomination next year. But setting the entire season in a limited amount of time made some of the problematic parts of the show more problematic. Things were more connected than ever before. So stories and narrative threads would often be spread across several episodes instead of being kept to one. As such some moments that were incredibly silly and weird had to be drawn out for practical concerns instead of dramatic ones. More importantly, it was clear the season was setting up for some big event to happen at the end of the year. So, some stalling techniques had to be utilized during the middle stretch which did have some significant problems because the show refused to find the complexity in the situation. So, it was ultimately an uneven season. And I'm still a little unsure if this experiment has actually worked for the show because of the way the finale chooses to end things.

At the end of the season, things aren't neatly resolved. They didn't need to be. There are plenty of shows out there that thrive on ambiguity. This story didn't need to have a neat and precise ending that made it clear to the audience what the impact of the riot is going to have on all of these characters. But everything that happened this season was somehow connected to the riot. For the first four seasons, the show was about how the decisions made in this system affect the people trapped inside it over long periods of time. It brings some close together while it breaks many more apart. That has always been a fascinating main focus for the series. Some actions were important to some characters and not to others. With the riot though, it affected everyone. They all had to adjust to this story. Some of those stories were better than others. When the first was personal, it was moving to watch. But when the stakes weren't as high, it could just be incredibly silly. The finale is able to address all of the silly things that happened while making sure none of those characters are too damaged as a result. Meanwhile, the characters who were personally connected to the main story were left in a precarious position. One that ensures that these emotions and feelings won't be completely addressed until the next season. That's a bit of a letdown because it means the story itself isn't exactly over with.

And perhaps, it was foolish to believe that this riot was actually going to accomplish anything. This sweeping call for change happened because things got so bad at Litchfield under MCC's control. And yet, things weren't exactly great before MCC took over management. Nor are things immediately better now that MCC is no longer calling the shots. There is always going to be the perception that inmates are animals who deserve to be treated unfairly because that's the only way they see the world. They are savages who deserve to be punished. There is always going to be men in positions of power who abuse the system to their benefit. Before MCC, it was Pornstache who was causing problems at Litchfield. With MCC, it was Piscatella who used his power to deal with his horrible views towards women. And now at the end of the riot, it's the leader of the SWAT team who refuses to listen to anything that the riot was actually about. He's just ready to use whatever force is necessary because the inmates are criminals who want to kill him for storming the place. Similarly, there are always going to be underlings who weren't properly trained and whose actions cause problems. Before MCC, it was Bennett who fell in love with an inmate, got her pregnant and sent an innocent man to prison. With MCC, it was Bayley who was pushed so far that he ultimately killed an inmate. And now, the riot ends with a SWAT member not knowing that the pepper spray bullets need to be shot at the ceiling in order to be effective and not kill the targets. That was a complication just waiting to happen in this finale. Plus, there are the administrators who saw all of this happening and did nothing. Fig and Caputo were on opposite sides of the negotiating committee this season. And yet, they are equally to blame for the poor living conditions at Litchfield. Fig used the job as warden to line her own pockets while Caputo put up resistance to MCC's demands but ultimately went along with all of them. So, all of this builds to a system that was never going to be fixed just because of a couple of inmates pushing back and demanding respect.

As such, it's incredibly tragic to watch how this finale plays out. The inmates have been rioting for three days now. It's all coming to an end with a show of force by the Governor. There was the hope for a peaceful resolution that would lead to no casualties. But in the end, the Governor still signed off on being okay if a couple of the inmates were killed in the process. So despite pulling all-nighters in order to hammer out the details of a deal that works for everyone, no minds were actually changed because of the riot. The state of the deal is in flux as well. Taystee walked away despite getting all of the inmates' demands except justice for Poussey. She was fixated on that one idea. And now, that mentality is raining down hell on the rest of the inmates. Even the ones who want to surrender peaceful are forced against the wall and treated unfairly. They are still abused. The ones who fight back have a lot of fun in doing so. But they don't have the equipment to stage much of an offense. As such, the character moments when all of this is happening stand out the most. It's so hauntingly beautiful to watch as Soso is literally carried out and watches as the SWAT members tear down the book memorial to Poussey. It's so significant to her but they casually destroy it anyway. Lorna hopes that her being pregnant will keep her safe. And yet, both she and Vinny are knocked to the ground and forcefully taken away from each other. They recommitted to each other. That was nice but it was still traumatizing. Maria was the only inmate given a moment of humanity. She was allowed five minutes with her family. That's her reward for freeing the hostages. It's so brief and not what she ultimately wanted. But she is treated as human unlike the rest of the inmates who are being removed from the facility.

All of this leaves the characters in the bunker with the last stand. It's a place to hide out and avoid all of the chaos happening elsewhere in Litchfield. It provides Taystee with a moment of clarity and accepting everything that is happening around her. She was so focused on Poussey but it came at a significant cost to her. She almost loses Suzanne as well. The lithium Black Cindy gave her has made her catatonic. It's scary. She does recover. But it shifts things into perspective for Taystee. She realizes that all of this may have been for nothing. It's a scary realization to have - especially once she learns that Piscatella is being held hostage and the others in the bunker have a gun. She could get justice for Poussey by killing Piscatella. It's not the justice she wanted. But it would at least be something. It's such a strong and compelling moment. It's a character the audience loves coming to the brink of a life-destroying choice. Killing him would ruin the rest of her life. It would ensure that she never left the prison system. But instead, she found her humanity again and spared his life. She was not the one to kill him. In the end, the inmates showed him compassion. They allowed him to go. They were the ones who treated him as a human and not a monster. Of course, the show doesn't treat him the same way. He is killed immediately after emerging from the bunker. It's hard to particularly care about his death since he was a one-note character. It made it so tragedy did fall on the prison once more in the finale. But it didn't happen to any of the characters the audience actually cared about.

However, this finale sets up an unknown future for the show. It has already been renewed for two more seasons. So, it's still going to be telling stories for the foreseeable future. What happens next will be very important. It will help contextualize this season and whether the experiment actually paid off. Most season finales of this show have been 90 minutes long. This one isn't. It's just an hour. That's a strange occurrence. It could have played out exactly as it did but also have a coda that shows what happens next for these inmates. The majority of the population is boarding two buses that will take them to different prisons. Litchfield will be shut down. Perhaps it will get new ownership and new guards. It could reopen and all of the characters could return to it. But right now, it's suppose to be devastating that the characters are being ripped apart from their loved ones. It's going to be a mess no matter what. Angie and Leanne destroyed the inmate files. None of the inmates are wearing their identification badges. So, it's a mess that will take time to sort out. And plus, there are characters holding strong in the bunker. They aren't resisting. They stand united as SWAT blows through the door. They will be taken to the front yard and carried out to different prisons as well. But not showing that though means something tragic could happen to them between seasons. It seems unlikely that any of them will fight back and force SWAT to take action against them. But SWAT proved they could be careless. So something more could happen. Leaving it like this sets up mystery for next season. What will the narrative actually be? Will it split time between the new prisons? Or will it involve some kind of time jump that somehow brings everyone back to Litchfield? Whatever it is, it should be interesting to watch especially as it pertains to whether or not the actions of the riot changed anything within the system or the lives of the characters involved.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Storm-y Weather" was written by Lauren Morelli and directed by Jesse Peretz.
  • Okay, there's something wrong with the inmate count. The SWAT leader says that they are off by ten. There are ten people in the bunker (Piper, Alex, Taystee, Suzanne, Black Cindy, Red, Nicky, Frieda, Gloria and Blanca). But Pennsatucky and Chang also left the prison through the hole in the fence. Now, Linda being included would offset things by one. But that still leaves some kind of error which is very noticeable.
  • Things are also weird in regards to Pennsatucky and Coates. They are cozying up together at his house. They are far removed from the danger happening nearby. Plus, the gun she has doesn't go off either. That seemed like something important the show was setting up. But right now, it's just living in this twisted moment of Pennsatucky returning to her rapist. It's horrifying and she needs a wake-up call from someone like Boo.
  • There's a great moment between Piper's mom and Suzanne's mom outside the prison. They have no idea who each other is or the relationship their kids have had in the present. But they are going through this experience together and trying to comfort each other - with alcohol of course.
  • The treatment of Humphrey's body is a joke to the inmates but very serious for the SWAT officers storming the building. Black Cindy doesn't care about the body. She just needs the wheelchair to help Suzanne. Meanwhile, Angie and Leanne don't let him disrupt their last opportunity to get high in the riot. But then, seeing the body is what gets the SWAT leader to declare that things can now escalate further in regards to the treatment of the inmates.
  • The show tries giving moments of sincerity and understanding to some of the more comedic character pairings of the season. Leanne and Angie burn the files. And then, Leanne is happy to learn that her mother is outside worrying if she's okay. Meanwhile, Maritza and Flaca declare their love to each other just as they are being ripped apart at the buses. These are fine moments. But come a little too late to completely make their individual stories of the season work.
  • That's it for the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black. Again, it was a very experimental season with lots of highs and lows. I may need some more distance from it in order to gauge how successful it was. Maybe it will take until seeing the fallout of season six to truly know how to feel about this season. What I will say is that the moments were great while the larger picture is still up for grabs.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.