‘Orange is the New Black’ Season Six Transfers Its Inmates to Brutal New Prison

In season six of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black the series is beginning to experiment with new avenues, more new characters and storylines trying to refresh the show. Season five was the peak of an attempt at something huge and climactic, as the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary engaged in protests, demands for dignity and an eventual riot that resulted in some unfortunate deaths. Now in season six the sadistic guards and their bureaucratic bosses are mopping up the mess. It’s essentially a reboot of sorts of the series, with moments that shine and some that make us hope this modern classic is gearing up for a final bow.

The times have just gotten darker at Litchfield as in the aftermath of the riot the authorities clean up the smoldering mess left behind, keeping some inmates in the same prison while transferring others to Litchfield Maximum Security Prison for “Administrative Segregation.” Left pretty shaken by what’s transpired is Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), who is deep into some hallucinations in the season premiere, flipping through imaginary channels in which her fellow inmates take on different personas. During a psych evaluation she imagines a row of prisoners doing the “chop chop slide.” Suzanne is the target of a hardcore interrogation into the death of guard Piscatella during the chaos. In flashbacks Suzanne remembers hiding from roving guards with Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore). Other characters are not doing any better. Daya (Dascha Polanco) is thrown into a cage with an untreated broken rib, Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) has a boiling vendetta with Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) for collaborating with the guards during the riot, and Taystee (Danielle Brooks), discovers that a figure from her past is at the Maximum Security facility, but as a guard. As the ladies find themselves in a brutal new environment, they also make new acquaintances.

For longtime fans of “Orange is the New Black” the new season will feel like a shaky attempt at rebooting the storyline after a season of mayhem. Many long-running series have recently been hitting some interesting snags as they enter the half-decade point. The challenge for this series is how to keep a prison drama going with most of the same cast, in a confined world, for so long. It’s a ying and yang of humor, memorable moments and stretched out storylines this time around. The biggest change is the introduction of new characters. Among the highlights are Daddy (Vicci Martinez), who immediately puts her eyes on Daya, handing her a candy bar through her cage and claiming she’s a legend after what went down at the penitentiary, and Badison Murphy (Amanda Fuller), the tough-talking new cellmate for Red (Kate Mulgrew). These characters are written with a great, classic prison drama tone. In one scene Piper (Taylor Schilling), notices Badison has a cast and asks if she’s seen Alex (Laura Prepon) in medical as they head for the showers. Badison’s solution is quite simple, pushing Piper onto the floor so her face bashes in, forcing the guards to send her to the medical ward. Moments like this retain the dark humor which has always worked to balance the show’s rougher edges. Suzanne’s hallucinations work like some kind of demented prison musical, with cast members taking on the roles of talking dogs and contestants on “Jeopardy.” In other episodes the show ventures outside of the prison walls and we get updates on some of the other characters. Caputo (Nick Sandow) is spending his days depressed, watching “Columbo,” coming to grips with the fact that his old life working at the prison are over following the disasters of season five. He also listens to podcasts and is trying to work out, but he can’t help himself and knows he’ll go beg for his old job. “Orange is the New Black” was never a sitcom, and while the characters are humorous, they can also be endearingly tragic.

The new environment of the Maximum Security prison makes for scenes of sadistic brutality. In one scene guards force Mendoza and Ruiz to kiss after a fight, taunting them that it’s the only way they can know for sure they’ve made up. But part of the new intrigue in this season is how the inmates will try and survive as the FBI and jail handlers target them for revenge. These ladies will come up with everything from inventing fake religious holidays to throwing the blame around for what happened in a way that will make the feds run around in circles. These story angles are what keep season six still kicking with some life and suspense. The big question is where is all this going? The season is entertaining in terms of its twists and performances, but what it all means or what it has to say are vague this time around.

By now “Orange is the New Black,” which has solidified itself as a cultural TV moment as recognizable as “Breaking Bad,” has its solid fan base. Season six brings in some new faces and keeps us rooting for our favorite jailbirds, but at the same time we wonder for how much longer it can keep going. This series already has a pedestal and it doesn’t need to try anymore to keep it.

Orange is the New Black” season six premieres July 27 on Netflix.