‘Orange Is the New Black’ Says Goodbye With Grit and Tears

Some stay behind bars while others taste the uncertainty of freedom in the seventh and final season of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” It’s a fitting end to this show based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman, which truly launched Netflix as its own studio, capable of producing original programming that could rival anything on cable television. Maybe it had been long overshadowed by everything else the brand has released over the years, in wave after ceaseless wave of new titles. But even when it has lagged, this show has never lost a sense of its heart thanks to the guidance of creator Jenji Kohan. The restlessly inventive provocateur brings her magnum opus to an appropriate landing, full of dark laughs and a special, melancholic sense of saying goodbye.

The season opens, as it should, focusing on Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) getting used to life as a free woman. No longer being in prison means dealing with parole officers and doing weekly drug testing. She still holds on to her marriage with Alex (Laura Prepon), who remains in prison. On the outside Piper’s brother charges rent and even her dad looks unwilling to help with money. On the inside Alex is being harassed by the corrupt clique of guards to unload about $1500 worth of drugs. Things aren’t faring so well for other characters. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) is back with a life sentence, a fate that has virtually left her a shell of her former self, it’s even more tragic since she basically took the fall for the murder of a guard last season. Badison (Amanda Fuller) will be the one having to endure Taystee’s new, violent personality. Daya (Dascha Polanco), rising as a prison trafficker, is having tensions with Daddy (Vicci Martinez), who is later found dead. Daddy supposedly overdosed, but did they? The others at the Litchfield Correctional Facility are surviving and coping, reflecting on past events like the massive riot of two seasons ago. Meanwhile Tamika (Susan Heyward) decides to go for a major new job opening at the now largely privatized prison.

The above is a mere introduction to what is a vast, immersive final season for “Orange Is the New Black.” As befitting a groundbreaking series, there is a lot of reflecting, flashbacking and tying up of storylines in its 13 episodes. Yet Kohan also expands the reach of the show, finding space to tackle urgent contemporary issues like ICE detentions of immigrants and the general injustices inherent to the prison system. This show has always been impressive in both placing female characters at the forefront, but also in giving us so many of them. To sound off the roster is to revisit characters beloved by the series’ major fan base, returning are Blanca (Laura Gomez), Fig (Alysia Reiner) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) with their characters given more prominence. Maritza goes through a funny yet ultimately tragic story arch which finds her in an ICE facility with Blanca after a failed romance with a basketball player. Here the writing makes explicit allusions to current headlines. It’s difficult for Maritza to even cross state lines because of her undocumented status. One of the season’s most powerful moments involves Maritza spreading the number of her lawyer to other jailed immigrant women, which results in her being deported. Other key characters like Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) experience quite endearing moments of change, like when she realizes that if Taystee is unjustly incarcerated then maybe she is too. Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is given one of the season’s most striking flashback moments, as we learn about her rough childhood which included prostitution to make money and leaving her mother behind. 

Even the guards get proper, more fleshed out backstories, the most prominent being Artesian McCullough (Emily Tarver) and her past in the military. As a soldier in the Middle East she becomes a mirror reflecting back the explicit gender discrimination in the armed forces. Male soldiers taunt her and even make moves on her in bed after she gets them an Arab stripper to try and fit in. One doesn’t get the sense that Kohan is making preachy messages. Instead she’s demonstrating how everyone is formed by their past experiences. Our attitudes at this very moment are formed by what we go through. The more humane of the guards, Blake (Nick Dillenburg) recedes more into the background as the story winds down, but he remains a ray of light in a brutal system. 

Even when there is uncertainty and a certain level of bleakness, comic relief comes via the satirizing of the corporate running of the prison system. Linda (Beth Dover) tries to clamp down the drug trafficking going on in the prison and is astounded to find that even the chickens are dropping pill bottles. Tamika gets puts in charge as head warden for only a short while before being fired after Linda discovers the trafficking bird running around.

The strongest episode of this season is fittingly the final one. It is an emotional goodbye to the prison, the women, the relationships, the whole package. Alex will be moved to Ohio, and pressure mounts on Piper to just let her go. Surprisingly enough even Alex seems ready to call it quits. Their marriage was a “prison marriage” anyway. But Kohan might believe that love is stronger than any prison, and while the two lovers don’t end up running away together, Piper does make the trip to go see Alex. Before that she has an almost reckoning with her ex fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), looking back at what she gave up to operate outside of the law with Alex years ago. A soulful tribute takes place for the long gone Poussey (Samira Wiley) and someone, won’t spoil who, writes a tell all memoir that at least one character offers for use as toilet paper. Gloria (Selenis Leyva) has a powerful sendoff, reflecting in her cell that she never put herself first and let others lead her astray. 

There are many other story threads that are connected or cut, with the sobering observation that not everyone has a happy ending. Someone will be left in the desert trying to cross back into the country, confessions of love in the prison courtyard will be expressed with the simple, tender exchange of a haiku, and as tends to happen in life, one of those corrupt and brutal guards will become the new warden. Like other intelligent series, this one ends without pushing too far with shockers and twists, instead aiming for real drama.

Now reaching its end “Orange Is the New Black” endures as a defining show of its time. It established Netflix as a provider of dynamic original content along with shows like “House of Cards,” but it stood out in other culturally significant ways as well. Never had prison life been depicted with such a unique blend of smart humor and deep pathos, and never had such a show focused primarily on women. Whether dealing with prison abuses or same-sex relationships, Kohan did what we wish so many showrunners would do when given such a major opportunity. She used the medium to say important things, craft illuminating stories and shake us up a bit. It’s not just good TV. This is how great art should work as well.

Orange Is the New Black” season seven begins streaming July 26 on Netflix.