This article contains spoilers from Season 7 of Orange Is The New Black.
Prior to its debut in 2013, there were seldom any series as revolutionary as Orange Is The New Black. The Netflix Original, created by Jenji Kohan, has granted the audience with seven seasons of diverse and inclusive media. This season in particular delved into the exploration of contemporary social and political themes more than any other. Frankly, this unique string of visual storytelling is what society needs and it heavily contributed to OITNB becoming the spearhead in bold television.
In a 2013 NPR interview, Kohan referred to Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as her “Trojan horse” ― by introducing a character that was the embodiment of white privilege, Kohan could create the grounds to branch out into the stories of those overlooked not only in the imaginary walls of Litchfield Penitentiary, but in the eyes of the audience as well.
The seventh season did just that. The audience spent 13 episodes with the narratives of an array of racial/ethnic identities: Black women, Latina women, Middle Eastern women, and Asian women were all presented beyond the typical white actresses that seem to overshadow a predominantly-female casting.
The season opened with passed time since Season 6 ended, with Piper’s re-assimilation into the bustling life of New York outside of Litchfield. Although not particularly content with her lifestyle, Piper is able to return and be welcomed (even if as a mere family courtesy) to the home of her brother and his girlfriend without initially paying rent and remains married to Alex (Laura Prepon). Parallel to her experience is the release of Cindy Hayes’ (Adrienne C. Moore), also known as Black Cindy, in the middle of the season. After choosing to leave her mother and biological daughter after feeling as though she would destroy what they built without her, Cindy becomes homeless for a bit of the season. The juxtaposition of Piper and Cindy was a clever message of the varying dynamics in readjusting to life after incarceration.
Beyond the racial and class components was the exploration of neurodiversity and age, which are other aspects commonly disregarded in casting and script-writing. During this season, Red (Kate Mulgrew) begins to enter the early stages of dementia and is heavily supported by Nicky (Natasha Lyonne). Nicky also remains by the side of Lorna (Yael Stone), who spirals into a mental break after her inability to process the fact that her baby, whom she conceived with her husband, Vince (John Magaro), has died. The show does not neglect the stories of Red and Lorna, but indulges in them more to show the audience the complexities of those suffering from age-related complications or mental instability.
Perhaps most remarkable in the season was the elements of humanity remnant in the characters. This made it even more difficult to swallow the large pill of American indifference when it comes to the true effects of capitalism or the current Trump administration’s purge against immigrants. At the beginning of the season, the audience is shown Maritza (Diane Guerrero) and Blanca (Lauren Gomez) reunited in a gloomy, miniature square room with cramped bunk beds for immigrant detainees. The condition of their treatment is equivalent, if not worse, of the Litchfield inmates next door ― the ICE agent overseeing the place is referred to as an aspirational ‘American hero,’ who aggressively interacts with the women and continues to dehumanize their existence.
In addition to viewing Maritza and Blanca appeal against deportation, OITNB introduces Karla (Karina Arroyave), an El Salvadorian undocumented woman with American children who are sent to foster care because of her detainment. Although placing a convincing, heartfelt plea for her request to stay, she is inhumanely deported to El Salvador. Towards the end of the last episode, she is seen walking with a group attempting to cross the border into America. While walking, she runs into a rock and breaks her ankle, thus being told by the Coyote walking with the group to stay in the middle of nowhere as he attempts to return. Karla’s intensive struggle portrays a harsh reality currently looming over America that inherently cracks the surface of our claims to humanity.
There are still light moments to this season ― though sometimes still in response to fallacies in America or tragedies within the show itself, leaving the premise of comedy that OITNB prides itself on. For instance, Tasha Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), also known as Taystee, sees consistent dark tunnels clutter any potential path to redemption outside of Litchfield. In Season 6, Taystee was found guilty for the death of Piscatella, the Captain of the Guards, and is ultimately given life in prison. This, coupled with other hardships Litchfield has posed with her, has driven her to seek suicide. She first tries in a heart-wrenching scene in her cell with a makeshift noose, struggling as she lets herself go in front of the camera. After this, she seeks the help of Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco), who is also granted a life sentence and has turned to selling drugs throughout Litchfield. The story of either is rather breaking, given their former glow in previous seasons.
Although Taystee lives with the pain of knowing how much the justice system sprouts injustice, she changes her mind about committing suicide after seeing that her work as a tutor for the reformative justice program, implemented by Litchfield’s new warden Tamika Ward (Susan Heyward), was a success. Particularly touching was her acknowledgement that she helped Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning), who died from an overdose after her GED exam. This scene showed that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it begins with a dimmed glow.
Orange is the New Black definitely showed its wide-scale audience lessons that are deemed as dangerous grounds for other shows to go. Although a stellar beginning, it should not be the end to television that sends numerous messages beneath the conventional surface that has been polished by the media. From revealing the potential in reformative justice in lieu of punishment, to providing an initiative that transcends the show into reality, the audience sees that there is so much more than hate that could fundamentally change our outlook on not just mass incarceration, but any modern injustice. It showed that if we evaluate capitalism and expose corporate greed, perhaps prison could be central to rehabilitation over the isolation intricately utilized to fuel the prison-industrial complex. It also showed the importance of viewing the spectrum of narratives instead of condensing it down to one or two.
Through the vulnerability of each character to the everlasting layers we see through contemporary television, this season exceeded many expectations. While many fans are sad to see the groundbreaking show go, I am hopeful for a future with more of its nature. Orange Is The New Black is attested to as Netflix’s most popular show for a reason. I cannot wait to see what its legacy beholds.
Featured Image via NPR