Contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black Season Five (Episodes 1-7)
Orange is the New Black isn’t short of uncomfortably compelling moments: when you’d like to look away, but can’t look away. Rosa knocking Vee over with her car. Mendez framing Tricia’s death as suicide. Humps forcing Maritza, at gunpoint, to choose between eating ten dead flies or one baby mouse. Piscatella degrading Red. Poussey’s death. All of these moments have one thing in common: a ridiculous, hateable villain – the kind of villain you want to see humiliated and annihilated.
Orange is the New Black lives and dies on the strengths of its villains, which have changed shape considerably over the course of its five seasons. When Piper first arrives in Litchfield in Season One, potential enemies are everywhere – fellow inmates, guards, her councillor, even her friends and family on the outside. In Season Two, the caricatured prison gang leader Vee was reviled by audiences for her manipulation of Suzanne, and her death was one of the most satisfying revenge fantasies (and series finales) the show has ever had. (Her villainy was only rivalled by the fraudulent prison administrator Natalia Figueroa.) In Season Three, the rivalry between Piper and Stella replaced a single, hateable villain (to the series’ detriment). And in Season Four, two guards, Humps and Piscatella, took up the mantle with great effect.
There’s a pattern at work here. As the seasons have developed, the villains of Orange is the New Black have become increasingly representative of structural oppressions. It seems bizarre to remember that Suzanne, one of the sweetest, loveliest women at Litchfield, makes her debut as a villain: “Crazy Eyes”, Piper’s sexually aggressive “prison wife”. Then we meet Vee: she, through her bullying of other inmates, serves to demonstrate the ways in which good people can be manipulated and blackmailed into larger crime syndicates, but she’s still a black, female prisoner who has fallen foul of police corruption herself.
Season Three explores the potential for Piper – who has until this point functioned as a kind of proxy for the audience – to become a villain herself thanks to her white privilege. Season Four’s villains are a collection of corrupt guards and MCC – the company that owns the prison – itself. With each season that passes, the villains are relocated higher and higher in the systems of oppression that keep Litchfield’s inmates down: and all the while, the corruption and misconduct of MCC takes on a larger role in the story.
Now, Season Five is reaching even higher. After Poussey’s murder by a guard, the inmates are rioting, and they’re directing their anger not just at the individual guards that have wronged them, but at the discriminatory and dehumanizing prison system that allowed things to get to this point. While inflighting flourishes in the chaos, key characters like Alison and Taystee remain focused on a larger structural enemy. “Our fight is not with Judy King,” Taystee insists after describing the celebrity chef’s preferential treatment. “Our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people and brown people and poor brown people. Our fight is with the folks who hold our demands in their hands.”
But who are those folks? When Alison writes out the list of the inmates’ demands she addresses it “To whom it may concern”. Nita from Governor Hutchinson’s Office repeatedly insists to Taystee, “Please don’t make the mistake of thinking we’re the enemy.” Even the inmates themselves don’t really know who their enemy is. What happens when your villain has no face?
The latest season of Orange Is The New Black grapples with big, messy topics like structural oppressors, the industrialisation of prison labour, the politics of effective protest and the obstacles that face rebellion on mass. But as the inmates are increasingly discovering their enemy is harder to pin down than they’d hope, it also becomes more difficult to realistically and satisfactorily write episodes of television with defined character arcs, conflicts and pay-offs. Sometimes, you really feel the lack of someone to scream at.
There’s a scene in episode seven that explores this problem in micro. Janae is helping Brook (still reeling from Poussey’s death) with her grief through exercise, and is giving her a boxing lesson. “Now,” she says, holding up a pillow with a crude face drawn on it in black marker. “I want you to punch this face like it’s the person you’re most angry at.”
“Okay, that is so reductionist: I’m not, like, angry at one individual person,” Brook shoots back. “It’s bigger than people! I want to punch the prison-industrial complex!”
“Well, I can’t draw that shit,” Janae says. “So punch the pillow!”
As the villains of Orange Is The New Black become increasingly abstract, they become more difficult for the writers to draw. The guards themselves now look like pathetic pawns played with by a larger evil; familiar MCC faces (Caputo, Linda, Piscatella and even the return of Fig) feel smallfry; and new agents of oppression lack the terrible charisma of previous villains. Instead of easy emotions like FUCKING KILL THE BITCH WITH YOUR VAN, ROSA, this season invites us to explore more complex foes. It’s a commendable move: its distinctly less cathartic, and a little more like real life.
But I’m someone who likes to scream at the TV every now and then. If we still don’t get a villain before this season’s over, expect to see me with a Sharpie, a pillow and a whole lot of rage.