What the Cliffhanger Finale of 'Orange Is the New Black' Means for the Show's Future

orange is the new black season 5
Jojo Whilden/Netflix
Jojo Whilden/Netflix
This story contains major spoilers for Season 5 of Orange Is the New Black.

For a show that promised to shake things up by focusing on a mere 72 hours during a prison riot, Orange Is the New Black had a remarkably uneventful start to its fifth season. Dull, even. 

But nine episodes in, the pace picked up, the stakes escalated, and the finale featured a full-on SWAT invasion of Litchfield. Those who stuck with the series until then found their patience rewarded, only to be left with a cliffhanger that leaves the fates of several main characters in doubt. 

Which is all to say: Season 5 of OITNB did a pretty decent job of injecting new life into a series. 

orange is the new black season 5
JoJo Whilden/Netflix

What happened in the end

Even in Season 5, Orange Is the New Black continued to gamble on some of the strangest pacing on TV. Like most of the season, the SWAT team's takeover of Litchfield happened both quickly and anticlimactically, with uniformed officers in riot gear subduing the inmates with tasers, nightsticks, punches to the face, and other violent means.

But the casual pace dampened some of the more poignant moments, like when officers pull Soso away from the library memorializing Poussey. When her last visions of dangling books are placed next to Big Boo, hands against a metal cage, quipping that there are very few circumstances in life when even she knows to shut the fuck up, the emotional power of the former became fleeting. It's quite a fitting way to wrap up a season that took risks in changing its format, some of which worked, while others fell flat.

Piscatella's karmic ending shocked

After terrorizing the inmates for more than a season, which culminated in a brutal act of torture against Red -- shaving her hair with a knife and taking bits of her scalp in the process -- Piscatella took a pepper bullet straight to the head. D'oh. Remember how the SWAT commander made it abundantly clear that the pepper bullets should be shot into the ceiling to release their chemicals, otherwise they'd be deadly? Of course you do -- it's called foreshadowing.

That didn't change the shock of the situation: Why the hell did Red set him free? And, once free, all signs pointed to one of the inmates getting killed, that Red's act of forgiveness would go unrecognized. Instead, Piscatella met his end. Ultimately, though, one of OITNB's central tenets is that America's mass incarceration system is capable of producing many Piscatellas; there will be another antagonist ready to take his place when the next season starts. 

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The last song, "To Build a Home" by The Cinematic Orchestra added a haunting note

Just as officers were entering Litchfield one final time to round up the missing 10 inmates hiding in the pool, the eerie piano notes of The Cinematic Orchestra's popular piece of mood-enhancing muzac (it's been previously utilized on Criminal Minds and Grey's Anatomy) gave the scene a heavier emotional weight. The show's use of music can be hit or miss, but in this case, it was a hit. 

What happens to the 10 inmates in the pool? 

Much of Season 5 strayed from Piper Chapman & Co.'s storylines, abandoning extensive flashbacks as part of the structural shift that centralized the action to just a few days. The finale left the audience with a genuine cliffhanger, as most of the main characters are hiding out in the pool while the SWAT team -- which has already authorized deadly force -- prepares to storm in. 

With two more seasons already in the works, the fates of these 10 prisoners hang in the balance. If you lost track, it's Piper, Alex, Red, Suzanne, Taystee, Gloria, Blanca, Black Cindy, Nicky, and Frieda hanging out down there. Will Season 6 pick up with the raid? Will some of the 10 fail to make it out alive?

For better and for worse, the compressed time of Season 5 left several plotlines (is Daya gone for good?) unresolved. You'll just have to wait another year to see how everything turns out. 

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Anthony Schneck is an Entertainment Editor at Thrillist. Follow him @AnthonySchneck.