Orange is the New Black Season 6 Review: We Should Have Gone to Max Earlier

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When Orange is the New Black Season 6 premieres on Friday, July 27, the easy life of minimum security will be over.

Opening about a week after the riot that was the focus of Orange is the New Black Season 5, only about half of the central characters make it to the maximum security arm of Litchfield Penitentiary.

The rest are in the wind, perhaps to be shuffled in somewhere down the line or never to return.

Waiting in Line - Orange is the New Black

The sixth season will continue following the lives of those involved with Litchfield, but this is the first time the I've wondered how the stories get decided.

Not everyone makes it to Max, and there are a few characters whose absence is noticed.

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It makes sense that we're staying within the confines of the prison, but not from the aspect that we also go on the run with one prisoner after the riot, continue with Caputo (Nick Sandow) after he's canned, and check in Aleida ( Elizabeth Rodriguez) and her tiresome attempts to make it on the outside.

It would seem to me some of those lost inside the system would make attempts to get through to some of the inmates now at Max just as much as we'd expect Aleida to be in contact with Daya (Dascha Polanco).

Daya Stands Up - Orange is the New Black

Nonetheless, it is a welcome change that some of the more cartoonish aspects of the minimum security arm take a break for the time being, even if their replacements aren't nearly as entertaining.

As the leftovers from minimum security are integrated into Max, they are segregated into blocks with no apparent system other than on dubbed Florida for its leniency. It's the "vacation" block where a well-spoken con or someone who needs to spot, like Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), can find respite.

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The others mostly get divided between blocks run territorially by sisters who have spent their entire adult lives in prison, Barb and Carol (Mackenzie Phillips and Henny Russell).

They, in turn, both have a henchwoman so they can do what they've earned after all their years behind bars -- sit back and run the joint, getting all the perks they deserve at the hands of prisoners of lesser stature.

Carol in the Yard - Orange is the New Black

I wish I were lying when I said not only that it took me several episodes to realize Barb and Carol were different people, but to recognize Phillips, but I don't lie.

It was only after the realization the henchwomen weren't trying to one-up each other but reporting to two women entirely that the story started making sense. So, you're welcome for saving you any confusion my tired old eyes caused me.

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Henchwoman A calls herself Badison (Amanda Fuller), among other things, and was the character I warmed up to initially. As I've often disliked some of my best friends upon initial meetings, it should come as no surprise by the end of the season it was Henchwoman B, Daddy (Vicci Martinez), who won my heart.

As has been the case through the seasons, both characters have origin stories explaining how they arrived at the prison and became the person they are today, and OITNB hasn't lost its touch at providing unique backstories for each new entrant.

Barb and Daddy - Orange is the New Black

The best part of moving to Max, though, is that the sisters have a history with one of the long-term characters we know and backstory from within the prison is particularly entertaining.

And even when we think we might know everything about the characters who have been on canvas for the past five seasons, with the introduction of new characters, in this case, a guard in Max, we're shown how realistic is the phrase, "there but for the grace of God go I."

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Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is both helped and hurt by an outside friend and now guard who is confused by everything that happened during the riot and Taystee's determination to continue with the cause that started it -- justice for Poussey.

In some respects, Season 6 feels darker than seasons past even though the overall material is lighter. The atmosphere of Max isn't as frivolous as we've become accustomed.

The Cleaners - Orange is the New Black

The ladies aren't going outside to play in the grass or plant a tomato but are stomping around a stark common area, while some prisoners are relegated to what look like stripper cages.

Meals aren't fun time with Red's (Kate Mulgrew) food flourishes, and rec time doesn't allow for the frivolity of games and impromptu parties.

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But for the first time, Luschek (Matt Peters) gets into his work, and even as he's contrarily working against those he's supposed to help and performing criminal acts inside of prison while dragging prisoners down with him, for a few minutes of each day he seems eager to do something on behalf of them, too.

Piper grows into a prisoner worthy of her time in prison, no longer thinking only of herself -- a sort of redemption for the role Taylor Schilling has been playing so well for so long. She's grown beyond annoyance.

Blanca Changes - Orange is the New Black

Blanca (Laura Gomez), too, is finally given a story other than the odd woman who stinks, while Flaca (Jackie Cruz) is more than the half of whole she was while partnered with Maritza, who has been shipped elsewhere.

Daya, too, was who was always more the surrogate daughter to everyone than an adult herself even after having a child of her own, has to step into womanhood after what she did. She not only has to take responsibility, but she has to save herself in Max because the stakes are raised significantly.

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There are some winning storylines on Orange is the New Black Season 6, but there are some losers, too.

The biggest disappointment for me is the failure of stories from the perspective of the guards. With all the prisons in the United States, I'd like to think there is at least one guard out there who can inspire something if not uplifting at least less repugnant than what we're used to seeing.

As I appreciated the attempt at a shortened time span last season, I'm not sure Season 6 is better, but it is different than what we've seen in some time. Gone are the extraneous characters that hung on and were never going to be developed and those who had outworn their welcome.

By dropping beloved characters into new situations already cultivated, it fostered dynamics that were hidden just beneath the surface all along but didn't have the right environment to develop. 

So six years into production, Orange is the New Black feels fresh again, even as the door has opened for the series to effectively say goodbye if they choose to make Season 7 their swan song.

Orange is the New Black premieres Friday, July 27 only on Netflix.


Editor Rating: 4.25 / 5.0
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Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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