The cast and veteran writer Lauren Morelli drop hints to THR.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the full fifth season of Orange Is the New Black.]
This time around, Orange Is the New Black faded to orange on its biggest cliffhanger the series has yet to see.
The stakes were raised heading into the fifth season of the Jenji Kohan-created prison dramedy (now streaming in full on Netflix) after the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) invoked the Black Lives Matter movement off-screen and incited a prison-wide riot at Litchfield. In a condensed timeline of 72 hours, Orange told the story of how women, specifically Litchfield women, would riot when the power was flipped.
There was anarchy and chaos, but while some women exploited their newfound power, others opted for a suntan. Most of the core women of the show, however, spent their three days fighting for needed prison reform, ultimately to no avail. The finale saw the riot police re-taking the prison, bussing the inmates to unknown destinations and exploding the bunker that had been keeping 10 of Litchfield's most high-profile inmates safe up until now.
With so many questions swirling around season six — Orange has been renewed through season seven — THR spoke to many of the castmembers, along with writer-producer Lauren Morelli, about what to expect.
"It was very easy to feel the believability of not knowing what was coming through that door while holding hands with these people who I've been with for the last five years," said Natasha Lyonne (Nicky Nichols) of the reality of the cliffhanger. In the scene, the 10 women who form the line are (left to right): Frieda (Dale Soules), Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Red (Kate Mulgrew), Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Nicky, Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Blanca (Laura Gomez). "We don't have the next script, so we genuinely don't know if all of our characters die. If some of us die. We don't know if we kill everybody that walks through that door."
The cast will ultimately find out when they return to set in late July (even expecting Prepon assured that she will be there after her baby is born), but what that first script says is anybody's guess.
Brooks is fearful that Taystee could shoulder harsher punishment. "As we have seen in the past five years, when you're incarcerated and not even seen as human, things can turn really quickly. People can blame people and point fingers and do all sorts of things," she said. Mulgrew knows the group will have to face "some kind of reckoning with our respective sins" and her "instinct" says they will be separated, a punishment in itself for her Red. What she doesn't know is if those 10 will each emerge with their hearts still beating: "The 10 of us holding hands in that empty pool flanked by Blanca Flores and Freida Berlin, are we all going to survive this?"
Natasha Lyonne says she has learned to do "some sort of internal bracing" of the fact that anyone could die moving forward, something writer-producer — and wife to Samira Wiley (above, left, with Danielle Brooks) — Lauren Morelli says is a possibility after the creative decision to kill of Poussey. A conversation they kept coming back to in the writers room was: "If we were going to do this riot and if this is going to be the season, then that means we are tying ourselves into the reality of the consequences of that."
The 10 in the finale were chosen to represent how their situation transcends racial tribes to "feel like this riot is about all of us," says Morelli. And the mortality of these women goes back to the ethos of the series: "Because of Jenji, the idea has always been to paint a realistic portrait: Women die in prison because they are not getting the care that they need. And women get transferred."
Though real-life prison riots have famously occurred in men's prisons, the famous Attica uprising of 1971 still serves as source material for what could be coming on Orange. Decades later, investigations into the uprising and its aftermath exposed horrific human rights abuses at the hands of guards, prisoners receiving harsher punishments and more time, and a rigged and utterly broken system.
Even Taylor Schilling says her invincibility as Piper has been rocked from here on — and she's OK with that. "That’s what keeps Orange interesting," she says. "There’s nothing really off-limits or formulaic to what we’re doing. Before, there was a sense of invincibility, like being a kid. We had this sense that we were doing this on our own and [Poussey's death] really brought home that there’s an end in sight and that things are changing."
A revisiting of Jenji Kohan's track record could help to shed some light on her intentions for the future of Orange. Kohan, who created Showtime's Weeds, saw Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) burning her home and community to the ground in the third season. Though it took place earlier in the series (which ran for eight total), the move signaled a reboot of sorts.
"What the fifth season of Orange Is The New Black reminded me of was the point in Weeds after which Kohan decided it wasn't enough to have Nancy Botwin as a suburban drug kingpin and burnt the community of Agrestic to the ground," wrote THR critic Daniel Fienberg in his review. "For a lot of fans, that was when they checked out on Weeds, but I remained a fan. Those subsequent seasons of Weeds were messier and less funny, and they occasionally wallowed in unpleasantness, but they were audacious."
If Kohan does decide to split the cast into two new prisons — as one of the riot policemen all-but assures to Flaritza (Jackie Cruz and Diane Guerrero) in the finale — she could use the opportunity to lose some of the fringe characters and refocus the show onto the core group.
The show also has another prison set at its disposal. The men's maximum security prison, also in Queens (where Orange shoots), that was the backdrop for both Piper and Alex's Chicago transfer in season two and Piscatella's (Brad William Henke) flashback in the 10th episode this season. "It’s a very different experience" said Prepon, who directed the 10th episode, "The Reverse Midas Touch," of filming there. "Litchfield is a minimum security prison and to be in a maximum security prison, it’s a very serious thing."
Though Piper and Alex fans were treated to a double-flashback that ended in a proposal and the pair's engagement, the celebrations were short-lived with both of their lives now hanging in the balance. A likely assumption is that the couple at the center of the show will survive, but can their tumultuous relationship last if they are charted off to separate prisons?
Both actresses seem to think so. "The idea of a relationship is so different than the day-to-day experience with another human being, so maybe that [distance] could help them a little bit," said Taylor Schilling.
Despite a reference Alex made this season about Piper having, "What, three months left?" on her prison sentence, Schilling and Jenji Kohan have since confirmed that the show is 10 months into Piper's 18 month sentence. [The real Piper Kerman was sentenced to 13 months.] Though Alex's sentence hasn't been stated, viewers know she is in for longer than Piper.
Which makes Laura Prepon wonder if Alex and Piper's relationship will survive, either way. "It’s such a tumultuous, awesome, complicated relationship. Even if they both got out the same day, would they make it in the world? Who knows. But that’s what’s so great about the relationship, that they bring out the best and the worst in each other."
Flaca and Maritza are so joined at the hip that they have merged names to Flaritza. Which is why the pair's tearful goodbye when being split into separate bus lines was one of the most heartbreaking.
"That chemistry is real so that ending you saw was all real. It was hard for me to stop crying," said Jackie Cruz (Flaca) about filming the scene, since she doesn't know what the next season will bring. She said she apologized to the director for shedding so many tears. "If we were separated on the show and not working with each other every day, after five years, it would not be the same. This journey has been more incredible because she's been with me. When you connect with that one person and open up yourself to them as an actress, we've done that with each other. We open our hearts to each other and to the world on this show. Everything you see is true."
Her scene partner, Diane Guerrero, said she doesn't think their characters were thinking about the consequences while living out the riot: "It is really sad if we do get separated, we don't know what we're going to do without each other." But she'll accept what the writers have in store: "I want to reflect what society looks like and comment on that."
With Taystee, Suzanne and Cindy's lives hanging in the balance inside, Alison (Amanda Stephen) and Janae (Vicky Jeudy) are left anxious with no information.
Amanda Stephen put herself in Alison's shoes to share what was going through her head: "Where are they taking us? How do I get in touch with my family? Where are the rest of the girls?" Her biggest fear for her character is "that everyone does gets separated, sent to a maximum security prison and has additional time put on their sentence," she said. "That Alison will be harassed in her new environment and further estranged from her family." The shining light, however, would be the challenge that would result, as an actor. "It excites me when my character is out of their comfort zone. It gives me the opportunity to craft a more multidimensional character. Alison may worry about not having her tribe to a degree, and especially for Suzanne's well being, but she keeps a cool head and a strong front regardless. Her focus is doing her time so she can get back to her family. Getting back to her family is her North Star."
Vicky Jeudy also interpreted the moment as a split in the group. "We are being separated, so I have no idea what's about to happen," she said. "It would be intimidating, almost like being at a new school and going into a new classroom. It would suck and be pretty lonely."
Danielle Brooks, however, has the biggest concern about the possibility of Taystee being alone, if she does end up getting handed down a harsher punishment for her role in the riot. "I don’t know if Taystee will be isolated from everybody and what affect that will have on her, feeling like she spun this whole thing and started it," said Brooks. "Taystee set off the grenade and now she’s alone. If anything, I would pray for her to at least still have Crazy Eyes or Black Cindy or somebody, even Piper. I think she’s going to need to have someone to take the next step with."
Despite her "Lorna La Loca" nickname, Lorna (Yael Stone) was telling the truth about being pregnant with husband Vinny's (John Magaro) baby. After another on-and-off season, Nicky appeared to be putting their relationship drama aside when she called Vinny, in a bid to save his relationship with Lorna, and convinced Lorna to surrender instead of being trapped inside the bunker where Nicky now stands.
"That’s how deep her love for Lorna really is, that she’s looking out for, on some level, what she sees is her child," said Natasha Lyonne of Nicky. "I don’t know if that means that Nicky has a fantasy of being on good behavior so she can get out right away and raise that kid with her. Or I don’t know if Nicky is such an avoidant that the idea of a kid becomes an ultimate turnoff because it represents so much responsibility and the idea of suddenly having a pregnant guy’s girlfriend and raising that kid doesn’t appeal."
As for whether or not they are meant to be together, Yael Stone says Lorna and Nicky are connected "in their deepest parts." Adding, "For these guys, it has a sexual element but at the core of it, it's this deeper human connection. They are unexpectedly empathetic to one another in a way that is very beautiful."
The two are now facing serving time apart, however, with Lorna on her own on one of the buses headed away from Litchfield, which is still housing Nicky. "In real world terms, this is a real situation," said Stone of joining the list of stars who have represented incarcerated mothers on the show. "Women do end up in prison when they're pregnant. That's a reality to keep floating around when I'm looking at the idea of Lorna beginning life as a mother while in prison." She adds that while she can't imagine the two being apart, "they're both very adaptable creatures."
Brad William Henke, the actor who played Piscatella, said he felt that the humanity he saw in both Red and Taystee before his death would have changed him as a man.
"I felt like it made an impression," said Henke. "In that moment when I left the bunker, I really felt like Piscatella was going to be a better person and better to the prisoners. They could have killed me and they didn't. Red let me go. Poor Taystee was so broken. I think for the first time since it’s all happened, I see that I caused this pain and this hurting. I feel like I really grew as a person in that moment and they killed me when I was at the best place as a person, emotionally, that I had been."
Almost all of the stars said his death — at the hands of one of his untrained riot men — will be interpreted as poetic justice to their characters after the death of Poussey, which came at the hands of a guard that Piscatella improperly trained, Bayley (Alan Aisenberg).
"There were debates of whether or not Taystee should actually kill Piscatella," shared Lauren Morelli. "The ending with Taystee can be very sad, but there’s also this incredible moment of salvation for her when she chooses not to kill him. I think having him go down at the hands of the riot and then having him die at the hands of his own men felt ironic and fun and sort of the delicious death you want for Piscatella."
But two of the stars said they are prepared for their characters to be forever changed by his abuse.
"There is no question that it is an irreparable kind of change," said Kate Mulgrew of Red being tortured, physically and emotionally, and nearly scalped by the guard. "We are altered by trauma, the best among us are. Red is strong, multi-dimensional and quite capable, but I’ve been hurt now in a way that I hadn't before. I hope that born out of this are the terrible shadows that follow us when we have been badly, badly devastated."
Natasha Lyonne agreed that the PTSD, couple with each character's already-existing traumas, will have an impact. "I don’t know what could be more devastating than having to watch that happen to my mother and feel helpless around it," she said of the bond between Nicky and Red. "Watching her fall from the top slot in the prison’s pecking order is like when a child figures out that the parent is also flawed and human."
The riot men miscounted and said only 10 women were missing for the bus count before they stormed the bunker. They forgot two additional inmates, however, and MCC's Linda (Beth Dover) should have provided for an added body count, bringing the total number to 11.
Chang (Lori Tan Chinn, above) actually walked right out of the prison, using the hole in the fence created by Gloria, and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) was off grounds with CO Coates (James McMenamin). How long will it take for the prison to realize its mistake and by then, will it be too late to catch Chang?
Either way, Linda, whose attempt to identify herself was sabotaged by ex Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), is on her way to more prison time — at least for now.
"Holy shit, am I going to go to another prison?" Beth Dover said of the finale. "I would really like to see what happens with her and Caputo [Nick Sandow] and I hope they touch on that next season." As for Linda's relationship with Big Boo, she says real feelings did develop. "Linda was in a prison situation and felt like she needed some help, so I really think she took to Big Boo for that reason."
Two of Litchfield's main inmates exited the season early: Sophia, likely due to Laverne Cox's other TV roles, and Daya (Dascha Polanco). Like the rest of the cast, Dascha Polanco has also said she doesn't know what the future, something Selenis Leyva, who plays Daya's second mother Gloria, attested to.
"Gloria’s relationship with Daya started off as having pity for someone for not having the best mom, and then it moved to feeling that Gloria genuinely does love Daya as her own child," said Leyva. Gloria is the one who convinces Daya to do the right thing and turn herself in for shooting Humphrey (Michael Torpey), which sends Daya off to max. Daya even has a sendoff of sorts when she calls Pornstache's mother (Mary Steenburgen) and reveals that their baby is alive after all, and that she wants her to be the guardian. "I got very emotional in the scene where Gloria and Daya are saying goodbye to each other. When I read the script, I thought, 'Tthis is such a good moment for Daya, to have a moment of responsibility and of owning up to something.' Gloria is really proud of Daya. She’s also scared about what the future may bring. But in that moment when she says bye to Daya, she doesn’t know — we don't know."
But Leyva does think Daya will survive the trek down the hill: "We probably haven’t seen all Daya is capable of. She’s a survivor. Maybe the person who you think won’t survive is the one who makes it in the end."
Suzanne is the only one who knows that Humphrey actually died at the hands of Kukudio (Emily Althaus) — and not Daya. When the exes were recovering in the hospital, Kukudio used Humphrey's own advice against him and gave him a stroke by creating air bubbles in his IV bag. The truth could set Daya free from max, if Suzanne is willing to turn her in and if anyone will listen.
The actress who plays her said the biggest frustration for Suzanne, aka Crazy Eyes, this season was not being eard. "Suzanne is constantly wrestling with mourning and wrestling with frustration and feeling unheard, unheard and unseen. And trying to find an avenue to express those two things," said Uzo Aduba. Either way, she says Jenji Kohan is stepping them into uncharted waters. "I’m interested to see how Suzanne survives in the new world. It almost feels like were setting sail."
One of the biggest burning questions after season four was whether the Lori Petty's Lolly and Michael Harney's Healy (above) — who were each shipped off to their respective psychiatric wings — would ever return. Though the season provided for many welcome returns — including Piper's ex Larry (Jason Biggs), her mother (Deborah Rush), Pornstache himself (Pablo Schreiber) and Fig (Alysia Reiner) — the two characters who helped shine a vital light on how poorly mental health is handled both inside and outside of prison did not. Their absence, however, speaks to the revolving door-nature of the series and mainly was due to the three-day timeline.
"We talked about bringing Lolly and Healy back so much," said Lauren Morelli. "We love them both so, so much and that was one of the really hard parts about the structure of this season. It takes place over the course of three days and we’re trying to keep it grounded. So when and how those people could come back to us was something that we talked about up until the very end of the season. We just kept hoping that we were going to find a way and then ultimately felt that we were just so insular that there wasn’t a lot of room to go out, which we were all really sad about."
As for the other characters who returned, Morelli says that's the best part of the show — and it also provides hope for Lolly, Healy and even Sophia and Daya: "Anybody can come back at any time. It’s such a reminder of how rich this world has come over the course of five years."
With the inmates seemingly being shipped off to two new prisons, what type of warden and guards are they facing now? Selenis Leyva's biggest fear is that they will look back at Litchfield as the "good old days" when "there were only two bad COs or one or two bad seeds" and that even the likes of Pornstache and Piscatella will be no match for what's ahead.
Departing Brad William Henke shared a few ideas for who could fill his shoes. "I so wish Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) could come back because he has such a sweet heart and wants to make amends," he says of the guard, whose ending was left open-ended. "There is Bennett (Matt McGorry), but maybe Caputo (Nick Sandow, above, left) could go back to being more on the ground. He does have their best interest at heart and the new head of the guards is going to have to be confident and have extra care."
Alan Aisenberg would love to return to the prison — "I missed the girls, some of them are my best friends," he says — but admits the situation with Bayley is tricky. "He's at this position where he doesn't know what he wants. He wants justice and no one seems to want to give it to him." He said his final scene of leaving town is open to interpretation and his future is up to the writers: "I think the story of a 21-year-old who accidentally kills someone can't be mapped out to a lot of other examples. He's a wild card."
Nick Sandow, who also directed an episode this season, knows Caputo will be back, but he has no idea if that will be in the form of a promotion or a demotion. "It's easy for him to just get by, he's kind of a screwup," Sandow said. "But it's all in his face and he's really sad. He's realized how much he's failed and especially with Taystee. There was something there with her and that makes his failure really obvious."
He adds of the season, "What the writers did is they shook the Etch A Sketch so hard that they can go anywhere. There is no box anymore. Last season, they had real stuff to deal with and they were amazingly brave. They dealt with it head on and said, 'We're not going to look away for three days and 13 episodes.' Now I think they wrote themselves out of that and can do anything and go anywhere."
When Orange was picked up for three seasons through number seven, it's possible that Jenji Kohan took that bulk renewal as an opportunity to create a final three-season arc. Kohan, who is also now executive producing Netflix's next female ensemble series GLOW and is developing a teen Jesus project for the streamer, said in a recent interview that she hasn't yet determined if seven will be the final season for Orange.
"We’ve talked about end games since season one," said Lauren Morelli. "From the beginning, the one question you always get is: 'What are you going to do about Piper’s sentence, [the real Piper] was only in there for 13 months?' So it’s been hanging in the air from the beginning, which required us to have a sense of: What will that look like? When will we get there? And, how will we get there?"
She added, "That isn't to say that plan is set in stone at all, but I think Jenji definitely has ideas as to what the shape of that is."