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Taystee Is the Real Star of ‘Orange Is the New Black’ (Column)

Forget Chapman. It’s inmate Jefferson who is the show’s heart and hero

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched Season 5 of “Orange is the New Black,” which premiered June 9. If you want a non-spoiler review of the season, click here.

Season 5 of “Orange Is the New Black” may well be the show’s strongest season yet. As I wrote when I reviewed the season last week, the show typically defined by sprawl becomes sharper and more poignant when its canvas is limited to just three momentous days in Litchfield Penitentiary. Because TV shows carry with them their own inertia — that groove that sometimes becomes a rut, as shows figure out what satisfies their loyal viewers and are content to deliver that again and again — it’s often breathtaking when a drama shakes up its own comfort zone and drills down to the heart of its premise.

Up until now, “Orange Is the New Black” has emphasized survival for its characters and loss, as is heartbreakingly experienced over and over again for the many characters in different ways. Season 1 had the framing device of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)’s entree into the world of Litchfield. Seasons 2-4 were a little harder to define: Certain plotlines — like Daya (Dascha Polanco)’s pregnancy, Caputo (Nick Sandow)’s struggle to run his prison effectively, the effects of privatizing Litchfield, and Cindy’s conversion to Judaism — have offered some structure for the seasons following.

Season 5 is a reminder that rather than just survival, “Orange Is the New Black” is a story that offers a radical, intersectional perspective on the injustices of mass incarceration. The story of Season 5 is the story of an entire prison questioning its own existence, through captive guards, rebellious prisoners, and a corporate representative accidentally grouped in with the inmates. There’s a carnival atmosphere to Season 5; the building itself is literally eviscerated and upended, from the contingent of inmates camping out on the lawn and the guards locked into their viewing booths to the towers of books and relatively peaceful barter that takes place in the halls. Some inmates find hidden depths, literally, in a bunker where the old pool used to be. A dead body is hidden in a closet. And Suzanne (Uzo Aduba)’s desperate searching for a heaven, or a higher power, climaxes with her tearing apart the cheap drop ceiling panels above her bunk. Literally and figuratively, this is a season about interrogating what it means imprison others.

Piper, as is evident from day one, is at Litchfield just waiting to get out. She has a family and resources to fall back on; once she’s done serving time, she will probably be able to reintegrate into her upper-middle-class life without much effort (though, hopefully, with more consciousness). Now that she is planning to marry Alex (Laura Prepon), it’s safe to say the two of them, who already have the blessing of Piper’s mother, will probably be just fine. As the show has gone on, and Piper has become a little more adept at surviving Litchfield, the stakes around her character have essentially evaporated. She briefly flirted with revenge and with running her own criminal enterprise before settling in for a quieter existence as just another white girl getting privileged treatment from the guards. The only thing left for her was romance, and that is why so much of this season emphasizes the relationship between Piper and Alex as a kind of endpoint for both of them. With that engagement finalized, there is something slightly sitcom-like about their concluded arc; Chapman and Vause are sympathetic characters still, but they’re almost on the shelf. They’re done their major developing. There’s not much else room to go.

Which is why “Orange Is the New Black” has shifted its gaze. One of the show’s great strengths is that it has dozens of characters that all manage to surprise you with their backstories of loss. But of the leads that were first presented to us when the show debuted, Taystee — Tasha Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) is the one who has changed the most. (Much of this is carried by Brooks’ performance of Taystee, which made her a fan favorite from the start.) Her first major appearance in “Orange Is the New Black” is when she barters shea butter for a lock of Piper’s blonde hair (and wears it poorly grafted into her own hair for the rest of the season). Then she’s released for serving her time — only to be incarcerated quickly again for violating her parole on purpose, because she has no idea how to operate in the real world.

Taystee is smart. She’s engaged. She watches “Planet Earth.” But she has lived in institutions all her life, from group homes to juvenile prison to Litchfield, and there’s a hard shell of self-defeating defensiveness around her as a result. Her arc from Seasons 2 to 4 is a journey towards wisdom: She has to deal with the demons of the past, in Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), discovers her own skills when Caputo makes her his assistant, and discovers that absent another maternal figure, the black women’s crew in Litchfield is going to look to her for guidance.

And then her best friend is killed by an under-trained corrections officer, and she starts a prison riot. Taystee doesn’t have an out; she doesn’t have anywhere else to go. Injustice here is injustice in her whole world. And lacking other options, she has decided to address it.

What’s interesting about Season 5 is how much the inmates adapt and change even just in the three-day window of the uprising; Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) goes from head torturer to sellout-in-chief in just a few days, while white supremacists Brandy (Asia Kate Dillon) and Skinhead Helen (Francesca Curran) alternate between spitting on and pooling resources with Latina muscle Ouija (Rosal Colón) and Pidge (Miriam Morales). Most of the characters shift through a few different modes because of how much is changing. Taystee — sometimes more so than even the show itself — is the only character who remains focused on why the riot is happening and what needs to be done about it. She wants to believe in Caputo and in the prison’s leadership, but after the way they handle Poussey’s death, she quickly becomes their worst enemy — and after riling up the prison, she screams, at the end of Season 4, for Daya to shoot Humps, the murderous C.O. lying defenseless on the floor.

Season 5 is really the story of Taystee learning how the world works — and becoming, through bitter experience, the closest Litchfield has to a community representative. She assesses the demands of her constituency; she determines when it’s okay to accept concessions and when it’s time to light them on fire; she sits in the negotiating room without sleep until she gets her deal, more or less filibustering Fig (Alysia Reiner), the governor’s representative, until she gets everything she wants. Taystee has a sense of justice and compassion that guides her — towards leadership, towards greater understanding, towards fighting for equality. In “Flaming Hot Cheetos, Literally,” she seems moved by a higher power as she speaks to the crowd, with a natural telegenic authenticity that is like the X factor in politics — it can’t be taught, it has to be inherent. Taystee discovers her power in the prison riot.

Which makes it all the more crucial and heartbreaking that she ultimately fails. In the penultimate episode, when Taystee is offered everything except C.O. Bayley — who the state doesn’t even have jurisdiction over — every single person she talks to urges her to settle, but she can’t get either pride or guilt out of the way long enough to take the deal. And because she doesn’t, everything they fight for is lost: the better food, healthcare, and education programs. It’s the classic lesson of the ideological purist; all politics, at some point or another, is about compromise. She can’t do it, and at least for now, she lives to regret it.

But at least she doesn’t choose the other, simpler, bloodier option: Murdering Piscatella (Brad William Henke), the sadistic guard whose cruelty is ultimately what caused Poussey’s death and the subsequent riot. Taystee’s — and the season’s — final moments in “Storm-y Weather” are some of the most purely heartbreaking of the season, because of how terrified and desperate they all are. When Taystee sees Piscatella, she’s so furious that she immediately goes for a weapon. And when she does get it, the scene suddenly becomes a gangster movie’s showdown: She holds a gun to Piscatella’s head and nearly pulls the trigger, daring him to make her do it. Ultimately, she snaps and starts to sob, collapsing into her own grief. After three sleepless days of rioting and negotiating, Taystee still hasn’t mourned her lost friend; in her desperation to create a solution out of her loss, she hasn’t yet just let the grief kick the s—t out of her. It’s one of the more moving character arcs that “Orange Is the New Black” has offered its audience — a character arc of tragedy and growth that does not feel cheapened by the often bizarre humor or tonal shifts that have accompanied stories like Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning)’s or Lorna (Yael Stone)’s. There’s nothing to cut away from: As The Cinematic Orchestra’s “To Build A Home” plays, the final shot of Season 5 is Taystee and Red (Kate Mulgrew) clutching each others’ hands as a heavily armed team of men break into their hiding place. The screen washes their faces out, until everything is just orange.

Season 5 ends with Litchfield nearly torn to pieces. The inmates, now back under state custody, are being bused to different locations. Poussey’s memorial, so lovingly created by Soso (Kimiko Glenn) is torn to shreds. Red’s final act of mercy, to Piscatella, ends just minutes later with him being shot to death in “friendly” fire. And even the last haven that the few stragglers had found is cracked open. There is no sense of place left there, and there is nothing that the inmates have to show for themselves. As they are being separated (and probably separately punished), there is no community left. Litchfield as we know it is apparently dissolved.

The show could end here — and you could easily make the argument that it should. Popular television shows in general are apt to run a few seasons too long, and Season 5’s injection of high-stakes drama will not be easily reproducible again, regardless of where Season 6 takes us. But the show’s fidelity to Taystee’s journey makes me hopeful. Even as some stories are being laid to rest, others are going to find new life in “Orange Is the New Black.” I’m curious about Season 6, because I believe in Taystee, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.

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