When trying to remember the exact moment Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black’s unquestionable magic announced itself, one singular episode comes to mind: “The Chickening.” That is the season 1 episode where all of Litchfield Penitentiary is overcome with chicken fever after Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) — alleged protagonist, definite Trojan Horse — spots one such fowl in the prison yard. Soon enough everyone is desperate to track down “the chicken that is smarter than other chickens.” The then-fearsome Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) breaks into an all-out sprint. The Black inmates deploy a therapy dog. Piper bails on an all-important business call.
The episode is a beautiful look at how women in a dire landscape like prison, rife with the danger and despair natural to life in Lichfield, can still find joy. After all, the chicken is both a delicious, pragmatic promise of real-world “luxuries” OITNB’s inmates are denied — like fresh produce — and a folkloric dream in itself (according to legend, the chicken escaped its own prison).
That Orange Is The New Black, the one full of heart, warmth, and sublime black comedy is gone. The Netflix drama's sixth season, premiering Friday, July 27, is the final death knell for the OITNB of the past. In its place is a darker, bleaker drama that fits right in with the likes of the desolate Handmaid’s Tale.
Much of this new season’s darkness can be blamed on the location. Season 6 picks up soon after the events of 2017’s finale, where 10 of the series’ favourite inmates await the incoming assault from a rent-a-SWAT team. Some of those 10 women, and the other familiar inmate faces who reappear over the season’s 13 episodes, are now in the maximum security prison (aka "max") “down the hill” from Litchfield. You know, the one that has seemed like a glimpse into actual hell every single time we’ve seen it over the years (remember when Sophia was held in the SHU there?). That is where OITNB lives now.
The inherent malevolence of max colours every single moment the “cookies” — the creepy nickname the Litchfield camp alums get — are trapped in their new nightmarish existence. While gangs were always a looming threat at camp, at least those made sense through a disturbing racial lens. Here, violent tribalism is literally random (randomly assigned C-Block vs. randomly assigned D-Block, led by two new, warring, elderly criminal sisters) and threatens to swallow all of the remaining campers alive.
Similarly, while some Litchfield guards may have been monsters at camp, all guards are monsters at max. The question boils down to “What kind of monster are you?” There are manipulative monsters, and monsters who play games with inmates lives, and then there are monsters who simply like to hear the snap of women’s bones under their firsts and batons. A lot of the time, those battered bodies belong to women of colour.
In a world where women are under attack by real-life politics, and it seems there’s a new viral video of a woman of colour being viciously harassed every day, it is painful to watch bruised fictional women sigh, “I think he broke a rib this time.”
While almost no one in the core cast has a completely good time in Orange Is The New Black season 6, it often feels disproportionately cruel to its women of colour. Not to spoil anything, but tragedy comes for the Black and brown women of this show, and it comes hard. It is realistic in a way that unflinchingly reminds viewers of the awful racist realities of this world, but it’s also dejecting. This wouldn’t seem so bad if the proceedings were merely somber for all involved. Yet, there are some truly heartwarming, optimistic, and, even romantic moments over these 13 episodes — and nearly all of them just go to the white members of the cast. As a brown viewer, that choice doesn’t feel like keeping a show “real.” It feels like a painful ride on a depressing see-saw.
While Orange season 6 can often be a brutal run of episodes, it’s only fair to note the long-running series has rebounded from recent stumbles on a strictly narrative field. Season 4 was a mixed bag that ended with one of TV’s saddest deaths and painted the show into a corner. Season 5 was complete chaos, tumbling over three days and breaking under the weight of its sprawling cast. Season 6 fixes most of those problems by focusing its energy on far fewer inmates.
It says something about the cast size of OITNB in recent years that the upcoming season follows roughly 12 long-known inmates, and it feels like a smoother and centred series. That’s 12 inmates, plus entire gangs' worth of new max inmates, demonic guards, current administrators, and former Litchfield camp employees. Orange Is The New Black’s season 6 cast could rival that of Game Of Thrones, and yet the plotting nearly feels seamless this time around. It's like Orange had its coffee this morning. The change even leaves time for some surprise humour, which sometimes lands as peak black comedy, and sometimes flounders as nihilism masquerading as peak black comedy.
Orange Is The New Black season 6 isn’t a bad batch of television. But, this drama wasn’t always a horror show sprinkled with a few dark laughs. Remember, “The Chickening” had Chicken Madness, Daya Diaz (Dascha Polanco) giggling over a piece of gum from Bennett (Matt McGorry) when that couple was still too pure for this world, and Sophia (Laverne Cox) dealing with medical issues as a trans woman in the prison system. It was real, salty, and sweet.
But maybe the possibility of ever returning to that sunnier version of Orange Is The New Black died with Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) back in season 4. Season 6 is our new normal — find happiness where ever you can.
OITNB Season 6 premiers on Netflix on Friday 27th July.