Ah, Orange Is the New Black. The show that taught us to binge-watch. The show that elevated people who hadn't ever been given protagonist status before. The big, bewildering, sprawling show that gave us an ensemble cast to call friends.
That show is ending. There are 13 episodes in Orange Is the New Black's final season, and we're going to talk through their highs, los, and bewildering moments. It's not time for goodbye just yet.
Episode 1: “Beginning of the End”
OITNB, based on the 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman, was never going to be the story of one white lady adjusting to prison and then getting out in a year. Once in Litchfield, the dramedy unfolded and expanded to become a show about the justice system and its toll on her fellow inmates — marginalized, poor women whose stories hadn’t been highlighted in the news, let alone elevated to protagonist status. And it was even more than that, too. It was a show that kicked open the door to streaming TV.
The last scene in this episode embodies the show’s mission statement. Several characters give a snippet of their interior monologue. While we haven’t heard from them directly prior to this sequence, these prisoners have been in the show all along. Just because they haven’t been elevated to characters doesn’t mean they don’t have stories, doesn’t mean they couldn’t be characters.
Given how broad the show became, it’s bittersweet (but also fitting) the final season of Orange Is the New Black reverts back to being the Piper Chapman Show. We’ve come full circle. The series is collapsing onto itself. By wrapping up loose ends, it’s getting smaller.
Now out of Litchfield, Piper’s biggest roadblock amounts to an identity crisis. She looks the same, but now she has a scarlet C for Convict that pops up on job applications and in social interactions. Not that freedom is easy, per se. She’s struggling with the demands of her parole officer, financial difficulties, the cacophony of the house she shares with her brother, Cal (Michael Chernus), his wife, Neri (Tracee Chimo), and their newborn, and her father’s (Bill Hoag) coldness — but she hardly faces the same systemic roadblocks that fellow Litchfield veterans like Taystee (Danielle Brooks) encountered after they got out.
Since she’s ultimately just a lost millennial, Piper turns to the zodiac as a compass. Exactly zero of us are surprised to learn that Piper Chapman is a Gemini. The Geminis’ duality is inherent. Everywhere she goes in New York, she encounters a shadow of her pre-jail self. She and Polly (Maria Dizzia) ate at the Thai restaurant where she works to satisfy her parole.
Piper says that Geminis are “torn between personal freedom and the ties of love that hold us back.” This sentiment will guide her arc this season: Her marriage to Alex (Laura Prepon), whose sentence is for another three years, keeps her tied to Litchfield, and severely limits her personal freedom. Is visiting Alex worth getting fired from her restaurant job, worth pinching pennies for bus fare, worth being tethered to Litchfield?
They’re deeply happy to see each other, but the glass that separates Alex and Piper is thicker than it seems. The glass separates the truth. Neither one can help the other change the circumstances of their lives — so it’s easier to lie about them.
We concede that Piper’s having a hard time, but Piper is free — and inherently on an upward trajectory. The same can’t be said for the women she left behind in prison. To put it simply, the women of Litchfield are not in good shape. There’s a case of dead eyes going around the prison.
Daya (Dashca Polanco), for example, has become the Walter White of Litchfield. She started out as a shy, dreamy girl drawing cartoons in a notebook. Prison turned her into a hardened drug dealer. Once surrounded by her mother and her mother’s friends, all of Daya’s relationships are completely toxic. When she finds out that girlfriend/dealer/business partner, Daddy (Vicci Martinez), is cheating, Daya orchestrates her drug overdose. It might’ve been accidental — but she aimed to harm Daddy either way. Daya is now officially a murderer and a drug kingpin.
Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) body is lying down on the bench in isolation, but her mind is gone — and so is her signature hair colour. It’s as if the moment that Red’s magenta hair faded into white, she lost her vitality (the Litchfield version of “Samson and Delilah”). Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva), also in seg, can’t revive her former rival-turned-friend.
And Taystee’s bubbly personality has fizzled out — “now she’s just a murderer no-smiler,” as Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) says. After hearing the lie so many times, Suzanne starts to believe that Taysttee actually did kill Piscatella. Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) reminds her that she’s not — and that the two of them are the reason why Taystee’s been sentenced to life.
Among the set, Tiffany Doggett (Taryn Manning) stands out as a prisoner who’s actually been improved by her time at Litchfield. She says it straight: “I’m the exception. I feel like I’ve gotten better since being here. Most people get worse.” Keep this in mind as the season progresses. Who will end Orange Is the New Black in better shape? Who will be worse? Or, to put it simply, who will the show choose to let off the hook, who to punish, who to redeem — and why?
Tiffany has been improving against every odd. Seriously. As this season, and all the seasons before it, highlight so starkly, the people who work for the prison are not at all interested in prisoner rehabilitation. The guards brazenly try to profit off the prison’s black market. Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is still working with Rick Hopper (Hunter Emery) to smuggle drugs into the prison; while he’s keen on dropping the operation and just dating, Aleida’s more concerned with making money and neglects her many other daughters in the process (could one of them be going the Daya route?). Hellman (Greg Vrostos) offloads his drugs onto Alex in a seriously alarming assault — he forces her to swallow a condom-full of fentanyl.
Smartphones, which Luschek (Matt Peters) smuggles in for Badison (Amanda Fuller), have radically changed the landscape of Litchfield. The women are more connected to the outside world. Now, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) can browse Tinder — and find a different, more seductive, side to the guard Artesian McCullough (Emily Tarver). Lorna (Yael Stone) sees pictures of her newborn son, Sterling.
And it’s also changing revenge. Alex helps herself and the show by planting a phone in Badison’s cell, ultimately leading to her placement in isolation.
Blast to the Past: We get it, Piper, your life was dreamy before prison! She has memories of Larry and Polly — two people who are absent from her life, but very present in each other’s.
Episode 2: Just Desserts
After that first Piper-centric episode, Orange is the New Black is broadening to encompass more of its sprawling ensemble cast – including the newly released Maritza (Diane Guerrero).
As the song goes, Maritza is young, and wild, and free. But is she allowed to be? As Piper’s many conversations with her parole officer last episode show, newly released inmates have to fit their lives within parolele’s severe restrictions, like a curfew. It’s past sundown, that’s for sure. Martiza is drinking, staying out late, and giving a finger to the rules.
Clearly, Maritza’s brush with the callous nature of the criminal justice system doesn’t make her more cautious in the outside world. Instead, her time in prison makes her want to run wild and sleep with NBA players. The adrenaline rush, unfortunately, ends in a crash. When the club is raided, Maritza can’t produce an ID. She ends up back in Litchfield. Instead of jail, she’s in in Immigrantion and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holding pen, where women migrants are kept before their trial.
That’s right, folks: In its final season, Orange Is the New Black has become a story about two types of incarceration. Litchfield Maximum Security’s new next-door neighbor is the one-room holding pen where women await their deportation trials. The conditions in the ICE prison are even worse (take a look at the photos). Here, there are no phones, no guards, no visiting hours. No access to the outside world. And, it seems for Martiza and Blanca (Laura Gómez), no hope.
At least Litchfield, on the other side, is undergoing some reform. The Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) redemption tour is headed ever upwards — he and Fig (Alysia Reiner) have cobbled together an actual relationship, so true to both of their characters that it’s almost cute. In an ironic twist, Joe’s teaching classes on prison reform.
Joe’s likeable now. He’s learned from his old dirtbag ways; he’s changed. That’s great and all, but it’s a reminder that he’s changed only because he had the freedom to. Unlike the women in prison, he’s not trapped. For them to change, like Pennsatucky said last episode, it takes a real battle against nihilism, against a system designed to oppress them.
And it’s a system that’s not even just! Suzanne comes to a difficult realization this episode. Many of the women, including her, don’t necessarily deserve to be in jail (the case can be made for Suzanne being in a mental rehab facility, not prison).
Suzanne’s late to the realization — all the other inmates know. Of all the guards, only Tamika Ward (Susan Heyward) recognizes the horrors of the system. She’s watched it take her childhood friend, Taystee. She’s been taking Caputo’s night classes in corrections management, listening, absorbing ways to change. Tamika sees the potential for prison as a place of rehabilitation: “I want to be part of what changes them for the better,” Ward tells the ever-craven Linda Ferguson (Beth Dover).
Given all this, Tamika is more than prepared when, in a twist, she’s appointed the new prison warden. Tamika gets the position out of the most cynical of reasons: Linda wants to “distract” the media from the PR disaster that Daddy’s death poses for Litchfield — it’s the third inmate death in recent memory. So, she fires Fig and hires Tamika. Tamika doesn’t get the job purely by her own merits, but she still gets the job. At least she, the only guard remotely sympathetic to the prisoners, is now in a position of power. After a season of cringe-worthy interviews, Hopper is promoted to head guard.
One of this season’s “storylines” is the Diaz Family Show. In prison, Daya teams up with Adeola (Sipiew Myo) to run a new drug import biz. They’re a good team — which means Daya’s sinking faster into the prison’s quicksand.
It runs in the family. Her mother, Aleida, has technically left Litchfield, but hasn’t really left. She’s still encouraging her live-in boyfriend Hopper to smuggle in drugs to the prison. It’s painfully obvious to everyone but him that she’s only keeping him around for the cash and material comforts. Aledia is relentlessly ambitious, but faced countless roadblocks when she tried to play by the parole rules (including a pyramid scheme). She finds success by keeping one foot in the prison. It also means her family is forever linked, including her many non-incarcerated kids.
Finally, Piper’s still struggling to integrate her inmate past with her present among hippies and WASPs. Only Alex understands her – and Alex has just been strong-armed into smuggling drugs into Litchfield with McCullough. Could this risky move get her more than three years?
So far, this season has proceeded like many different TV shows cobbled into one. There haven’t been the cohesiveness and interlocking story lines representative of the ambitious past seasons (including the three-day prison riot season).
Blast to the Past: From the army to Litchfield, McCullough has spent her entire professional career trying to fit into heavily masculine environments — and she’s tired of it. Back when she was stationed in Iraq, McCullough tried to fit in with her all-male regiment by bringing in a stripper for a guy’s birthday. And it works! “Grandma,” as is her nickname, can hang. But when she’s sexually assaulted that night by a guy in her regiment, no one believes her. The alienation is painful.
Litchfield is a similarly inhospitable work environment — in another show, in another era, that scene of the guards pretending to have sex with the interviewer might be comedy. Here, it’s a reminder that McCullough is in a space where her body is a liability. She takes charge by stooping to their level.
Episode 3: “And Brown Is the New Orange”
Rejoice! Solitary is closed. So why aren’t the women in solitary celebrating their liberation? It’s simple: There’s not much left of them left. Watching the women stagger out of their isolated quarters, it’s clear how much their time in isolation has depleted them. Chatty Cathy (Marcia DeBonis) has been in the SHU for months after faking her own death. She’s not so chatty anymore.
It’s her first day on the job, and Warden Ward (hah!) is grappling with a thorny question: Why did she get the position of warden? Because her night classes and exemplary resume merited it? Or, as Hopper says, because she checked boxes? Her worst fears are confirmed when Fig confirms that she only got the job so the prison could get a huge diversity grant. Until Tamika believes in her own right to be Warden, the guards won’t respect her, and she won’t be able to accomplish her visionary plans of the prison.
Fig, of all people, swoops in with some actual helpful advice. If Fig chooses to use her unrelenting attitude to help other women, we’ll allow it. “What matters is what we do once we have the job,” she says.
Fig should take her own advice to heart. What will she do now that she’s managing ICE’s wing of the prison? Whereas Tamika faces self-doubt, Fig has a moral panic staring at the “docile” immigrants in the one-room shelter, where bunks beds are stacked three high.
As warden, Fig justified her cold behavior because she was dealing with criminals. But here? She can’t bring herself to categorize these women as criminals like ICE’s guard, Litvak (Adam Lindo), does. Fig’s normal look of disdain has been replaced by one of undisguised horror. She and Joe are trying for a kid. Something tells me this new gig will be a mood killer.
The ICE Kingdom introduces a new cast of characters (it’s Orange Is the New Black — much like the universe, this show is always expanding, even until the very end). Shani (Mari Lou Nahhas), from Egypt. Karla Cordova (Karina Arroyave) is a mother from El Salvador struggling to get back in touch with her kids. All of them are in the same boat: no legal aid, no hope aside from the pitiful turtle dog floating around the ceiling.
Maritza tries to try to find a way of communicating with the outside world. But at every turn, she runs into an obstacle. There are phones, but no phone cards. Letters, but no stamps. She starts off her quest with the energy of someone who is confident she’s an American citizen and is entitled to certain rights, like legal aid. After a day of running into “no’s,” Maritza’s energy runs out. She’s a step closer to becoming a human zombie like Blanca.
Clearly, in this case, hope is not a thing with feathers. Hope might come in the form of a kitchen gig from Litchfield. Gloria, Red, and their merry band of chefs come to the ICE Kingdom bearing camaraderie – and connection to the outside world. .
Speaking of Red: She doesn’t seem herself, post-SHU, does she? She doesn’t jump at the chance to join a kitchen crew with her quintessential seriousness. She forgets names. Red’s “redness” is gone.
Taystee isn’t herself, either — but the bubbly Taystee of season 1 has disappeared forever. Now, Taystee is like the boogeyman of Litchfield. For one, everyone thinks she’s a murderer (she’s not). But after getting life in prison, she radiates anger and a desperate unhappiness, like she’s forever about to burst. And she does burst, exploding at her irritating new roommate, Badison.
Even Suzanne is too terrified to approach Taystee. Only Pennsatucky, the prison’s loony aunt, cross lines others won’t. So, she brokers a meeting between the “terrifying” Taystee and Suzanne. Then, Cindy shows up. Suzanne is awakening to the awful thing she and Cindy did. But she’s still too naive to realize that what’s done can’t be undone. The three amigos can’t rebuild a burnt bridge.
Within the increasingly corrupt prison economy, alliances have once again shifted. We’ll make it easy on you: Alex and McCullough team up to trick Hellman, and free Alex up to deal phone chargers with McCullough. Hellman, seeking revenge on Alex, tries to team up with Badison to get Alex transferred. Thank god what results is Badison getting transferred to Ohio. The human mosquito has been squashed.
Piper’s dreams of fitting in with the hippiey gluten-free mommy club are shattered when her stern parole officer drops in. Immediately after, all the mommies dip out. “We’re just not comfortable,” she says, as if Piper has the black plague instead of just a hiccup in her past.
The situation is representative of how the rest of Piper’s life will go. Eventually, whenever she gets close to someone, the whole “prison” thing will intrude. And with the right people, the relationship will keep going beyond that intrusion. PIper is working on getting to that place with her father, who’s still deeply ashamed of his daughter’s time in prison. He makes a big concession in letting her stay with him.
Blast to the Past: Blanca and Diablo forever! This is clearly THE Orange is the New Black couple to ship. They are the model couple — unlike Alex and Piper, their relationship has been steady in love and support. A “through thick and thin” kind of love. America brought them together. Ever since Blanca went to jail for helping her heinous old lady employer cover up a hit-and-run, America has been doing a damn good job of pulling them apart. After her green card gets invalidated for pleading guilty to the prison riot, Blanca is shipped around to detention centres
When he goes to visit her at one, ICE nabs Diablo. His green card hasn’t been renewed. America is the villain of OITNB.
Episode 4: “How to Do Life”
Red forgot how to chop an onion. Now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Red was our war general. Our kitchen queen. She was a chief.
And she’s gone. Red watches Gloria Mendoza chop, then follows her movements, then gives up. Red’s old self comes out in surges. Generally it’s like she’s play-acting at Red, cobbling together a personality from whatever fragments she remembers of who she once was.
The kitchen crew forms a bridge between Litchfield and Polycon’s ICE HQ. One of the few bright spots this season is watching Blanca, Gloria, Maritza and Flaca come together. It’s more than a reunion. Litchfield’s inmates are also the migrants’ conduit to the outside world. They’re incarcerated, but they still have more avenues of communication than the 75 immigrants.
“People need a purpose,” Red says, on the way back to Litchfield. This episode, Flaca finds hers. She’s going to sneak in cell phones to help the immigrants get in touch with their people, starting with Maritza’s mom and Diablo. Gloria is hesitant because she’s desperate to get back to her sons, and not abandon them the same way she did her daughters (see flashback for more info!). Ultimately, Gloria goes to Luschek for a smartphone.
Maritza eventually does get in contact with Maritza’s estranged mother, but hears shocking news: Unbeknownst to Maritza, she wasn’t born in the U.S. She can be deported.
They’re stuck. But Tamika is trying to make sure the prisoners at Litchfield feel the breeze of forward momentum.
By introducing classes to the prison, Warden Ward’s trying to instill a sense of purpose in all the inmates. In perhaps a cheeky nod to the show’s theme song, Tamika’s class pamphlets say, “You’ve got time...to learn and grow.” The programs, like a spoken word class and Joe Caputo’s rehabilitation class, are supposed to prepare for life after Litchfield. Pennsatucky takes a tour through all the classes, eventually deciding to follow through with the GED program.
It must be difficult for Taystee to hear about “life after prison” when she won’t have one. Still, so long as Taystee is in prison, what good will a GED do? There’s a ray of hope, though. Remember how knotty Suzanne’s mind was after the riot? And how Cindy took advantage of her state to get out of serving a life sentence? Well, Suzanne has been unknotting her brain, so to speak. She’s been writing the truth. Maybe there’s a shot Suzanne’s efforts will help Taystee’s case.
Taystee might not last that long. She asks Daya for a stash of the same bath salts that killed Daddy. Taystee can’t live with the reality of her life sentence, so she wants to take her life. She thinks it’ll give her one last semblance of control, but ultimately, she can’t go through with it. When Lorna gets devastating news, she, like Taystee, can’t live with reality. So she bends it.
This one’s bad, you guys. Brace yourselves.
Lorna derives so much joy from motherhood, even though baby Sterling is far away. On the way back to Litchfield, she bonds with Scott (Joel Marsh Garland), Wanda’s husband, over the joys of parenthood — birth, specifically. It’s obvious how different their experiences are. Scott names his son King as an homage to the crowning process. Lorna makes light of her own awful C-section, during which she was literally chained to the table.
When her husband, Vinnie (John Magaro), comes to visit and tell her the news, she doesn’t accept it. She can’t accept that her newborn son got pneumonia and died. That she’s alone now. Prison can separate her from the outside world. This is the exact moment when Lorna loses her mind, once and for all.
Red and Lorna have lost their minds. Two of the OG kitchen crew members, altered forever.
Piper, on the other hand, is still PIper. Across the board, the people in Piper’s life are trash. Neri, her brother’s husband, is both cold and cloying! Her dad is judgmental and withholding! As of this episode, Alex sort of counts as trash, too, for always getting in a semblance of trouble. Will all that time spent in closets exchanging contraband cell phone chargers with McCullough lead to a spark?
Blast to the Past: Gloria left behind a whole life in Puerto Rico — a life we don’t know about. When her daughters were about 8 and 10, she moved to New York to get a job and set up a life for them (for context — back in Puerto Rico, they all sleep in the same bed). They never end up reuniting. Gloria buys a store and pushes back the time when she can move in with them. By the time she’s ready for them, her now-teenage girls, Ceci and Elena, don’t want to come.
Episode 5: “Minority Deport”
Aleida Diaz is a very good at setting a bad example. While she’s been distracted by her side-hustle and love triangle, Aleida’s many daughters have been roaming free. So when Aleida briefly looks up at her kids this episode, she’s shocked by what she sees. Eva (Isabella Ferreira), her 13-year-old, is hooking up with a 27-year-old drug dealer. And nothing that Aleida — a drug pusher who’s still hooking up with her dealer ex-husband — says can change Eva’s mind.
Aleida does try to change her mind, though. She violently freaks out and ends up in prison. Back with her other daughter.
OITNB is a show about sticky cycles. You get out of prison, but you can’t get out of a life of crime, so you end up back in prison, like Taystee. You try your best to provide for your kids, but you end up doing exactly what your mother did for you, like Aleida. Or you sort of wish you were back in the cycle, like Piper.
Women in the ICE detention centre, however, aren’t in a cycle: They’re on a conveyer belt out that’s leading toward deportation. Who will be called the courtroom and inevitably deported next? Before it’s Maritza’s turn, Gloria and Flaca give her a cell phone and the number for the Freedom for Immigrants hotline. Soon, Maritza passes on the number to other migrants — a lightning bolt of hope cutting through their seriously dire situation.
Women need to support other women, because it’s obvious that the legal system is bent on sending everyone back. Without access to outside help, the women are sent back “to where they came from,” literally. Karla Cordova knows her rights, and this gives her a leg up. During her trial she hits on a loophole by demanding extra time to find effective legal counsel. It buys her some time. Blanca pulls the same move.
But Blanca doesn’t have time to talk to Maritza and give her the good ‘ol “ask for a lawyer!” trick. By the time she returns, Maritza is gone. Like, really gone. She gets deported back to Colombia, a country she moved from as an infant. Goodbye to Martiza, whose confidence we wish we could bottle up and make a fortune off of selling, whose confidence we hope gives her fuel in a strange new life.
Living like this is exhausting. Shani would know — she’s been detention centre-hopping for 18 months. At least here, she has Nicky, a flirty sparring partner. It’s a joy to see Nicky in a social situation that’s purely for her. She’s not taking care of anyone, and she’s not depleted by a raging addiction. She’s sober. She’s happy. But forming a bond with anyone in this centre is a risk.
Or really, forming a bond with anyone in this corrosive environment is a risk. Nicky’s “people,” Lorna and Red, continue to deteriorate. Lorna now lives full time in the fantasy that her baby is alive. Red can’t cook.
After her suicide attempt, Taystee seems to express a desire to make her life sentence, well, more “livable.” She returns to her position as the warden’s assistant. But don’t mistake this as a genuine attempt to turn the ship around. She makes a deal with Daya: She’ll trade intel from the warden’s office for enough drugs for a lethal dose.
Both Taystee and Daya are dealing with their life sentences differently. Daya is like a nihilistic capitalist. The prison is her world now, and so she’ll rule it. The prison is also Taystee’s world, but it devastates her. She can’t go on.
Meanwhile, the Chapman siblings have a pity-off. Who has it worse? Piper, who’s bloated from self-loathing and cookie cake? Or Cal (Michael Chernus), whose too consumed by motherhood to have sex (please hear our sarcasm)? They decide to self-medicate by breaking all the rules and smoking pot. When he says, “Fuck the police,” in light of all the women on this show who have been fucked over by the system, I had to roll my eyes. This show is self-aware — but not all the characters are.
The gap in action between the struggles of Piper and some of the other women in prison (like Taystee!) is laughably large. Still, Piper is not doing well. She’s bloated from the cookie cake and tequila. Her girlfriend is potentially running around with a guard (but Piper doesn’t know that yet). All in all, Piper is very whiny and feels entitled to a “personal snow day.”
She even thinks she’s above the parole system. Piper takes a bloob (a pot-infused blueberry), thinking she can trick the drug test. We know by now that Piper is very bad at getting away with things. Spoiler: She can’t! The parole officer talks to Piper the way that everyone on the show , and watching the show, wishes they could.
Blast to the Past: Aleida’s flashback, or: How the Diaz Women Ended Up This Way. Aledia didn’t have much of a childhood. Her father was in and out of prison. Her mother taught her to use her body as a tool for mobility. This is the environment that bred Aleida’s value system of cold resilience, craven opportunism, and using her body to get ahead. She grew up too fast. So did Eva.
By the time her mother tried to “control” Aleida, it’s too late. The free-wheeling teenager, giddy on freedom and a recent release from juvie, runs away with her friend. Aleida’s attempt to intervene in Eva’s life is similarly botched. She smashes the boyfriend’s car and ends up back in prison.