“You think your feelings are real, but they’re not. Trust me. It’s like… the sky is blue, right? But when there are clouds, you think it’s grey. But really, it’s still blue. It hasn’t changed. It’s just covered with grey clouds passing by. Now, the clouds are your feelings. The sky is how it really is. Your clouds will pass by.”
She probably doesn’t realize it at the time—seeing as she’s just awoken from a deep, Lithium-fed slumber—but the comforting words Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) offers Taystee (Danielle Brook) pretty much sum up everything that went wrong for the ladies of Litchfield in Season Five. Taystee allowed the grey clouds of anger and grief to form a storm front, and she could no longer hear reason over the thundering pain in her heart; Red (Kate Mulgrew) let the grey clouds carry her away on an ill-conceived warpath she knew she would never win. Ultimately, only those who joined the peaceful resistance avoided getting caught up in their rage, and while their choice to remain on the sidelines could benefit them in terms of a milder punishment as the riot comes to end, what does it say about the “post-racial” stance the ladies have supposedly adopted for this movement?
Those who chose to sit under the blues skies of Litchfield´s prison lawns had their voice in the demands, but they did not actually partake in the intricacies of the fight, particularly where justice for Poussey was concerned. There’s a reason why Taystee and Janae (Vicky Jeudy) believe this aspect of the riot to be their personal fight, and the (predominantly) white resistance to the riot proves their point. Had the riot in fact operated from a “post-racial” perspective, the entire prison population would have backed Taystee on her demand for Bayley’s prosecution, because when a person loses their liberty and dignity, it should affect us all.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu proclaims:
Those who are good at knighthood are not militaristic, those who are good at battle do not become angry, those who are good at prevailing over opponents do not get involved.
If this quotation is anything to go by, the inmates have failed on all counts. They did precisely what Sun Tzu warns against: They operated within the sphere of emotional influence (Taystee), within the sphere of vengeance, and fought violence with violence (Red/Team Latte). It’s all easier said than done, though, when you’re standing on the outside looking in. After three sleep-deprived days—and only four since “death came to the cafeteria”—how is it possible to keep your heart from bypassing logic? How can you hold on to your humanity after weeks, months, years of unnecessary cavity searches, humiliation and violence? Being exposed to such psychological and physical torture would have turned Krishna into a raging lunatic, and while I’m not necessarily excusing their actions, I can see why revenge is an attractive notion to inmates like Taystee, Red and Blanca (Laura Gómez) when it comes to Piscatella (Brad William Henke).
“Without a struggle, there can be no progress,” Frederick Douglass once said. But Douglass’ intentions and strategy were clear; in the end, many of the prisoners’ weren’t. And this is where Sun Tzu has a point in saying, “It is the unemotional, reserved, calm, detached warrior who wins, not the hothead seeking vengeance.” If Red and Blanca’s idea of “progress” hadn’t been driven by their need for revenge, they wouldn’t have put the lives of their fellow inmates at risk. Had Taystee been able to put her own emotions aside, perhaps “Storm-y Weather” would have ended on a victorious note—but even then, it’s not enough for one person to remain level-headed in the face of an emotionally charged situation, especially when others are still motivated by their heartache, including those, like Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel), who are consumed by their maternal instincts. The ladies share the goal of creating change for the greater good of the prison population, but that doesn´t mean they’re not following their own agendas as well. Solidarity is a complex concept when the personal stakes are so high.
Would the outcome have had an all-around happy ending had Taystee signed off on the negotiation? I highly doubt it. The inmates still would have been shipped off to different prisons, or possibly max, but at least they would have gone down with, at the very least, a future with hot Cheetos and Takis to look forward to—let’s be honest, things probably wouldn’t have changed all that much, despite what the governor, MCC and all the other suits promised. Never trust the suits. Litchfield is a wonderland of a fictional prison, but a real change on all counts of their demands would have been too unrealistic, even for OITNB.
As far as public interest goes, Piscatella was probably right in saying that the incriminating video would be forgotten, and no longer taken seriously, as soon as someone added fart tracks. In an earlier episode, a news segment about the Litchfield riot was immediately followed up by a perky piece about the latest pooch-carrier trends because, sadly, that’s the kind of world we live in: Trivial shit is always competing with life-and-death issues for our attention. As Ruiz predicted earlier in the season, they’ll most likely end up having to rely on Change.org or the “Flaritza” followers to keep the movement alive. But none of that matters: What matters is that they took a stand. Together, as a united front—and this is where the series is always at its strongest.
With each season, OITNB’s writers dig deeper into their characters’ souls, the ghosts that haunt their past and their personal growth in the present by way of their relationships to one another. We might never have recognized Cindy’s (Adrienne C. Hall) maternal side kicking in had it not been for Suzanne and Allison (Amanda Stephen). Nicky’s (Natasha Lyonne) search for real, unconditional love, and the brokenness she tries to paper over with her sharp-tongued quick wit, wouldn’t be as apparent were it not for Lorna (Yael Stone) and Red.
These women have each other’s backs and accept one another regardless of their past crimes. And while, for the most part, this has only applied to individual cliques, there was a general democracy to this season. In the era of Trump, Brexit and a worldwide epidemic of xenophobia, images of Christians peacefully praying next to Muslims, or of Nazis and White Nationalists—I still don’t understand the fucking difference, sorry Sankey—setting aside their racist attitudes long enough to raise their fists in common cause with the Latinas, may be exactly what we need, as fantastical as those scenarios seem.
We need the characters to be better than the men who treat them like animals, but we also need them to feel some form of justice—which comes rather poetically, with Piscatella dying at the hands of a bloodthirsty rookie officer. (Or, as Cindy puts it so beautifully to Humphrey (Michael Torpey): “Karma, know what I’m saying”?) But, most importantly, we need them to stay strong, stand strong and keep their dignity. And that they do.
OITNB’s fifth season may be flawed in places, but I’ve decided that I feel the same way about the series as I do about Sense8. Yes, it’s difficult to drive the story of an ensemble cast forward without losing sight of certain plotlines, and no, not all storylines come to a sensible conclusion—Aleida’s (Elizabeth Rodriguez) being a good example, seeing as there’s no real point to it other than keeping her on the show. But for all its flaws, I would gladly watch new seasons of OITNB (and Sense8, of course—are you reading this, Netflix?) for the rest of my life: the incredible cast, the diversity of the characters and the complex friendships/relationships that develop between them are what make the series, and Season Five continued to thrive on exactly these factors.
Who knows where our ladies will end up in Season Six, but it looks as though we might be tuning into several different fucked-up prison programs for visitation with varying groups of Litchfield OG’s —and the new cliques are bound to include the most unlikely candidates.
Roxanne Sancto is a freelance journalist for Paste and The New Heroes & Pioneers. She’s the author of The Tuesday Series & co-author of The Pink Boots. She can usually be found covered in paint stains.