Sam Brooks reviews the final season of Orange is the New Black and finds a fitting end to the series’ tremendous legacy.
Light spoilers for the final season of Orange is the New Black.
“It was maybe four percent of my life, but it was enough to change absolutely everything, and I have no idea who I am now.”
Piper Chapman utters this about halfway through the last season of Orange is the New Black, and it’s a line that distills everything about the show in a few quiet, sad moments. Even Piper, one of the most privileged characters on the show, is irreversibly changed by her 18 months in prison.
Even though the show fell out of critical favour in the latter half of its run, a result of some daring formal choices and cultural fatigue, Orange is the New Black has never stopped committing to what it set out to do. It showed us how systems constantly victimise people to maintain themselves, and the ways that the system transforms those victims into tools, into weapons, into resources to be drained. Even better, and more importantly, it gave us one of the most diverse (and frankly tremendous) casts on television.
In its final season, Orange is the New Black doubles down on everything that made people love it in the first place, and even some of the things that made people turn off. Firstly, the tone is a masterclass in balance – this is probably the heaviest season of the show since the second season but there’s enough humour and warmth spread throughout that it never becomes unbearable. Considering that it tackles both ICE (America’s much-reviled Immigration and Customs Enforcement service) and #MeToo – the latter with just the right amount of humour and the closest thing to an acceptable redemptive ending – that’s an achievement.
Secondly, OITNB knows how to use the massive cast it’s accumulated over seven seasons. Characters like Maritza step in and out of the spotlight as needed, and it’s wonderful to see that character develop from a comic relief role – the ditzy image-obsessed Latinx girl – at the start of the show’s run to delivering one of this season’s gut-punches. It’s taken seven seasons for OITNB to realise the kind of gift they were given when they cast Natasha Lyonne, basically whiskey-and-coke in human form, in a relatively small role in season one. Lyonne’s Nicky gets the chance to figure into several plotlines this time around, and the show’s all the better for it – she enlivens whatever scene she’s in without ever stealing focus.
On the other hand, the show has never figured out what to do with Alex Vause. Laura Prepon, who plays her, is one of television’s most uniquely inexpressive performers, and the season’s only dud moments are when she unnecessarily takes the spotlight. We’re lucky that most of her scenes are with Taylor Schilling, delivering an underrated, high-wire performance as Piper Chapman, but at times the gulf of humanity between the actors makes it difficult to appreciate the romance.
Which brings us to the elephant, or the Trojan horse in the room: Piper. One of the hardest things that OITNB has had to do in the course of its seven seasons is figure out how to use its central character. On one hand, she could be one of the most irritating people on the show: a white woman from an upper-middle-class family who is only nominally aware of her privilege. On the other hand, she’s a necessary gateway into the show.
When Orange is the New Black began in 2013, it was at the forefront of many conversations about race, gender, sexuality, privilege and how all those things come together at an intersection with no traffic lights. Piper was, for the majority of the audience, the gateway into these conversations. The fact is, if you’re watching this show, and you have a Netflix subscription and 13 spare hours a year to spend watching it, you and your privilege are probably closer to Piper than you’d like to admit.
The past two seasons have done an incredible job of de-centring and re-centring Piper as the narrative requires. These final episodes see Piper learning how to live her life after prison, the constant battles against a system whose aggressions leave scars well after her sentence. The show’s already shown us what happens to people less privileged than Piper after they leave prison: Taystee doesn’t know how to live outside the system so intentionally reoffends, Aleida ends up dealing drugs out of desperation. By showing us Piper’s struggles to keep a part-time job and attend constant parole meetings, while trying to keep up a relationship with her still-incarcerated wife, it’s the final twist of the knife. The system’s damage is like an oil spill: it doesn’t care about your privilege, it’ll contaminate you anyway.
After 91 episodes, it’s inarguable that Orange is the New Black is one of the most significant shows of our time. It changed the way we watched television more than any other show of the streaming era, and in an era where streaming giants seem to be cutting off series at the two-or-three season mark in order to achieve maximum profits, that we got seven seasons of a show like it seems a miracle. It was never a subtle show, but subtlety is overrated – when you’re hitting marks as deeply necessary as OITNB is, you better make sure you’re leaving a bruise.
And while, yes, Piper was our entry into this world, it’s not her who leaves the biggest impact. When I look back on seven seasons and its most stirring moments, Piper barely figures into it. The show was, at its best, about hitting you with human moments that make its themes resonate. Suzanne asking, quietly, “How come everybody calls me Crazy Eyes?”. Nicky’s tragic, heavy-eyed relapse. Blanca standing on the table, pissing herself in peaceful protest. The joyous swim in the lake – a literal oasis of happiness in a desert of shit. Poussey whispering, pleadingly, “I can’t breathe.”
This season has those aplenty, some happy, some heart wrenching, many bittersweet. But the moment that sticks with me? Taystee, played so tremendously by Danielle Brooks all these years, simply looking at a list of the mission statements of the prison she’s been doomed to spend her life in. And silently ticking off all the ways that the prison has failed them, and even worse, failed her.
You can watch all seven seasons of Orange is the New Black on Netflix.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.