From the first season on, Orange Is the New Black relished in turning viewer expectations on their heads. What started as a show about a privileged white woman named Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) feeling her way through a minimum security prison became multilayered and complex as the seasons progressed, taking a tragicomic view of the lives of incarcerated women. Its sixth season, which premiered on Netflix in its entirety on Friday, falls squarely in line with what we’ve come to expect: familiar faces, new characters to invest in, and too many storylines to keep straight. What’s different with Season 6 is that the show does little to make us care about each character, new and old, as we once did.
After an electrifying fourth season, which left fan favorite Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) dead, creator Jenji Kohan departed from the formula and set the fifth over the course of a three-day prison riot, stretching that premise over 13 episodes of hour-long television. It was a risky choice and the work of watching last season felt tedious and occasionally confusing; this season, which feels penultimate, exhibits some of the same issues.
The inmates implicated in the riot and the death of Desi Piscatella, the monstrous guard with a sadistic streak from last season, have been moved to maximum security at Litchfield, down the hill. The guards who were held hostage during the riot are in varying stages of mental anguish and disarray. Joe Caputo, the warden at the time of the riot, hits rock bottom and eventually crawls his way out. Some familiar faces are missing—Big Boo, Annie, Lolly, etc—but the ones that remain are familiar enough to viewers to serve as an anchor amidst the other swirling plot points involving new characters and larger, more sinister evils.
[Light spoilers for the season follow, so please proceed with caution.]
Now that the women have been moved back to maximum security, there are new alliances to be formed. Most of the new plot line is dedicated to Barbara and Carol, two sisters whose decades-long beef has created a gang war between the D-block and the C-block that no one really cares about but them. And then there’s Badison (Amanda Fuller), a foot soldier for Carole with an improbably terrible Boston accent, who plays the game with the most malicious of intentions. There’s also an investigation that runs throughout the season to see who will take the fall for Piscatella’s death and the riot. Taystee—Danielle Brooks, who is incandescent in her rage—is the scapegoat and her story is compelling but receives short shrift, because time is spent focusing on other storylines of fan favorites, like Pennsatucky’s short-lived escape, aided and abetted by Coates, the guard that raped her in a prison van in the show’s third season, and then fell in love with her.
If the show had narrowed its focus this season, and really delved into Taystee’s trial, that could’ve been much more engaging. But because of the predictable structure, old guards and inmates could return at any time. It’s hard to determine where to put your care—and your focus—when the threat of a familiar face or a whole new backstory lurks behind every door.
As Sophie Gilbert noted in the Atlantic, the primary enemy on this show has been the prison itself, with each season unfurling to reveal a new level of immorality. The show is too clever and self-aware to paint either side—prisoners or guards—in purely black and white, though. Each side is rendered with humanity. By this point in the show, the guards’ stories get equal weight; the trouble is that there are so many storylines that it feels impossible to care about any of them enough.
Over the years, OITNB has wandered easily between genres, which is why it works, but this season further revealed how much the show shares DNA with the workplace sitcom, in a similar vein as The Office or Parks and Recreation. Jenji Kohan’s specialty is in what could be considered unconventional workplace sitcoms. Weeds was about drug dealers, but it was also about the difficulties of establishing oneself in a well-established industry with unwritten rules and moral codes. OITNB is about the inmates, but it’s just as much about the guards and the bureaucracy that looms over both groups like a thundercloud. It’s a clever choice that makes the guards sympathetic characters instead of monsters, fighting against the same system that is damaging each group in very different ways.
The guards in max aren’t like the guards up at camp—in what was the cruelest twist of this season, these guards cook up a nightmarish game of Fantasy Inmate, which is really just fantasy football but with inmates instead of football players. The game serves as both a bonding experience and an act of self-preservation: if the prisoners are fighting with each other, they won’t turn on the guards. This is appalling, but it is also a bit heavy-handed; the speech by a prison guard in one episode pointing out to Luschek that this system is just as evil as slavery felt a bit on the nose.
At the end of the season, though, loose threads are tied up and storylines are pushed gently towards their ultimate end. The final scenes point towards current events, hinting at evils greater than the incarceration industry: the U.S. government and its policies, created by a xenophobic administration intent on destroying families and maintaining a sort of racial purity which has always been a fiction. In the face of this very specific horror, both the guards and the inmates will suffer.