Though it’s only set over three days, there’s a lot going on in the latest season of Orange Is the New Black. There’s a prison riot to deal with, locked up guards that need to be monitored (and need to strip), and demands that need to be made on top of the season’s regular amount of inmate drama. But despite this constantly juggling season, Jenji Kohan’s Netflix show still found room to play. In the middle of this season Orange Is the New Black dove headlong into horror, and the resulting genre-nodding scenes work, both on a terrifying level and as parody.
The roots of Litchfield’s ode to horror starts at the end of Episode 8 when something truly horrible happens. Piscatella (Brad William Henke), the ruthless guard who was responsible for torturing the inmates last season, breaks into the prison, unknown to anyone. Just in case you think Pisactella would waste time hiding or plotting, he’s immediately shown in the next episode beating up and kidnapping Blanca (Laura Goméz). The rest of Episodes 8, 9, and 10 follow a similar pattern with typical OITNB vignettes being interrupted by Piscatella methodically sneaking up and capturing specific inmates. It makes for rather chilling scene transitions.
Piscatella’s ramage is scary in and of itself, but it’s the framing of these moments that transform them from gripping to great. The former guard captain’s methodical takedowns are always filmed like a scene from Halloween or Friday the 13th, his bulky frame looming in the background while an unsuspecting young woman is turned away from him. The series pulls out all sorts of other horror tropes, from a strategically unseen body being dragged down the hall to young women wandering down mysteriously empty hallways, sometime to their doom but other times just to build dramatic tension. There’s even a panicked woman who knows far too much — Red (Kate Mulgrew). Much like Nancy in A Nightmare on Elm Street and even Alex in last season of OITNB, Red is the sole character who correctly guesses what’s going on, but of course no one believes her. Where would the fun be if everyone correctly guessed the mystery right away?
All of these moments work. There’s a genuine sense of unease and peril infused in these episodes that transforms Piscatella from a man into a monster. It’s a feeling that remains even when his tragic backstory is revealed. Just like how the riot in this season proves that anything can happen, from strip teases to braids in unexpected places, the all-bets-are-off tone gives Piscatella’s actions real weight — an aspect that’s always required for horror to land. He could very easily kill anyone of our beloved inmates, and there would be little anyone could do to stop him.
However, it’s Black Cindy’s (Adrienne C. Moore) scenes that steal this horrifying spotlight. While Piscatella stalks around kidnapping Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), and the rest of Red’s crew, Black Cindy is always just a couple steps apart from where the action is happening. The resulting episodes pair scenes that are honestly scary with Moore giving the camera weird looks and making jokes about how black people are always the first to die in horror movies. In an inversion of this particular trope, Black Cindy certainly isn’t the first to die or even become injured by the show’s spooky monster. Instead, she’s confronted by horror trope after horror trope only to smartly run in the other direction. There are even creepy kids! (Kind of.) Moore’s horror scenes are silly and intentionally on the nose but come off as charming under Moore’s masterful hand. Overall these scenes work beautifully, adding some levity to arguably the darkest moments in this heavy season.
Orange Is the New Black has always juggled a lot of genres and tones at once. It’s a comedy that’s willing to kill off one of its most beloved characters and take a season to revolt against her death. It’s a drama that once had an extended conversation about “the third hole.” However, Season 5’s ode to the horror genre is the perfect balance of winking and scary, campy and traumatizing all without sacrificing any characters’ integrity. That’s how you do a genre crossover.