Last season of Orange Is the New Black was an extremely divisive one. Following the aftermath of Poussey's (Samira Wiley) death, Season 5 presented 13 episodes covering three days. They calcified the loss of Litchfield's most beloved inmate as the prisoners, led in part by Taystee (Danielle Brooks), rioted to demand justice. The season concluded with an ending that was poised to blow up Orange's entire premise: the riot squashed, Litchfield shut down, and the women we've grown to love over five seasons carted off to different prisons. Regardless of whether you thought it was overambitious but commendable or you thought this is where you'd officially fall off the bandwagon, everyone was left with one major question: How on earth will Season 6 regain the balance that Season 5 was so sorely lacking when everyone was forcibly separated?
[Mild spoilers for Orange Is The New Black Season 6 below.]
The short answer is everyone who played a major part in the riot and the kidnapping of Officer Piscatella (Brad William Henke) end up at the same facility, Litchfield Max. Gone are the "camp" days of minimum security, our beloved characters lament. They're now in the Big House, and their new cellmates make sure they know it.
The longer answer is Jenji Kohan and the writers have set themselves up to play through the storylines of those left most vulnerable by failed riot, whether that's politically, emotionally, or physically. Taystee, as the leader of the protest demanding justice for Poussey's death, is now in a position in which she's reminded daily of how much worse things can get for her now that there's an official investigation into the murder of Piscatella and Officer Humphrey. Everyone else stays the course when faced with the same problem as Tastyee; they adjust to the elevated brutality of the guards and the inmates while looking for a way to reduce the number of years added to their sentences, leading to a fair amount of betrayal amongst their chosen families. Only Taystee stops to consider each compromise, clinging to the memory of Poussey and the certainty that raced through her when she demanded basic human decency for herself and her friends during the riot. And by sticking to her principles, she catches the eye of a pro-bono hotshot lawyer with ties to a major activist group. It's a move that garners Taystee respect both inside and outside of Max.
Like Taystee, many of the Litchfield camp crew are beginning to find distant glimmers of hope despite the demons that are catching up to them. Overall, Season 6 feels like a return to earlier seasons of Orange, when the slice-of-life scenes didn't distract from the realities of the prison industrial complex, but rather served as joyous reminder of this motley crew's humanity. A delightful highlight in Season 6 involves a hit prison radio show and the unlikely friendship that evolves from it. There's also a beautifully realized pregnancy storyline that ends tragically but highlights how eagerly these inmates cling to life.
The return to the tone and narrative structure of early seasons also means new cast members with flashback sequences that actually serve to further our understanding of the character rather than act as a beat between prison scenes. A prison guard played by Susan Heyward who shares a history with Taystee is a particular standout. Their strained relationship illustrates how minuscule of a shift it takes to go from "out there" to "in here." It's a grounding element that the show severely lacked last season and is a welcoming relief to see return.
But despite all of these much needed course corrections, Season 6 of Orange never fully coalesces. There's too little movement on too many plotlines for the season to feel anything but cumbersome on first watch. What should be a high-stakes season for the Litchfield camp crew as small fish in a big, violent pond somehow still lacks the tension and urgency of the show's initial outings. Perhaps that's because the potential of character growth is continuously teased but never realized. Season 6 is a return to what works for the show, but it's an effort that falls flat as we watch our girls fall into the same self-destructive habits — but this time with an auxiliary cast that we're not emotionally invested in.
The silver lining is Orange Is the New Black has one more guaranteed season on Netflix. There's still the potential of 13 episodes of payoff out there on the horizon. We already know it won't end well for most of the characters on the show, but there's still time to give them purpose — and a moment of happiness — before they leave us for good.
Orange Is the New Black Season 6 premieres Friday, July 27 on Netflix.