2019 is the year of endings. It’s the end of a decade. It’s the end of Game of Thrones. And Friday, July 26, will mark the end of Orange Is the New Black, Netflix’s third-ever original series. It’s impossible not to look at the demise of Thrones and OITNB — which arrive just over two months from each other — as connected. The former is the biggest show of the century so far. The latter was the first series that truly proved what Netflix, this century's greatest TV upstart, could accomplish.
Considering how say, controversial, Thrones’ goodbye was, fans may be a little skittish going into Orange’s farewell season. What if entire storylines crumble under the pressure of sticking the landing? What if characters’ personalities completely change over night? What if Bran Stark (Isaac Hempstead-Wright) becomes king of Litchfield’s maximum security prison?
Mercifully, (spoiler alert) that last little piece of paranoia definitely doesn’t happen. In fact, the earlier two concerns don’t completely come to fruition either to wreck Orange Is the New Black’s swan song in the process. Still, that doesn’t mean these last 13 episodes are perfect — not by a long shot.
We return to Litchfield after a short time jump from the events of the season 6 finale, “Be Free.” Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), TV’s least-loved protagonist, is adjusting to life on the outside. That means tensely cohabitating with her crunchy brother Cal (Michael Chernus) and sister-in-law Neri (Tracee Chimo Pallero). Amid chatter about zero-biodegradable containers and weekly probation check-ins, Piper isn’t doing so well, especially since her wife Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) still has three years left behind bars.
Yes, even if Piper and Alex are the last couple you care about in the Orange Is the New Black world, you’re not going to be rid of them just yet. Time and miles upon miles of space mean nothing to these two. It is time we reconcile with the fact that Piper and Alex are the central couple of OITNB.
That detail is perhaps the greatest weakness of Orange’s seventh and final season. The magic of Orange from the beginning was its ability to use a traditional TV heroine like Piper — upper-middle class, highly educated, white, blonde, young, and cisgender — as a Trojan horse for the kinds of stories rarely seen on television, particularly in 2013 when the series premiered. Through Piper’s entrance into Litchfield, viewers were able to meet women across racial lines, socioeconomic backgrounds, mental health battles, and the queer spectrum. Eventually, it’s those women who became the heart and soul of the show.
It’s difficult to watch Orange devote so much time to Piper’s trials and tribulations while people like Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), Suzzanne Warren (Uzo Aduba), Nicky Nichols (Emmy-nominee Natasha Lyonne), Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva, a late-breaking OITNB superstar), and Tiffany Doggett (Taryn Manning) while away in prison. Each of those inmates has experienced hellish situations over the last seven seasons, and each of those indignities connect back to their most vulnerable identities. We have seen these women toil through wrongful convictions, addictions, unnecessary solitary confinement, and sexual assault just to make it to the finish line. They deserve careful, complicated care in every minute.
Yet, their stories are often sidelined for prolonged looks at Piper stumbling through her adjustment to freedom (itself a massive luxury). You’ll understand it’s a tough existence — but likely wonder if it’s as tough as trying to survive the day from underneath a lifetime homicide sentence for a murder you didn’t commit. While that gargantuan obstacle seems far more interesting than Piper’s yoga abilities, OITNB doesn’t always agree. This habit creates episodes that don’t exactly exude the need-to-binge urgency of past seasons.
However uneven the pacing of Orange season 7, it likely won’t stop you from getting through these final hours. If you’ve stuck around this long with the Litchfield crew, you care about them. You want to see how it all ends. So, you'll find some beautiful ideas littered throughout the season. Suzanne’s newfound passion involving chickens — you heard that right, chickens! — takes the questions raised by the series and puts them into emotional practice. The relationships of Litchfield’s inmates continue to give us some of television’s best ideas on family.
But it’s likely OITNB’s response to the federal government's war on migrants will be its crowning achievement this year. Few pieces of pop culture want to even touch a subject as painful as ICE’s detention centers, which are facilities continuously compared to concentration camps. The Orange team doesn’t merely glance at the human rights emergency — it takes you inside of it in ways Netflix does not want me to spoil for you. A certain late-in-the-season look at the immigration crisis will break even the iciest heart. It’s clear Orange Is the Black is less afraid to look these horrors in the face than the current Vice President.
While the drama’s response to ICE is gutsy, in classic OITNB fashion it also has its problems. Let’s just say brown people rarely get the (relative) happy endings their white counterparts are often gifted. It wouldn’t be Orange Is the New Black otherwise.