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To hear creator Jenji Kohan tell it, her cast of Orange Is the New Black was furious when she decided to kill off Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) last season.
“A lot of the other actors got very nervous and were outraged, like, ‘How could you do this to her?'” the showrunner recently told The Hollywood Reporter. “And it’s like, ‘I’m not doing it to her. This is the journey that this character has taken. This is where the show is going.'”
Where the show went was to create an all-out prison riot at Litchfield in response to the devastating loss. In the penultimate episode, an untrained guard, Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), inadvertently suffocated Poussey while restraining her during a protest. Poussey’s dead body was left on the floor for a day while the prison covered up the incident, refusing to say her name during a press conference. That decision incited Poussey’s closest friend Taystee (Danielle Brooks) to lead the prisoners in a riot, the season ending with one of them, Daya (Dascha Polanco), taking control while pointing a loaded gun at one of the guards.
The creative decision indeed propels the fifth season of the Netflix prison dramedy — streaming in full on Friday — into uncharted storytelling territory, as Litchfield sees a role reversal when the prisoners take over the prison. The premiere picks up right where last season left off and the 13 episodes play out in a condensed three-day timeline. But the loss of fan-favorite Poussey and the actress who portrayed her took some getting used to when the close-knit cast returned to set to film the season.
“She was so beloved. I hated losing Samira, but her death would have the greatest impact,” explained Kohan, adding that Wiley was “fantastic about it” and understood why her beloved character needed to be the vehicle to tell this relevant story. “But it’s hard because they’re enmeshed with their characters as well, and you try to separate the actor from the part or the writer from the material, but it gets mushy sometimes.”
The night the cast filmed Poussey’s death, an episode written by Wiley’s now-wife Lauren Morelli and directed by Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner, was “our craziest night at work ever,” Natasha Lyonne, who plays Nicky Nichols, tells THR. “Everybody was crying. We were also shooting until 2 or 3 in the morning because that scene was like Spartacus — the scope of it was huge. We were just all devastated. It was a real loss.”
When the cast returned to set a year later, her absence was very much felt, especially in the Ghetto Dorm.
“We have about six different dorms at Litchfield: Suburb Dorm, Spanish Harlem, Ghetto Dorm, the Golden Girls and then we have the Meth Heads,” explained Uzo Aduba, who plays Crazy Eyes, and was one of several castmates who Wiley told personally when she found out she was exiting the show. “Samira is part of the Ghetto Dorm. There are five of us ladies who work regularly together and we’ve developed a short-hand, pace and rehearsal process before we shoot that was familiar and very community-based. It was a sisterhood, and when you come into work and realize one of my sisters isn’t just not coming today but isn’t coming at all, it was heavy.”
For Taylor Schilling, Poussey’s death knocked the invincibility she once felt for her Piper Chapman. “I think it did that for everyone,” she tells THR. “It really brought home that there’s an end to this and that things are changing.”
Though, historically, prison riots never end well for the inmates, OITNB has already been renewed through season seven. Something all of the castmembers agreed on when speaking with THR was that from here on out, Litchfield will never be the same. As the pre-released first minute of the season revealed, the gun in Daya’s hand does go off. Without spoiling any plot points, the gunshot signifies the start of a riot that gradually plays out as the season unfolds. With the prisoners in charge, some use their power to negotiate needed prison reform, some stay on the sidelines and others, in true Orange form, run wild wreaking havoc.
“The word ‘resistance’ feels very appropriate,” says Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia Burset. “There’s a prison rebellion, and we see a resistance to a criminal justice system to mass incarceration from the inmates. It’s really interesting to see who goes with the resistance and then some people — even in an oppressive circumstance — are more comfortable with the status quo even if it’s not really serving them.”
That real-life parallel of rising up against those who oppress was not lost on the cast, and it won’t be lost on viewers who spend the weekend plowing through the season.
“Season five has a lot to do politically with what is happening,” says Selenis Leyva, who plays Gloria Mendoza. “The rising up and showing what happens when people feel that the powers are too much, not being fair or that power is being used for ways of division. What do we do: Do we unite as people and forget our differences?”
Though Kohan said the season was already in production during the election and therefore she wasn’t able to react to the political climate in the show, the theme — much like the death of Poussey — still ended up mirroring society.
“We were playing out these stories at the same time they were happening in real time,” Aduba recalls of Poussey’s death. “Sandra Bland passed away while we were shooting. Alton Sterling. These were very fresh, very alive wounds we were experiencing. The issue of Black Lives Matter and police brutality felt like an issue for a specific sect of our national family.” For many viewers, the loss of Poussey was the first time they were able to put a face to the issue. “By knowing someone like Poussey, who was everyone’s friend, whether you were on our show or living in Iowa, suddenly everyone knew someone who was a victim of this cost.”
That’s why the fifth season collectively lives and breathes to find justice for Poussey.
“The entire season is a reaction to Poussey’s death — all 13 episodes are in direct relation to Samira and Poussey,” says Schilling. “There’s never a breath of the season that she’s not involved in. She’s the context for the whole thing, which is, I think, the most beautiful way they could have honored that moment.”
Brooks, whose Taystee Jefferson lost her closest friend and Litchfield sister, wants viewers tuning in to the season who are rocked by Poussey’s death to remember that in reality, “we are losing a lot of people in the world to police brutality. People are losing their 15-year-old children and their fathers, brothers and mothers. It’s tragedy what is happening in our country,” she says. “You get flashes of things that have happened that were so close to when we actually filmed it, you can’t help but feel and be empathetic and want to give as much respect to what they were actually going through in that moment.”
Brooks, who has known Wiley since their days at Juilliard, says she never got into acting to be an activist but now uses her platform to talk about the real issues at hand. “Art really has the power to heal, and I think we’re doing that — or at least allowing people to see each other in different lights. I think that’s dope.”
— Danielle Brooks (@thedanieb) July 5, 2016
As for Wiley, her relationships with the people on the show still run deep, especially with wife Morelli as a writer and producer on the series.
“One time they FaceTimed me from set and told me I was missed, and it made me feel like Poussey wasn’t forgotten,” says Wiley. Despite the easy access to spoilers, the actress, who is now starring on Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale, says she was a stickler about joining the general public and not knowing what was going to happen on the upcoming season. “It’s hard to say goodbye to someone that you brought to life for the past four years, who you feel like is a real person to you. I miss Poussey. To film it, it’s an abstract idea that this person is gone. To actually watch it, it was hard. The whole thing of it. It’s really a momentous occasion.”
One spoiler that Wiley can take solace in is that Brooks will be leading the charge with Taystee to find justice for Poussey, no matter the consequences.
“Taystee’s purpose is for Poussey’s life not to be forgotten,” says Brooks. “It’s now a question of: How far will you dare to go when you have nothing to lose? And they don’t have anything to lose, especially Taystee.”
Will you be bingeing the new season of Orange Is the New Black this weekend? Tell THR what you think in the comments and keep up with Live Feed for cast interviews and full show coverage.
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