Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers from Season Six of Orange Is the New Black.
She’s the series’ chorus, its voice of (un)reason, its innocent abroad, so when Orange Is the New Black focuses on Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), that’s our signal to listen close. In the Season Six premiere, Suzanne, along with many others implicated in the fifth season’s prison riot, finds herself down the hill in “max”—maximum security—separated from “gen pop”—the general population—and subject to questioning. In the course of putting an end to the riot, as we’re reminded in a harrowing flashback, a trigger-happy S.W.A.T. team killed malevolent corrections officer Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke), then proceeded to cover up his cause of death by framing the inmates; Suzanne’s interrogator is trying (and failing) to pin down a reliable account of events. But her tearful response, which suggests the complexities of finding “the truth” in the chaos of an investigation, is even more telling for its tacit reference to the narrative structure of Orange Is the New Black. Or, to be precise, its narratives’ structures, emphasis on the plural: “I don’t know what to say,” she pleads, briefly reaching the heart of the matter before spinning off into Goldilocks and the Empire State Building and the suddenness, the irrevocability, of death. “I don’t know what to say! There’s the story, and then there’s the other story, and then there’s the up-until story, and then there’s the after-story.”
There is, as far as I’m aware, no better one-sentence description of Jenji Kohan’s tragicomedy, which first inhabited, subsequently expanded, and finally exploded the framework supplied by Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir. From the series’ first season, in fact, the plot of Orange Is the New Black has been the after-story, the epilogue to its trademark flashbacks’ up-until stories: Of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and her on-again/off-again lover, co-conspirator, enemy, friend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon); of uncompromising Russian chef “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew); of the wrenching disaster that leads to Suzanne’s incarceration, the humorous con that lands Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero) in jail, the string of unhappy accidents that brought Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (the delightful Danielle Brooks) to Litchfield. Of lesbians, Latinas, inmates, guards; of activists, Appalachians, mothers, daughters; of the hard-up, the middle-class, the once-lucky, the beaten-down. At times, the up-until stories have so swiftly and forcefully encapsulated the lives of the women therein that Kohan seemed close to perfecting the flashback, if not reinventing it: Think of the heartbreaking Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), soaking in a bathtub wearing a rival’s wedding veil, or the galvanizing Blanca Flores (Laura Gómez), gleefully fucking the gardener on her employer’s chaise longue. Orange Is the New Black made its name by refusing to limit itself to one, or two, or twenty stories. Indeed, their proliferation, as the series brought on new characters and filled in others, became its creative wellspring: The main action might be confined to Litchfield, but those flashbacks contain the world.
In this, Orange Is the New Black has tended toward an amiable, if at times exasperating, messiness. (There’s not a single season of the six so far that couldn’t have been 10 episodes instead of 13.) It darts among characters, subplots, and time periods with all the grace of a bull in a china shop, and though its detours and departures can be inspired—a particular favorite of mine sees Piper, a limousine liberal if ever there were one, become the leader of Litchfield’s white supremacists, accompanied by Kander and Ebb’s imitation Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”—they hang together with spit and glue, often abandoned or forgotten almost as soon as they’re introduced.
In retrospect, even the exception proves the rule: Season Two features, at once, the compelling up-until stories of Morello, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), and Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat); the battle-of-wills after-story of Taystee and her charismatic mother figure/antagonist, Vee Parker (the mesmerizing Lorraine Toussaint); and, in the superb “It Was the Change,” the history of their relationship—all before killing Vee off in the season finale, and with her any chance of the season’s arc overstaying its welcome. It is, in short, Orange Is the New Black’s finest hour, a big-hearted, self-contained melodrama with streaks of humor and desperation, alive to systemic injustices as they act on specific characters in specific ways, balancing up-until stories and after-stories so deftly they approach the seamlessness of life itself, its sometimes frightening inexorability.
It’s also a feat the series hasn’t come close to repeating. At first it seemed merely aimless—Season Four’s piecemeal heed to Litchfield’s privatization, a brilliant notion that nonetheless failed to jell—but with Poussey’s death at the hands of CO Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), it became actively troubling: Paste’s former TV editor Shannon M. Houston described its use (and abuse) of the Black Lives Matter movement as “cowardly,” perhaps a result, as I wrote in my recap of “The Animals,” of the series’ much more convincing—if possibly inadvertent—portrait of white silence.
It’s here, at the conclusion of Season Four and into Season Five, that Orange Is the New Black’s strengths begin to sour. It offers its empathic embrace first to Bayley—depicted as a sweet kid swept up in a series of prison protests, his life ruined by killing Poussey—and then, still more questionably, to Piscatella—suggesting that his brutal mistreatment of the inmates is connected to his repressed homosexuality, which manages simultaneously to make his pain the focus and turn him into a twisted closet case of old Hollywood stereotype. Even the fifth season’s most admirably ambitious gambit—it’s set entirely within the 72 hours or so of the Litchfield riot—hews to the same old parameters (13, roughly 50-minute episodes), which only emphasizes the series’ stunningly cavalier chronology: Long before her release at the end of Season Six, Orange Is the New Black has long since blasted through any sense of realism about the length of Piper’s sentence (15 months), which is strange for a series about incarceration whose theme song is titled “You’ve Got Time.”
Which returns us to Suzanne and the problem of the story, the other story, the up-until story, and the after-story: Season Six, a slackly paced attempt to bring together the very characters that last season’s finale seemed to scatter to the four winds, is also Orange Is the New Black’s most self-referential, one frankly obsessed with competing stories and their complications. Yet, smuggled into a season stretched so thin with stories it’s constantly on the point of splitting apart, this reads not as witty self-analysis, nor thorough engagement, but as an apologia, and one that’s too little, too late. After 65 episodes, a gag about Piper going on Jeopardy! and being unable to say anything but “Where’s Alex?” isn’t a sop to the fans who’ve endured their dreadful romance. It’s an insult.
And so, as it sifts through the (metaphorical) rubble of the Litchfield riot, adding along the way a new set of inmates (replete with up-until stories of their own), a new cadre of guards (as repugnant as ever), and a new arrangement of prison rivalries (switching the racial/ethnic groupings of prior seasons for warring cell blocks), Season Six does for the series’ fractured structure what Season Five does for its treatment of time’s passage, which is to burn through what’s left of the viewer’s patience and uncover the weakness beneath the strength. It’s unfortunate, too, because the recombination of the Litchfield ladies in max, and their conflicting, often self-serving accounts of the riot, contain at the outset a raft of fascinating possibilities: Among Red, Frieda (Dale Soules), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and Piper, Blanca, Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) and Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), Suzanne, Taystee and “Black Cindy”/Tova Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore), stories—what they admit, what they withhold, when they’re told and to whom—are now more essential than ever, which is why it’s so frustrating to see the series unable to tug the reins on its profusion of subplots. Piper and Alex are planning to marry, Tiffany “Pensatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) is on the lam with her rapist, CO Coates (James McMenamin), and prison staffers Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) and Linda Ferguson (Beth Dover) are jockeying for position in the corporate fallout from the riot—and exactly none of these generate one iota of the drama of longtime allies turning on each other to save their own skin. It’s not that Orange Is the New Black is precious about keeping characters around, either; it mercifully scuttled Piper’s ex-husband, Larry (Jason Biggs), and best friend, Polly (Maria Dizzia), ages ago, and this season shuffles Maritza and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) to prisons thousands of miles away with scarcely an explanation. No, it has to be that the series has lost the ability to see itself clearly, too enamored of the image it spies in the mirror, or screen: From the moment of Suzanne’s imagined, Litchfield-themed channel surfing, in the opening moments of the season premiere, Orange Is the New Black uses its heightened self-consciousness as a distraction, a deflection, from its serious shortcomings—an uncomfortably smug position for a series that earned its reputation by considering the flaws in us all. “I could write a memoir,” Piper says near midseason, as if to underscore this sense of the snake eating its own tail. “A cautionary tale. Share my experience. Expose the system. I could get a publishing deal.”
By the time Orange Is the New Black regains a modicum of momentum, as Taystee’s terrifically funny flashback (at a fast food joint named Storkey’s that serves neither chicken nor stork) feeds into her ongoing fight for justice—for Poussey and now, wrongly accused of murdering Piscatella, herself—it is indeed too little, too late, and the groundbreaking, thrillingly diverse series that has defined Netflix’s rise as an original programming powerhouse emerges as a cautionary tale of another kind, its own worst enemy. In the episode, “Gordons,” Taystee agrees to an interview with an investigative reporter, and her message for his readers is crystal clear. “Pay attention to my story,” she says, “because it’s not unique.” If this is the rationale for the series’ ever-multiplying stories, though, it’s one the writers’ room no longer seems able to pull off, certainly not if the clarion call of Regina Spektor’s theme (“remember all their faces / remember all their voices”) is to be heeded as well. In its self-awareness, Season Six of Orange Is the New Black may protest, rather loudly, that its characters’ complicated pasts (and presents) matter, but in practice its slapdash, splintered construction no longer honors those pasts (or presents) with the necessary care. And as any editor worth his or her salt will tell you, there’s one rule all great stories adhere to: Show, don’t tell.
Season Six of Orange Is the New Black is now streaming on Netflix.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.