R29 Binge Club: Orange Is The New Black Season 7, Episodes 1

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”

Think of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as the Trojan Horse of Orange is the New Black. In season 1, which premiered in 2013 (were we ever so young?), we followed her, an “unlikely” inmate, into Litchfield State Penitentiary. It was a bait and switch.
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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 — marginalised, 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.
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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.
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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.
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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

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