Oz: The Complete Fifth Season (DVD)
Raw, uncompromising, and brutal, the fifth season of Oz
represents a turning point for the series, tying up loose ends and preparing for the closure of season 6. As with all previous seasons of HBO's hard-edged prison series, the outbreaks of violence, racial tensions, emotional bleakness, and full-frontal male nudity ensure that Oz
is decidedly not for the weak of heart. Simmering animosity between the Aryans, Muslims, Sicilians, and Latinos continues unabated; these eight episodes include numerous shankings and slashings, a severed arm, strangulation, a stabbing with a crucifix, and the death (among others) of one of the series' most prominent characters. As Schillinger (J.K. Simmons) and his skinheaded Aryans exploit a naive pair of new inmates, tensions mount between the weak-willed Omar (Michael Wright, in a standout performance) and his prone-to-rage Muslim mentor Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker, also excellent); Ryan O'Reily (Dean Winters) continues to protect his volatile brother Cyril (Scott William Winters) and reunites with his mother (Betty Lynn Buckley) who's in Oz doing community service; McManus (Terry Kinney) locks horns with his ex-wife over prison policy; Alvarez (Kirk Acevado) seeks partial redemption by training a guide-dog for the guard he blinded; and Keller (Christopher Meloni) returns to the "Em City" cellblock, to the relief of his bisexual lover Beecher (Lee Tergesen) who attends "interaction" sessions with Sister Pete (Rita Moreno) to encourage tenuous peace among inmates.
With subplots involving guest stars Luke Perry, Peter Criss (from Kiss), Malachy McCourt, and others, the fifth season of Oz is weak at times, but series creator and primary writer Tom Fontana keeps a lot of characters in steady play, covering impressive dramatic territory after the relatively generous allotment of 16 episodes in Season 4. The series is clearly winding down here (the semi-musical episode "Variety" is a curious attempt to broaden the show's creative horizons, and works surprisingly well), and the outbreaks of violence now have a rather predictable and oppressive frequency. Anyone looking for "feel good" entertainment should stay away, but Fontana and the uniformly excellent cast maintain admirable depth of character and incident, including a tragic loss (in "Visitation") that resonates throughout the season. Extras are slim: commentary by Fontana and Dean Winters accompanies episode 8 (aptly titled "Impotence"), and like the fifth season itself, it's recommended primarily for devoted Oz viewers who've enjoyed seasons 1-4. --Jeff Shannon