'Orange Is the New Black's' Lauren Morelli on "Committing to the Consequences" of the Riot

The writer-producer — and wife to Samira Wiley — details the debates that occurred in the writers room when plotting Poussey's death and the events of season 5.
Paul Zimmerman/WireImage/Getty Images (Morelli); Courtesy of Netflix (Orange is the New Black)
Taylor Schilling (left) and Danielle Brooks on 'Orange Is the New Black'; Lauren Morelli (inset)

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the entire fifth season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.]

The fifth season of Orange Is the New Black delivered on two promises from the season prior: justice for Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) and Litchfield never being the same.

After killing off the fan-favorite character with a death that mirrored that of Eric Garner in season four, the inmates of Litchfield, incited by Taystee (Danielle Brooks), rioted when the prison refused to say her name. For the first time in the series, the fifth season (now streaming on Netflix) condensed its timeline to three days in order to capture the 13-episode uprising that ensued — one that left the future of Litchfield and 10 of its most high-profile inmates up in the air in the show's biggest cliffhanger yet.

Lauren Morelli, a veteran writer and producer on the series who also happens to be newly married to Wiley, took The Hollywood Reporter inside the minds in the writers room for a revealing chat about the entire season and how it will impact the future of the series (the Jenji Kohan-created prison dramedy has already been renewed through season seven).

Below, Morelli details several debates the writers had when plotting the season — namely, why Poussey was chosen to tell this multi-season arc, how Piscatella (Brad William Henke) should die and what committing to the seasonlong riot story would mean for the future of the show. "We are tying ourselves into the reality of the consequences," she said, adding that if season five was a "9," season six is set to be a "10."

We spoke about your decision to bring Poussey back in the flashback with Taystee this season, an episode you wrote. You also wrote her death episode last season. What was it like to return to set this season without Samira Wiley, the actress, and Poussey, the character you helped create?

How far away that flashback felt in the sixth episode this season was a reminder of what a journey this show has been and how young and what a different time it was then when Poussey and Taysee first met. Orange feels like this completely different component of our lives, and it’s one that Samira and I have both really come to value. Even though I have her in my daily life, I really, really miss her in terms of having someone to collaborate with in our professional relationship. We really enjoy working together and it feels very separate from our personal relationship. I deeply missed writing for the character of Poussey and I really miss having the actress Samira around. But I honestly would feel that way about any of these castmembers, because it feels like such a collaboration. They all have such specific voices, so when you lose that voice I always feel an absence. Even if I don’t have one of the characters in my script and I'm missing that voice and that talent to depend on, it's tough. It’s such an incredible toolbox to be able to turn to.

This entire season is propelled by her death. Why did it have to be Poussey? Could any other character’s death have driven an entire season?

Jenji Kohan pointed this out in the room a lot when we were talking about wanting to do that storyline in season four and debating who would be the most effective character. We went back and forth a lot and ultimately it really came down to Jenji saying some things that I held onto that were so right on: Poussey had so much hope in her. You really feel the loss of that hope, of that smile. There are plenty of women in this prison that you think are going to stay in this prison, this is their life. But with Poussey, we felt like one day she’s going to get out and have a chance at life after this, and to be robbed of that felt like the right story way to go. 

Who else did you consider?

It was a Black Lives Matter story, so that core group of black women — who are all so incredible — we certainly talked about everybody on that list and eventually settled on Poussey.

You researched famous prison riots in the plotting of this season, which have happened in men’s prisons. What were some of the things you wanted to accomplish in showing how the women of Orange would riot?

That was a real driving force that Jenji continued to remind us of as well: These are not men. Men fight. Men do whatever they’re going to do, they recognize. But we tried to think of the ways women would riot, without having any preconceived notions or books to go off of. We approached it like: If I were in prison, what would I do? That’s how we came to the idea that certainly not everyone is going to support the riot. Some people are going to want to bow out, while others will want to take this as an opportunity to lead. And, why? This is a generalization, but I do feel like women are less power hungry for the sake of power. We felt like it was such a risk for these characters to put themselves on the front line that we needed to know: At what point will they do that and why? Probably for their kids, for other women in there that they love and for the principle of the matter, like Red (Kate Mulgrew). We wanted to make sure everyone was really well-motivated and not just running around shooting people for no reason.

Viewers are going to be saddened by the end with the women, especially Taystee, not getting their win. Why is it important to take these women into the aftermath of a riot, and show what happens to prisoners after?

As you can see all season long, that is also a conversation we came back to constantly in the room. That 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. On Orange, even though it’s this really incredible tone of Jenji’s that walks this line of absurdism and is yet really grounded with reality, when it comes to the actual reality of prison, we have tried very hard to make sure it’s as realistic as possible. It doesn’t feel like the time to start being like, “Well, we had a riot. Everything is cool now.” We’re still commenting on our justice system in America and our prison system, and nobody wants to walk away from that very important soap box.

Will the aftermath of the Attica prison riot serve as a source for season six? 

I can’t speak to season six, but I can tell you in terms of what we were doing and talking about and planning all season is that we felt like there needed to be a big shift. We felt like we really had to follow this through.

What is the significance of those 10 women standing together — Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Red (Kate Mulgrew), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Gloria (Selenis Leyva), Frieda (Dale Soules) and Blanca (Laura Gomez) — in the season's final moment?

It’s a really interesting mix of characters. It was one of the first times in the show, aside from Poussey’s death in the cafeteria, where things sort of transcend racial tribes. Having these leaders more or less of the various racial groups come together felt really important. It felt like this riot is about all of us. And we also had to make sure those were the people who, either circumstantially or because of their emotional journeys, had a real reason not to just run out. Once the prison is being stormed, why aren’t you surrendering? You better have a pretty good reason not to surrender.

Viewers will likely cheer Piscatella's death, but his flashback episode [directed by Prepon] might make some sympathize. What was your intention with his death?

We actually debated his death a lot. Not in terms of if it would happen, but how it would happen. Which comes back to doing the entire season of the riot. How bad does it get and what do we see these women do? There were debates of whether or not Taystee should actually kill Piscatella. 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, given that, and then having him die at the hands of his own men felt ironic and fun and sort of the, like, delicious death you want for Piscatella. I’m sorry, Brad!

Before Taystee pointed the gun at him, she was blaming herself for failing Poussey. Is Taystee’s decision to not kill Piscatella the biggest way she ends up honoring Poussey?

There were so many small moments of them honoring her. Even within the riot, Taystee fighting as hard as she fought for her. Even without the literal win, Taystee grew up and rose to this occasion and saw both how to be a leader and also how sometimes, you are so focused on one thing that you lose sight of the greater good. When she finally turns around to her family that she had sort of abandoned, I really love, love that scene between Black Cindy and Taystee in episode 11 when they need help with Crazy Eyes and Taystee isn’t around. Black Cindy comes to her and says, “Look at what you’re doing, and meanwhile those of us who are still alive need you.” That, for me, feels like almost honoring Poussey’s memory the most because Taystee will go on and she’ll be better because of this fight.

When Taystee has that epiphany, is that her truly forgiving herself?

I think there’s going to be a lot to unpack for Taystee in season six. She’s always been such a rich character and, of course, what Danielle is bringing to that character is always beyond anything you anticipate. It was such an incredible joy to watch her work this season.

Even Schilling said Poussey’s death rocked the invincibility she feels for Piper on this show. Are any of the characters fair game moving forward? 

That’s probably a Jenji question. But I can say that going back to this ethos that exists on the show, because of Jenji, it’s always been to paint a realistic portrait and the realistic portrait really goes back to season one with Trisha’s [Madeline Brewer] death. Women die in prison because they are not getting the care that they need. And women get transferred, which happens on the show. Jenji is such a renegade in the best way, and that really reflects itself in her storytelling. I think she’s really ready to take big chances, as you’ve seen in the last five seasons.

Kohan said in a recent interview that she "hasn't made a final decision" on whether season seven will be the series' last. Have you talked about an endgame?

We’ve talked about endgames since season one, actually. With this show, from the beginning, the one question you always get is: "What are you going to do about Piper’s sentence, since [the real Piper] was only in there for 13 months?" So it’s been hanging in the air from the beginning, which I think has sort of required us to have a sense of: What will that look like? When will we get there? And, how will we get there? 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.

The Piper and Alex flashback and engagement was a gift to original fans. As you expand your cast with every season, what are some of the challenges with telling these new stories while still staying true to the original ones?

The thing we say in the room all the time is that we have this really incredible base of characters that we’ve been with since season one and I think they serve as a touchstone, both for us and for the audience. So coming back to them, for me at least as a writer, feels really comfortable and a little bit like a breath of fresh air. It allows you to push further. We know who Alex and Piper are and here they are falling in love and getting engaged — and now episode 13 is going to be an action movie. (Laughs.) It’s the push and pull where you can remind people that this is the show that people have fallen in love with while also not just doing the same thing season after season. But the celebration is always short-lived. You get about 30 seconds of them being happy!

Kohan spoke about how the election didn't impact the season because production was finished. But you were filming as it was happening and Election Day came around when you filmed the hostage episode. How did it leak into performances and the final days of filming?

I was actually on set during the election. So I walked onto set the morning after. I think it would be naive to say that it didn’t affect performances, in the middle of such a dark season when the actors were really having to dig deep for a lot of stuff. Especially with the hostage situation that takes place in that tenth episode. It’s a set full of women and I think a lot of women in our country felt very threatened by the election. It was somber. It was definitely somber, and that probably fueled us to go further than we might have.

Orange began as a Piper vehicle to eventually tell diverse and inclusive stories, which it now does. Why is that so paramount right now?

It’s easy, on one hand, to maybe be dismissive of the meaning of TV. For so long it was viewed as this lightweight, frivolous thing. But working on Orange has really taught me what an important platform we’ve been handed. I take that really seriously — Jenji has taught me how to take that really seriously. Not only for me as a person getting be around this show and watching this inclusion and how that’s changed me and my world view and self image, but continuing to do that for people is so incredible. Visibility matters and having people get to turn on their televisions and see people who look like them means that you are saying, “You matter.” Because someone who looks like you is on this television. I certainly hope that will always continue to be a part of my own work and the TV that continues to be produced.

What changes have you seen in the prison system in the five years since Orange has been on TV?

It’s interesting. We would come into the room and we would always talk about how it’s hard to know whether you’re seeing prison reform in the news so often because you’re paying attention to it now, or because the show is starting to affect policy. Or, at the very least, it’s starting to affect the national conversation because it’s in people’s mouths. Certainly, you hope for the latter. There have been all sorts of surreal moments, like when you realize the Obamas were watching the show! That's hard to wrap your mind around, but maybe we're getting through at the highest level. It’s also just as important, or maybe even more important, for someone like my mom, who has never has been exposed to this sort of thing, to understand what we’re doing as a country and to be really invested in the future of that and changing it, which is pretty cool.

Maybe President Donald Trump will tune in one day.

Imagine. His head might explode.

What does next season look like with everything changed, again?

Next season looks different, is what I will say. We talk in the room a lot about how we’ve tried to really payoff the promise of previous seasons every year. Meaning, whatever we’re building, we never say: Well, now we’re going to reset. Instead, we’re saying, “We’re at an '8,' so therefore this season needs to be at a '9' because you can’t go back.” And I think that trend will continue.

So next season is a '10'?

Exactly! 

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