It’s a crisp October day at the Astoria, Queens, studio where Orange is the New Black films, and Litchfield Penitentiary is covered in books. There are hundreds of them, hanging from strings lining the hallways of the prison set like some kind of art installation, or the creative decoration of a college dorm. As best I can tell from a quick walkthrough, there isn’t much cohesion to the titles – they’re mostly the sort of donated paperbacks that might you might expect lining a prison library. It’s the most striking change for the show’s fifth season.
The inmates of Litchfield have decorated the prison with books in honor of Poussey, the character played by Samira Wiley who worked at the prison library and who was killed at the end of the fourth season by one of Litchfield’s guards. The rest of the set is lined with hand-crafted memorials – and a list of demands. In the forthcoming season, Orange is the New Black will dive fully into the aftermath of the murder. It’s going to be a riot.
“Season five happens in real time – we’re experiencing a riot at the prison in real time,” says Taylor Schilling, who plays Orange’s original protagonist, Piper Chapman. More accurately, it will take place over three days, closely tracking the inmates, prison staff, and guards – several of whom have been taken hostage. The “real time” designation still suggests a certain hectic, action-packed quality to the season. (Yael Stone, who plays the sweet, ditzy, unstable Lorna Morello, compares it to 24.) It promises to be a far cry from the show’s early, rosier vision of a group of women from an array of backgrounds banding together to have wacky adventures in prison. Maybe that’s for the best.
Orange is the New Black is reportedly Netflix’s most-viewed original series. (The streaming service does not release actual numbers, so any claim it makes in this regard should be taken with several grains of salt.) In a decidedly Netflix-like business decision, it has already been renewed through season seven, and will probably remain on our screens at least through the end of the decade — but it already feels like a relic of the Obama administration.
Over the course of the show’s first, best season, Orange focused on Piper Chapman, a terrified, nominally liberal woman who slowly discovers that Litchfield’s other inmates actually have inner lives. At its best, the season used Piper as a sort of dark, narcissistic mirror for the show’s (mostly) white, wealthier viewers and their preconceptions about the criminal justice system. By now, she’s just another kooky member of the cast. Even Schilling hesitates to describe her as the show’s protagonist: “It’s not about any one person.”
The show had to eventually come to rely more heavily on its ensemble, since there were few notable names in the cast. “We came in, for the most part, as nobodies,” says Stone. The biggest stars in the season one cast were Kate Mulgrew, best known for playing Captain Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, and American Pie’s Jason Biggs, who played Piper’s hapless fiance, Larry. Still, Stone says, “When Jenji [Kohan, the showrunner] casts you, she casts you for a reason.” Uzo Aduba, who plays “Crazy Eyes”, also lauds the show’s casting process: “I genuinely want to know what they were drinking when they cast the show, because whatever was in that water, keep it.” (Aduba has won two Emmys for her work on Orange.)
Litchfield itself is, increasingly, the focus of the show – the only way for characters like Poussey to come and go without crippling the ensemble. The otherwise spare conference room where actors have been brought in to talk to press features a huge map of the entire prison, surprising Schilling: “That’s so cool, that’s a map of the prison – I’ve never seen that from a bird’s-eye view.” Several members of the cast mention their inability to see the whole picture of the show, down to details about their own characters. (Stone was not told that Christopher, Morello’s “fiance” in the first season, was largely imaginary until she had to act through being exposed.)
Even the bricks, large, faded yellow, and decidedly industrial, seem to have been ripped straight from a poorly constructed public building. There should be a hive of activity – the set should be bustling with production assistants, writers, and producers moving in and out of offices. But there’s another shoot happening in a children’s psychiatric hospital in Rockland County, New York, where the show’s exterior scenes are filmed, and it’s hard to pin down where, exactly, anything is happening. Stone notes: “It’s a very large machine.”
If there’s one thing everyone can agree on, it’s their love of Kohan, whom they praise unanimously and unambiguously. Schilling lauds Kohan’s ability to “start a conversation”, Stone her “incredible ability to put her finger on the pulse of what’s going on”. Mulgrew, who plays the irascible Russian cook Red, is more effusive: “Do I think Jenji Kohan has an imagination that one can penetrate or describe in any way? Absolutely not. She’s an original mind.” (Both Mulgrew and Aduba praise Kohan as a “genius”.)
As the show has gone on, each member of the cast has grown more involved with prison advocacy groups (most infamously the actor Matt McGorry). It would be hard to deny that Orange has had at least some effect on white America’s awareness of the pressing need for prison reform, but it’s also not hard to link the show to Samantha Bee comparing her recent Riker’s Island visit to “a Caribbean vacation”. Aduba captures the appeal and pitfalls of the show simultaneously: “It’s a voyeuristic society.” Is prison really a place people should go for light-hearted relationship problems and melodrama? Is turning people’s very real suffering into this sort of entertainment worth it?
These are questions that are much more salient in the wake of Poussey’s death. “It’s very disturbing how relevant that season turned out to be, in ways no one could have known,” Stone says. (Being timely, of course, can cut both ways.) This is, partly, why the forthcoming season seems to put character development on the back burner. “It’s more focusing on the political implications – inside the prison and out of the prison – of an inmate takeover,” Schilling says. Aduba, who used to live around the block from the Astoria studio and recalls walking to work during the show’s first season, reflects on the intensity of the moment as a break from what the cast had felt like beforehand. “It’s like a death. That’s why I don’t want to watch this. I don’t need to watch this,” she says. “It’s hard to watch an innocent leave.”
Poussey’s innocence – and the show’s ability to balance timeliness and lightheartedness – isn’t the only dream to die before the new season of Orange is the New Black. When I visited the set in October, Schilling and Mulgrew had just finished stumping around college campuses in Ohio. Mulgrew, recalling the trip, reflected on the optimism she felt about her role on Orange, and about the world at large: “What am I about to see? Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the first female president of the United States.”
- The fifth season of Orange is the New Black will be released on Netflix on 9 June.