The Dissonant Humor of ‘Orange Is the New Black’ and Its Horror-Themed Episode ‘The Tightening’

In the action-packed second half of Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season, a number of horrific events occurred. A prison guard stalked and kidnapped women. He ripped clumps of hair off Red, leaving her scalp bald and bloody. He broke Alex’s arm. Suzanne had a psychotic breakdown that left her screaming and ripping the fiberboard tiles from the ceiling. In a flashback scene, a male prisoner was viciously raped, and his rapist was scalded to death in the prison showers. And amid all these excruciating moments, the show went off on a jaunty new tangent in “The Tightening,” presenting Orange’s first “horror” episode as a comedic romp through the tropes of classic slasher movies. In the words of Cindy, oh hell no.

While it’s hard to begrudge a show as rich and complex as this one for experimenting with new formats, “The Tightening” was the apex of the tonal missteps Orange has taken since it upped its dramatic stakes last season. How do you follow something as heartbreaking and enraging as the death of Poussey (Samira Wiley)? It’s a tough conundrum, but the answer has been definitively proven not to be: with a series of morbid jokes about mass shootings, a mock talent show starring hostages, and a stress boner. Never has the Netflix show’s characteristically madcap sense of humor felt so out of place.

The decision by the showrunner Jenji Kohan to stage the fifth season in something akin to real time, playing out over three days as the Litchfield prisoners riot, was a fascinating gamble, with mixed results. On the one hand, the show has had the space and time to consider complex ethical and philosophical questions. What kind of society might people forge for themselves without any strictures in place? Is it better to pursue the greatest good for the greatest number of people, Jeremy…

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