Back in 2013, Orange Is the New Black was a phenomenon, arriving with Netflix’s first-ever slate of Original Series. Today, after seven seasons, it still remains one of their best. It all began with Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a privileged white woman who was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison for smuggling a suitcase full of drug money for her girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), ten years prior. Inside Litchfield Penitentiary, Piper meets a whole range of people as we see the world from her middle-class point of view. Using an ensemble cast, the series allows us to get close to the other inmates and learn about the issues that affect them: race, class, sexuality, gender. The series was at its strongest here, in the beginning, especially as it helped to cover and normalize these issues at a time before “diversity” was a Hollywood buzzword.
After six seasons of watching Piper don an orange jumpsuit, it’s bizarre to see her back in the real world; as she adjusts, so do we. While on probation, Piper has no choice but to live with her brother, sister-in-law and their newborn daughter. She also ends up convincing her dad to let her work for him, but their relationship remains strained considering she’s an ex-con. Orange still has its strengths in showing the nature of life — real, uncomfortable, hard-hitting life. Its final season explores difficult interpersonal relationships, the heartbreaking and inhumane reality of immigration, and corrupt authority figures not caring about the rights of the inmates or their futures.
For most of its runtime, Orange’s final season is far too depressing. It would be insufferable to watch without the hints of comedy throughout. While its premise calls for hard times, you can’t help but hope more characters eventually get the good news they so desperately hope for — especially Taystee (Danielle Brooks), who still faces life imprisonment for a murder she didn’t commit. The characters are still coming to terms with their past mistakes, current situations, and their possible futures, which cause them to experience strong inner turmoil.
Unfortunately, Orange lost its magic a few seasons back. After the death of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) due to prison guard brutality, the seasons that follow are heavily shaped by her death. The series has always dealt with complex and difficult subject matters, but it seems to have this suffocating aura of sadness around it as some of the stories becomes exhausting. It felt inorganic and disjointed at times when an entire season covered a riot; characters would be split up and more would be introduced to an already full roster. Only in its seventh season does Orange manage to tap into its original magic — but the series still remains a ghost of its former self.
By fleshing out the backstories of some of the female guards, Orange continues to comment on how difficult it is to be a woman in a man’s world. Even Warden Tamika (Susan Heyward) — who finds out she was just a diversity hire — tries her best to make a difference in the inmates’ lives, only to be repeatedly shut down by Linda (Beth Dover), the prison’s senior VP. Tamika also has to cope with the backchat from the male guards who have trouble respecting her in a position they longed for. The series ultimately spends too much time focusing on its corrupt authority figures, instead of its inmates.
As tricky as it is to have a large ensemble cast, Orange’s efforts are fine, but its final season needed to focus more on the original characters we were first introduced to. The newer characters are interesting, but they serve as a constant reminder that a lot of our beloved characters have moved on — whether that be leaving prison or tragically passing away. The series works best when it explores the characters and locations that are familiar with us. The screen time balance feels off in season seven as it switches from many different characters in many different locations.
As Flaca (Jackie Cruz) says, “Somebody needs to fucking win around here” and that’s a sentiment you feel during the show’s last season. After a long and tumultuous journey, these characters and we as an audience deserve more of a satisfying ending to their ongoing stories — but not all of them get one. Orange tends to give the overall message that life is hopeless as it combines fact with fiction in a very sobering way. It succeeds in showing us that people in prison are human beings who deserve to have their rights upheld. Orange remains an honest and heartbreaking reflection of what it means to be in America, but for the love of God, can we please get some escapism from the hell that is real life?
It’s hard to completely hate on Orange despite some of its recent flaws. It’s been a crazy journey, but it’s one that I’ve appreciated being part of over the last six years. Orange introduced me to more diverse storytelling and is a huge factor in what made me accept being bisexual. The highs are high and the lows are low, but the characters are all fantastic — they are flawed and realistic human beings, all from different backgrounds, who we have loved, hated and rooted for. Up until its very end, Orange continues to do what it does best — make us feel deeply for these remarkable characters. With the same strength as in its previous seasons, Orange depicts the failings of the US justice system as it reminds us that not everyone has the same privilege as Piper Chapman — especially not in Trump’s America.