Do women ever really get what they deserve? Punishments and rewards, earned recognition and targeted pandering — Orange Is the New Black has always examined how justice, both legal and cosmic, comes for people of the female persuasion. In its harsh, hopeful, and plot-packed final season, the prison dramedy puts its characters on a path to the future, but only the ones who believe they deserve better will make it.
When OITNB premiered in 2013, it pulled us in with a novel twist on the traditional “fish out of water” sitcom trope: Privileged, upper middle-class white lady Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is sent to prison and must adjust to a life where she is the minority. But Piper was creator Jenji Kohan’s Trojan horse; over the next six seasons, the show transformed Litchfield Penitentiary into a microcosm of society’s most underrepresented voices — black and brown women, queer and trans women, rape survivors, drug addicts, the neurodiverse and mentally ill.
This season, Orange turns its focus to our country’s newest disenfranchised population: Undocumented immigrants. A good portion of the action takes place at an ICE detention center, where women from a variety of countries — Mexico, El Salvador, Haiti, Jamaica, China, Egypt, and more — languish without access to lawyers or the outside world in general. “It’s like the ‘It’s a Small World’ ride minus the joy and the singing — and the line is just as long,” notes Fig (Alysia Reiner) wryly. While the ICE facility factors into several returning characters’ arcs this season, it also allows the show to focus on a new prisoner, Carla (Karina Arroyave), a widow who’s about to be deported to El Salvador without her two kids. It’s a risky move, introducing a new main character this late in the series, but the depiction of Carla’s struggles with an unyielding immigration system is undeniably powerful and in keeping with OITNB’s history of narrative activism. (Some characters interact with Freedom For Immigrants, a real-life nonprofit that supports ICE detainees.)
Over at the actual prison, a new program aims to teach the women of Litchfield that they can take responsibility for their crime without letting it define them. Some of the most insightful and moving scenes happen in the Restorative Justice class, led by former warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow, radiating low-key charm). “I think this class has something for everyone who’s willing to show up for herself,” says Caputo, a character who’s transformed over the years from hapless bureaucrat to dedicated advocate. Self-acceptance and forgiveness are themes that run throughout the final 13 episodes: Taystee (Danielle Brooks) faces a life sentence for a murder she didn’t commit; Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) embarks on a mission to earn her GED; and Maria (Jessica Pimentel) continues to work toward redemption after her role in season 5’s violent prison riot.
Even as a free woman, Piper — who was released at the end of season 6 — can’t quite put prison behind her. She’s working as a waitress, crashing in a cramped apartment with her brother Cal (Michael Chernus) and sister-in-law Neri (Tracee Chimo), and barely scraping together enough to pay for her weekly, court-mandated drug tests. (The Mysteries of Laura’s Alysia Joy Powell is a delight as Piper’s no-nonsense parole officer, Wyndolyn.) Simply finding transportation to visit her wife Alex (Laura Prepon), who still has three more years at Litchfield, is a challenge — and that’s just one of the obstacles OITNB’s central romance faces this season.
Ending a long-running series is fraught with obligation — story lines must be wrapped up, questions must be answered, characters must be honored. It’s a daunting task for a show with such a sprawling ensemble — there are 19 stars listed in the opening credits alone — but overall, OITNB delivers. Some of the final-season flourishes are pure fan-service fun, like Gloria’s (Selenis Leyva) plan to bring “the old gang back together” in the kitchen, the appearance of Litchfield’s mythical chicken, and the return of notable characters from years past. (One flashback features a surprise that will make the hearts of longtime fans burst with bittersweet joy.)
As always, OITNB balances sitcom silliness — as when Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) tries to “Parent Trap” two estranged friends — with the brutal realities of the correctional system. Key characters die, and one fan favorite suffers a fate that still haunts me. But the writers have also earned a few happy endings, and the series ends on a wave of hope, even for the many characters who remain in prison. In the finale, Red (Kate Mulgrew) tells the perpetually-unstable Lorna (Yael Stone) that life is “about who shows up for you, and who you show up for.” Orange Is the New Black has spent seven seasons showing up for women who are often ignored, and that’s something to be celebrated. Series and final season grade: B+
Orange Is the New Black season 7 premieres July 26 on Netflix.
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