12:00pm PT by Jackie Strause
The Biggest Change in 'Orange Is the New Black' Season 6 (Besides the Location)
The Orange Is the New Black makeover is fully in effect with season six.
The minimum security grounds of Litchfield Penitentiary have served as the longtime home of the Netflix prison dramedy ever since Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) was sent to prison in the first season. After heavily hinting that new scenery was on the horizon in the fifth season finale, the trailer and promotion for season six (which is streaming in full, as of Friday) confirmed that Piper and some of the other inmates were headed down the hill to the maximum security facility, commonly known as "max".
As a result of the three-day riot incited after the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), the most high-profile prisoners who rebelled are sent to segregated custody, known as Ad Seg, where they must grapple with the looming threat of added time amid an investigation seeking to punish the women responsible for Litchfield's rebellion. The sixth season picks up one week after the emergency response team stormed Litchfield, leaving two dead guards — C.O.'s Piscatella (Brad William Henke) and Humphrey (Michael Torpey) — and an uninhabitable prison in their wake.
Technically, that means only 10 days had passed in Orange's world from the end of season four to when the new episodes begin. But after a couple hours of doing time with season six, the discerning Orange viewer will realize that the inmates are now living in current time.
Thanks to a series of real-time references that only get more topical as the season goes, it becomes clear that the location is not the only change: Orange is also now playing out in 2018. One reference in an early episode sees Blanca Flores (Laura Gomez) questioning the status of Trump's proposed border wall; later, a "honeypot" conversation invokes the #MeToo movement. Up until now, Orange was only 10 months into Piper's 18-month sentence, which was handed down when the show launched in 2013. Series creator Jenji Kohan had referenced the timeline constraints when discussing the potential of tackling Trump's America in season six, suggesting that the show would be taking a time-hop of sorts.
"To be able to be that topical was very exciting this year," executive producer Tara Herrmann says when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter about the new season. "It's a tricky thing. We started to get a little bit looser with it in season five, but for the first four seasons we really tried to be mindful with our references. There is this clock on the show because of Piper’s sentence, but then we also want to be able to be topical."
The Lionsgate Television series, which is based on show consultant Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name, has always been littered with pop-culture references. Herrmann cites small things, like arts and entertainment, as an example of ways they have time-stamped the series. Ultimately, the current climate propelled the change.
"Some places that we tried to keep with the rule were little things like books, for instance," Herrmann explains. "If we referenced a book, we would say, 'Oh, but it didn’t come out by then.' Those were the tiny ones and then the bigger ones — just the political climate that we’re in. It feels like we are doing a disservice and that we were hand-strung by it, as storytellers."
Continuity issues aside, Herrmann says that playing with the concept of time makes sense for a show about prison. "The theme song is Regina Spektor's 'You’ve Got Time,' which is all about time and how these women are in there," she says. "We know from the real inmates that we have talked to that when you are in there, you do lose track of time. So now we say that we’re living in a timeless world. While there is a clock on peoples’ sentences and that sort of thing, let’s just throw caution to the wind and decide that we’re now working in the current age. That’s why a lot of the sentences are somewhat vague. And, if you’re following it that closely, I think we’re doing something wrong!"
For a show that has been consistently ahead of the news cycle when it comes to tackling social issues, the sixth season brings with it more than one prescient punch. As had been predicted going into the season, Orange sheds some of its ensemble and focuses on fewer inmates in season six, highlighting some of the more topical themes amid a 2018 backdrop. A cast trimming had also been hinted in the fifth season finale. Most of the inmates were separated onto two buses, signaling that they were headed toward separate prisons — and that not all of them would make it to max.
"After season five, there had to be ramifications for the riot," Herrmann explains of the characters Orange viewers will and won't see in season six. "We took the risk of slowing things down and telling big arcs, but slowly. It was exciting for us as writers to go back to the first few years where we could really zone in on the core characters. We wanted to tell the fifth season from the corporate and more administrative stories, which are fascinating for us. But I think we were all excited to then get back to our ladies and the rawness of the ramifications of the riot."
Orange, which has already been renewed for a seventh season, is known for its revolving-door aspect, where some characters disappear for large stretches or exit seasons early, only to return another year. When it comes to the missing characters in season six, Herrmann sheds light on the organic Orange storytelling process: "We never save stories. Everything that we have is all in there. We end up with nothing in what we call our 'slush' at the end of the season — we’ve checked it all off. Jenji’s motto is that there is always more story to tell."