“Where is Alex?” Those are the first words we hear out of the mouth of supposed Orange Is The New Black leading lady Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) in the Netflix dramedy’s sixth season. That question is also the second and third thing the panicked inmate says during her 2018 dream sequence introduction, despite the fact that surprise guest Alex Trebek has some very pressing Jeopardy-style questions for her. But, pig belly and 1984 be damned, because Piper’s new fiancée Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) has disappeared from their prison world without a trace, and Piper is desperate to figure out what happened.
Surprisingly, considering just how dark the latest run of OITNB can be, the answer to Piper’s frantic question is “Alex is safe, sound, and on the mend.” While it only takes a few episodes for Piper to find out her wife-to-be is alive and well, that period of not knowing creates an entire new set of problems for the remaining Litchfield “campers.” You know, the ones who fans have long loved and are now imprisoned in the often-heard-about, rarely seen maximum security facility down the hill.
Up until the fourth episode, Piper takes Alex's MIA status in max as a sign her fiancée was murdered during the riot-ending CERT assault that closed out season 5. It doesn’t help that Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) told her “The Tall One” died during the siege, and Piper, obsessed with Alex, assumes her statuesque partner is “The Tall One.” There is the rumour going around that an inmate died during the CERT’s onslaught. Piper has no idea the real victim was Maureen Kukudio (Emily Althaus).
Plus, there was the disturbing fact that during the first flashback to the final 10’s violent bunker raid, we see someone who looks a whole lot like an unconscious Alex getting dragged out of the pool area by a CERT officer. He is pulling Alex by her feet, which is not what one usually does with someone who is alive.
But, Alex pops up in max during season 6's fourth episode. She is thankfully very alive and blankly asks Piper if she could help her find her cell (it’s part of a funny-mean joke). With the comedy taken care of, Alex, whose shoulder was broken by CO Piscatella (Brad William Henke) during his disturbing season 5 kidnapping scheme, soon explains where she disappeared off to. As she tells a group of fellow campers-turned-max inmates, she was deemed too injured for the bottom of the barrel prison “duct tape doctoring” offered behind bars. So, she and other truly at-risk inmates were taken to a real hospital for actual medical care following the riot. Alex was gone for so long because she needed surgery on her shoulder, and then another surgery to fix the first, apparently botched, procedure.
Now she’s back, with a brand-new shoulder sling to pick up where she left off as one of OITNB’s leading characters. From there, Alex is able to hop into the drama over the warring C Block and D Block and continue her legitimately sweet relationship with Piper. In fact, Alex appears in every subsequent episode of season 6.
Once Alex is done explaining her recent whereabouts, the actual casualties of the CERT raid are revealed to Piper: the aforementioned Maureen Kukudio and, more imperatively, Piscatella. This is when Piper realises she made a grave mistake earlier in the season due to her Alex panic. When Piper went to go speak with the federal investigators about the riot and Piscatella’s death — which was actually caused by a CERT officer and covered up to make it look like one of the bunker inmates killed him — she was in a fog. Piper had just learned of “The Tall One’s” death and believed Alex was dead. So, she had no idea she was actually being questioned about not only the riot, but the alleged brutal murder of a correctional officer.
Piper, wracked with guilt and rage, accidentally set up Red to take the blame for a murder Piper didn’t even know about.
“Red. She made us bring him down there,” Piper tells an investigator about how the late Piscatella ended up in the pool bunker. “She wanted to torture him for torturing us. She couldn’t let it go.” Immediately, in the government’s mind, Red is now a riot leader looking at 10 extra years in prison. Partially because Piper was sad and oblivious, but also because Nicky Nicholas (Natasha Lyonne) was forced to implicate her prison mom as well.
So we may now know exactly where Alex Vause is, but that doesn’t mean all of Piper’s problems, or those of her prison family, have been fixed.