Orange is the New Moral Dilemma: Season 5’s Tensions and Gray Areas

Like everyone else who’s been keeping up with Orange is the New Black, I, in my lack of self-control, marathoned the new season in two days despite having other things to do. After letting my thoughts stew for a bit and discussing some of them on Tumblr, I found myself thinking a lot about this season’s focus on blurred morality.

Season 5 stretches roughly four days across thirteen episodes, a significant change of pace from previous seasons, which generally cover a couple months or so. On one hand, this pacing makes sense because stressful situations, like riots, do make the days feel long. A lot happens to these characters internally and externally over a very short period of time. On the other hand, the riot felt too long. It didn’t need to last the entire season–in fact, it’s still not technically over. One reason why the season felt so slow is that several characters go through some intense changes and moral dilemmas that we as viewers logically think should take a long time to work through; however, it’s entirely possible to go through significant internal changes during a crisis in a very short amount of time.

Many of the changes for these characters involve moral dilemmas that have no easy answer. The broadest of these is “Can the inmates run a more just system than the existing prison hegemony, or will they resort to implementing the same abuse they were subjected to?”

Are We Better Than Them?

Over the years, Orange is the New Black has made us sympathetic to the prisoners, the protagonists. Now, some are dolling out the same abusive treatment they received from the guards, and whether we find it funny or repulsive depends on our sense of justice and notions of retribution. The show does this on purpose, forcing us to think about whether they are right to do so, and showing us some characters who blatantly question whether they are really better than the guards.

Some characters want to try and prove that they are–that when you take away the corrupt agents of the prison system, the inmates will create for themselves better living conditions. This works to some degree. Brooke gets her living library, some inmates create a cafe, and others set up small shops in the hallways akin to a craft fair. When Pennsatucky gets scathed for helping Coates, Boo convinces the other inmates that instead of throwing her in the Poo, they should hold a fair trial. Ultimately, Tucky’s “punishment” is community service, which makes her happy, gives her a sense of purpose, and appears more rehabilitative than locking her in a port-o-potty.

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However, other characters care more about retribution or simply want to relish in the chaos. Leanne and Angie literally piss in Tucky’s pot, forcing Tucky to conclude that doing nice things for others is pointless–that the second she starts to feel a sense of purpose in life, it’ll just be taken away, not only by the guards (the system) but also by the people in the same boat as her. These circumstances place a pessimistic spin on the notion that subjugated people can rise up and run themselves more justly instead of emulating the practices they’ve known for their entire lives, or in this case the treatment they’ve received in prison.

Pull The Lever?

In this vein, several characters face moral choices of the utilitarian variety: sacrifice the one for the many or the many for the one? This problem explicitly arises when Piper, Black Cindy, Allison, and a few other inmates watch Taystee’s negotiations with Figueora and Figueora learns that someone shot one of the guards. It comes down to a choice of whether they should turn Daya in to keep Figueora’s quickly dwindling trust, or if they should cover for her. Piper connects this dilemma to the utilitarian answer to the trolley problem–whether you should sacrifice one person to save many more people. Ultimately, Daya makes her own decision and chooses the many by turning herself in. By taking responsibility for her actions instead of trying to get away with them like her mother always taught her, Daya manages to keep the negotiations on the table for all the other inmates to see the changes Taystee is fighting for.

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Throughout season 5, Taystee has only one goal in mind: justice for Poussey. In my opinion, she and Brooke are the only characters who keep Poussey at the forefront of their minds. Other characters, like Allison, help to solidify the anger and pain into tangible demands that can help the inmates who are still alive. Together, all the black girls lead an organized effort for all the inmates to input their demands. Then, the black girls sift the top ten demands into a written letter, and it’s these written demands that Taystee spends hours negotiating. In her mind, all of it is for Poussey. Toward the end of the season, however, Black Cindy voices her disagreement, telling Taystee that her efforts stopped being about Poussey and started being about her pride a long time ago. She believes that Taystee should accept a deal with Figueora, one that satisfies every demand except the one most immediately related to Poussey’s death: arrest CO Bailey. Should she settle for this and struggle with feeling like she caved in or lost sight of what the whole riot was really about? Or should she stick to her ideals and push for every demand? In other words, Taystee’s dilemma is whether she should help the many by taking the deal offered to her and (theoretically) secure tangible changes for all the inmates, or if she should help the one (Poussey) by seeing that her killer is brought to justice. Taystee chooses the one. She holds out on accepting the deal and getting most of the demands met. Then, the moment is gone and by the season finale, it looks as if none of the demands will be met.

Whether we think Taystee was right to stick to her ideals or that she made an entirely foolish decision that screwed over hundreds of inmates depends on how strongly we value ideals over imperfect yet real compromises. Either way, this should be a major sticking point for Taystee in the next season. She will be blamed for not having taken what she could to help the inmates who are still alive.

Personally, I never sensed as I watched that Taystee had become prideful or that she had turned the riot and negotiations into an effort to stroke her ego. I think she wanted retribution for her best friend’s death, and whether her choice becomes a good or bad decision will depend on how season 6 unfolds.

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Taystee and Daya are not the only ones who face this many-or-one decision. Gloria struggles with it as well when she learns that her son is in the hospital and the only chance she has at getting furlough is if she releases the hostages. However, that would mean betraying everyone she’s known for the past several years. Does she leave the hostages alone for the (supposed) good of the many prisoners to continue the riot and their demands for justice? Or does she choose the one–her son–above all else? Though she does choose her son, her efforts fail, emphasizing the reality that many of the characters on this show face: the best attempts to do the right thing–to change–are stacked against them because someone somewhere wants them to fail, whether it’s another inmate, the system, or the universe.

Resistance and Social Media

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I once jokingly told a coworker that sometimes, the best way to stick it to the man is to “just chill.” That’s exactly what Alex ends up doing, though she doesn’t see herself as a resistance leader. All Alex wants this season is to chill outside in her bulldozer house and not deal with any drama, yet this somehow becomes a symbol of resistance to other inmates who want nothing to do with the riot. But is it really resistance to hang out away from the fray and not partake in the chaos inside? Mostly, it seems like self-preservation. Alex herself isn’t trying to make any statement, but her “followers” do participate in the outdoor camp to resist the violence of the riot. Through one lens, they may be cowards for not participating. Through another, they may be smart for doing what they must to protect themselves. Yet the chaos does eventually reach them, and Alex ends up locked in a supply closet with only a shower curtain covering her as Pischatella ruthlessly breaks her arm. Gina catches this incident on camera, then disperses it into the world of hashtags and reblogs.

Yoga Jones comments later on that it’s hard to ignore injustice when it’s on your Facebook feed, yet she says this in a pessimistic tone. This is important because it makes the audience think about how the wider world only appears to care about injustices when we see them on social media, not at any point before. It conjures questions of the merits of social media activism and why it takes something going viral for people to begin caring about an issue. Yet social media is a powerful tool this season and its role in the show reflects its role in reality. It’s not always the vehicle for change that we want it to be. The Internet will take a serious video, autotune it, and spit it back out as a meme, as we see with the Litchfield confession video and “Black Lattes Matter.” The most viewed content coming out of Litchfield appears to be Flaritza’s makeup videos, which do contain some brutality in the background, but are otherwise silly and therefore perfect for a YouTube fanbase.

Whether it’s good or bad that it takes social media to stir consciousness about injustice depends on our sense of how people should respond to daily injustices, our views about social media in general, and how removed from a particular experience we must be to first see it on social media–or on a TV show, leading me to my last reflection.

Art Reflects Life?

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I’ve had a post about season 4 sitting in my drafts for a year because most of it consists of rhetorical questions, and I couldn’t articulate my thoughts without sounding like I was making excuses or diminishing experiences I don’t have. Season 5 has helped to bring some of that into clearer focus.

The truth is, I saw Poussey’s death in multiple lights. I saw the needlessness of it in that she was one of very, very few queer black characters on television and was therefore vital representation for so many. The season also aired during a year where it seemed like every TV show was killing off its queer women. Furthermore, one point of Poussey’s death was to stir consciousness in an audience that might not otherwise have cared about or understood #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, some non-black fans of the show did post about how they never felt affected about this particular brand of injustice until it happened to a character they loved, and we know how some of us can be with our attachment to fictional characters. Why did queer black representation have to be taken away like that for some audiences to awaken?

In another light, I see Orange is the New Black‘s overall purpose and a particular silver lining that art, in general, occupies. Orange is the New Black has always aimed to raise awareness about life in incarceration and the mistreatment inmates face in federal prisons. Though it wavers between humor and drama, Orange is the New Black has always had realism in its serious plot developments. That intention on the writers’ parts is clear. The reality of a black person dying at the hands of a federal or state authority figure is well within the scope of horrors that Orange is the New Black could reflect back to its viewers. The show has always aimed to be provocative. One of fiction’s roles is to stir outrage and reflection upon broken parts of society, to make readers and viewers care about people and issues and realities that they might not have otherwise known or cared about. The great thing about all of this happening in fiction? It’s not real. This is why fiction is a safe(r) place to encounter these situations. At the end of the day, Samira Wiley is still alive. Poussey herself is just a fictional character, one who is well-developed and certainly feels like a real person, but still a character nonetheless. That is our level of removal from any story we read or watch, and sometimes, that removal is protective. Does Poussey’s death reflect what happened to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland? Absolutely. Poussey not being real doesn’t mean that her story isn’t realistic or that it isn’t based on reality. It just means you can sit there taking in what happened after that fade to orange and know that this particular case is only a story.

Would Poussey’s story have turned out differently if the Orange is the New Black writer’s room wasn’t mostly white? I’m not sure, but I think about how Dear White People had Reggie almost shot by a campus security guard and how that provoked a similar sense of outrage among the characters. Not only did Reggie not die from that incident, but the audience also saw the psychological aftermath–both the trauma and friends gently checking on Reggie. To me, this was just as powerful and made as much of a point as Poussey’s death did, but Reggie lived.

Personally, I could go back and forth with myself on this and many of the other tensions Orange is the New Black presents to us. Although I’m starting to sense that this series is spiraling out of control and is nearing the ends of its run, I’m still invested enough to see it through to the end.

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