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Orange Is the New Black's Fifth Season Could Be Its Most Important Yet

Orange Is the New Black's Fifth Season Could Be Its Most Important Yet


Five seasons in, OITNB is telling the stories of the kinds of women most assailed under Trump.

The first moments of Orange Is the New Black's pilot episode telegraphed that the series, based on the memoir by Piper Kerman, would be revolutionary. But no one could have predicted that in its fifth season that it would take on a new urgency as the incarcerated women depicted on-screen would represent a cross section of so many Americans assailed under the Trump administration.

In the pilot, a shot of a baby being bathed in a kitchen sink cuts to a young girl taking a bath that cuts to two women engaged in what must surely have been foreplay in the shower, as the show's lead character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) says in voice-over, "I've always loved getting clean." That sentiment, of course, would become a metaphor for the years-long moral purge she was about to enter into at Litchfield Correctional Institute.

Then comes the most radical cut of all for TV at the time when the shower scene fades into a scene with another tub -- this one occupied by Piper and her fiance, Larry, in a tender, playful moment, followed by Piper navigating her first prison shower. Before the opening credits rolled, showrunner Jenji Kohan had cemented that her follow-up to Weeds would break barriers, considering she put her bisexual lead character right out there, even if viewers weren't aware at the time that the b word would never actually be uttered. Back then, in 2013, the series was electric with possibility.

For queer women pining for more than the occasional out character on shows like Grey's Anatomy and The Good Wife, OITNB held the promise of filling the void left by The L Word when it ended its six-year run in 2009. Beyond OITNB's queerness -- the first season included at least eight queer characters, including transgender actress Laverne Cox playing transgender and Lea DeLaria, a butch actress playing a butch -- themes of race, class, religious difference, and the privatization of the prison system would soon become front and center in the narrative. Still, on top of all of that prescient benchmark amazing goodness, the series featured an unprecedentedly large and diverse cast of women, which was, in itself, completely revolutionary.

OITNB Season 6 Gets Release Date

This weekend Netflix releases 13 juicy new episodes for fans to gorge on between the Pride March and the Tony Awards. In case there were any lingering questions as to whether or not the show is as important as it was in 2013, especially since Transparent came along and threatened to unseat it as the queerest show on TV, consider that with Donald Trump's pussy-grabbing "locker-room talk," the Muslim ban, proposed cuts to Planned Parenthood, the rolling back of protections for trans students and for women in the workplace, and his appointment of Neil Gorsuch, who is no friend to marriage equality, to the Supreme Court, OITNB is once again ahead of its time.

Season 5 picks up where last season's incendiary cliffhanger, which invoked issues that Black Lives Matter has helped bring to the fore, left off, with the women of Litchfield on the verge of rioting in the wake of Poussey's (Samira Wiley) murder at the hands of a guard. But Kohan and company have switched up the series format for this season. Rather than focus on several months in the lives of the women of Litchfield, the entire 13 episodes will play out over the course of 72 game-changing hours in which the inmates negotiate justice for Poussey.

Just weeks after Trump took office, Hulu released its eerily timely series The Handmaid's Tale, based on the dystopian horrors Margaret Atwood crafted in her 1985 novel in which women's value is reduced to the viability of their reproductive organs. Last month Netflix dropped the fifth season of its political potboiler House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as the diabolical couple who run the country. But no series has the ready-made ability to tackle intersectional issues like the microcosm that is Litchfield Correctional.


Over the seasons OITNB has tested its formula, morphing from an ensemble piece with a privileged, pain-in-the-ass white woman in an Alice Through the Looking Glass type of wide-eyed scenario at its center to a truly intersectional piece. Over the years, once the writers moved away from Piper as the axis, the stories have occasionally lacked focus, telling the backstories of sometimes very minor characters or of the male guards, whose origins never feel as charged or urgent as those of the inmates. Despite its missteps and its refusal to say "bisexual," OITNB has always been meaningful in the zeitgeist, and this season it stands to represent every marginalized woman under Trump's draconian rule.

The first time the women of OITNB took the stage en masse to accept the Screen Actors Guild Award for ensemble cast in a comedy it was tear-jerking. The actors filed onto the stage, Latina, black, white, Asian ... Cox stood on one end of the stage, statuesque and beaming, while DeLaria hugged a castmate a few people away. The sheer array of women celebrating on the stage was staggering for an awards show, and it didn't go unnoticed. The cast has won the SAG award three years in a row. Accepting in 2016, Laura Prepon, who plays Alex Vause, said, "Look at this stage. This is what we talk about when we talk about diversity. You know, different race, color, creed, sexual orientation..." to raucous applause. This year, just a few weeks into the Trump administration and the Muslim ban, the cast won the ensemble award again.


"We stand up here representing a diverse group of people," said Schilling, flanked by her castmates. "Representing generations of families who have sought a better life here from places like Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, Ireland ... and we know that it's going to be up to us, and all of you [nodding to the actors in the audience], probably, to keep telling stories that show what unites us is stronger than the forces that seek to divide us"

Considering the place it's already earned in television history and its dedication to depicting the lives of women whose stories are rarely, if ever, told, OITNB's season 5, with its themes of unity in uprising, could prove to be the ultimate primer for resistance against the Trump administration, and maybe they'll even say "bisexual."

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