The 10 inmates whose fates are up in the air speak to THR about the final scene and what it might mean for season 6.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the entire fifth season of Orange Is the New Black.]
Natasha Lyonne wanted to experience the full swell of emotion the viewers would be feeling when she was filming the final scene of season five of Orange Is the New Black. So she asked the episode's writer, Lauren Morelli, and director, Jesse Peretz, if they could play the song they were planning to use in the episode, The Cinematic Orchestra's "To Build a Home."
"As soon as I heard it, I remember starting to cry," Lyonne, who plays Nicky, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Everyone started to cry. Hearing the song and the boom helped to really get a grasp on just how intense the moment was."
That "boom" was the sound of an explosion set off by the riot police who had stormed Litchfield to reclaim the prison. The 13-episode uprising had come to an end, leaving 10 key characters standing together, during a unified moment of defiance, in the abandoned swimming pool-turned-bunker where they had been seeking shelter. The prison reform negotiations, led by Taystee (Danielle Brooks), had failed and the CERT team was armed and ready to handle what they assume is a group of resisting inmates on the other side of the door.
"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," says Lyonne of the final days on set, which took place in the weeks following the 2016 presidential election. In the scene, the women who form the line are (below): Frieda (Dale Soules), Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), Taystee, Red (Kate Mulgrew), Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Nicky, Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Blanca (Laura Gomez).
The cast remains in the dark about where creator Jenji Kohan will lead them next — and how many of them will be following. "We don't have the next script, so we genuinely don't know," Lyonne says. "We 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."
Morelli, who is also a producer on the series and is married to Samira Wiley, who played Poussey on the show, explained the significance of the 10 women who are left standing together in the end, marking the series' biggest cliffhanger to date.
"It was one of the first times in the show, aside from Poussey's death in the cafeteria, where things transcend racial tribes," she told THR, "Having these leaders of the various racial groups come together felt really important: This riot is about all of us." A conversation they constantly came back to in the writers room revolved around committing to the riot, as well as its aftermath. "If this is going to be the season, then that means we are tying ourselves into the reality of the consequences of that," she said. Orange has already been renewed through a seventh season, and one trend the writers always follow is upping the ante from the season prior: "Next season looks different."
In the end, after a season driven by the loss of one of their own with the death of Poussey, the future for the characters Orange viewers love does not look bright. While the 10 inmates were standing their ground inside, the rest of the prison was being split into two with inmates bussed away to unknown locations. Riots tend not to end well for inmates — especially for those who stepped up to lead or, in this case, took guards hostage — and, as the fifth season showed, Orange is committed to shining a light on the reality of the sweeping injustice in America's justice and prison systems.
THR spoke with the women who were left standing in the finale about what they think could happen when they return to set in July to film the sixth season.
What was going through your head? "I actually apologized to the director [Jesse Peretz] because I started to weep. I went to him and said, 'I'm very sorry. It wasn't anything that I had planned to do, if you want to reshoot it.' And he said, 'No, it's perfect.' I felt how momentous it was and it got me."
What was going through Frieda's head? "We had been strong for so long through the riot — and we really don't know what's going to follow it — we heard the bombs going off upstairs and the jackboots coming down toward us and just don't know what's going to happen."
What could happen next season? "I hope we're put into a beautiful facility with lots of room and working toilets! Something that's relatively comfortable and where they let Red cook."
What was going through your head? "Jenji has done this amazing thing where we haven't seen all of these characters together since season one. When we saw these women together, we saw them together, divided, as different tribes. This is the first time we're getting to see them come together from those separate tribes and step into an unknown together, united. That's exciting to know about this random motley crew, a pretty rad group, that Jenji is stepping us into a world we have yet to see in this land of Litchfield moving forward."
What was going through Suzanne's head? "We watched Suzanne be separate from the word of Litchfield and when we see her reentry, it's almost like we have been living in and tracking two timelines and suddently she is very present, and we got to watch Suzanne try and process grief in the only way she knows how. What we saw was almost three of those stages: the guilt, the denial and a starting of or the potential of acceptance, and it pulls in the entire community of women."
What could happen next season? "I'm interested to see how Suzanne survives in the new world. It almost feels like we're setting sail."
What was going through your head? "We're all culpable and complicit in many interwoven plots, murder not the least among them. There has to be a price to pay. I don't know how it will be and how Jenji will choose for it to manifest. She is a master."
What was going through Red's head? "I'm with the people I love, win lose or draw, so bring it on. I know in that moment, Red's not a fool, that the prison and riot has decimated the reality of Litchfield. What I don't know is, will we all survive? The 10 of us in that empty pool flanked by Blanca and Frieda — are we all going to survive this and what will it mean?"
What could happen next season? "There is no question that [after what she went through this season] there is an irreparable kind of change. We are altered by trauma, the best among us. It's one thing to be beaten up, but this is to be traumatized within an inch of one's own life. It will be fascinating how the writers and I get to deal with it and I hope born out of this are the terrible shadows that follow us through trauma through Red. There has to be some kind of reckoning with our respective sins, a confrontation with our own darkness. Each one of us in season five has done something less than great. My instinct is we will be separated, which will in itself be a terrible kind of punishment — punishment enough for Red would be that isolation. I really have learned the hard way not to guess."
What was going through your head? "I'm very proud of my character, to be honest. I feel like she has chosen to not give up on life. She's pulling herself up by her bootstraps and fighting and I admire her a lot. She's not always right but boy does she try to do her best and that's what I hope as a citizen too, is to at least do my best."
What was going through Taystee's head? "At this point, I think Taystee would strive so much more being with those women, but I don't know who is going to be isolated. 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. She set off the grenade and now she's alone. If anything, I would pray for my character to at least still have Crazy Eyes or Black Cindy, or even Piper. I think she's going to need to have someone to take the next step with."
What could happen next season? "When Poussey's death happened, I posted a picture of Samira and I and it got hundreds of thousands of likes. But when Sandra Bland or Philando Castile's deaths happen — and the list goes on — I only get a third of the likes, and a bunch of arguing in the comments. That's what reminds me that we have a long way to go. People get so invested in these fictional characters but forget that the whole reason we're talking about this is that it's actually happening. But I do feel like it's opening peoples' eyes. People all around the world are seeing the things that really matter to us in America and what we're dealing with as a society. The thing about all of this, as we have seen in the past five years, is that 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, so I'm not sure how it's going to play out for Taystee, nor am I quite sure how she's going to take it."
There was a point mid-season when Taystee was neglecting her prison family to handle the negotiations and Cindy began to question their unity. The actress who plays her says Cindy continued to question that — up until the end. "There's this united front in the beginning of the season, but then Cindy feels intentions shift and there becomes this question that's raised: What are we fighting for, really? And who are we fighting for? And have we lost that charge?" says Moore. "As the season continues, this whole idea of unity definitely comes into question. Not only amongst our collective group, but the prison as well. At the end of the day, it becomes, 'OK, am I helping or hurting myself by uniting with this cause? Or do I help myself by being that lone ranger and helping out the infiltrators who are coming in to restore order, or do I stay with my group?' This whole idea of unity really became a challenge."
What was going through your head? "There's nothing really off-limits or formulaic to what we're doing. [Before Poussey's death and Wiley's exit], we had this sense that we were sort of doing this on our own. There was a sense of invincibility. It really brought home that there's an end to this. That there's an end in sight and that things are changing."
What was going through Piper's head? "Everybody's mortality was at stake. It was a real moment of reckoning. It's an existential moment of: Why are we here, are we going to continue to be here and, if we're going to continue to be here, what's the price?"
What could happen next season? "It's not looking good! Jenji talks about how her intention isn't to be a politician or an activist, but to tell honest stories about individuals and that then the individual becomes universal. Then, in seeing yourself in someone you previously deemed as 'other,' it's an inherently political act. By relating to something that you thought was apart from you. So I think that is, particularly now, really important."
What was going through your head? "The season finale was very intense. People are going off in different directions and you don't know what is going to happen. I don't even know who is still at Litchfield! I don't even know what's left of Litchfield."
What was going through Alex's head? "In that final moment, it's a power thing. Their integrity is more important than their lives at that point, almost. The integrity of holding their ground and not giving in. When they're all there and they hold hands, it's like they're saying: We're in this together. Whatever happens, happens. And they're facing it. It's a very powerful moment."
What could happen next season? "We have no idea what's going to happen. I don't know [if Alex and Piper could make it if they were separated]. 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, is that they bring out the best and the worst in each other."
What was going through your head? "There was something about the timing of hearing that song [The Cinematic Orchestra's "To Build a Home"] and that being one of our final days at work. The way all of those elements combined to really create a feeling that felt very full of the fear, anxiety, loss, determination and unity of the scene. So much of this gig is suspending disbelief correctly and effectively, so that immediately put me in my body in terms of how heavy these potential consequences were. The insanity of that pool room was so cinematic in terms of creating an altered reality, and that made it much easier to embody the spirit of the moment. It all felt sort of strange and other and terrifying, and full of heart all at the same time."
What was going through Nicky's head? "This idea that whatever is coming through that door, we've got each other and that's how we're going to figure it out."
What could happen next season? "I think we always feel like [anyone could die at any time]. Across the board, I think we're always sort of weirdly ready, on some strange level. And if the show is mirroring the truth of society in any way, the reality is that insane things do happen on a constant basis. And often, consequence-free. Ultimately, it's true to the nature of the kind of storytelling that Jenji's doing to be truthful in her reflection of the world."
What was going through your head? "When the final script was released and I read it, I thought: Nothing will ever ever be the same. Not Litchfield, none of these women — who survives this? We don't know who makes it out. We were in a really vulnerable place. People were getting on buses and we have no idea what is going to happen to who in that bunker. So that is scary for all of us because obviously, what actor wants to get blown up? And then if you do survive it or make it out alive, it's just going to be a new world. But it is great storytelling and I love that once again we're leaving the audience in a place where we have no idea what's coming. If we are all going to be in different prisons — if we survive — that's the beauty of this show. When you expect something and when you think you get it, Jenji will take you down another road really fast."
What was going through Gloria's head? "Gloria has a phone call, her last one in this season, where she says, 'If anything happens to me …' My stomach dropped when I read that in the script. I thought, 'Brace yourself, girlfriend.' An army is coming towards them."
What could happen next season? "We don't know in advance what's coming. We have no idea what the next script is going to say. The show has become really strict, more so than ever, with releasing scripts and I'm so paranoid about it that after I get my script, I literally walk into production hand my script back after I read it. But someone [Maria, played by Jessica Pimentel] betrayed Gloria and I would like to see Gloria get a little tough. We can't forget that these women are tough and there's something about loyalty that's huge. I'm hoping they'll give her a little mean streak, I have a feeling."
"To act with Laura Gomez was terrific," says Mulgrew of the actress who plays Blanca and who served as her scene partner for much of the season. After Red enlists her help, and they take speed together, it's because of Red that Blanca is among the group of women who stand together in the end. "Ninety percent of the deal is your partner, and with Laura, I had someone so giving, so absolute and so smart."