Throughout this season, Orange Is the New Black has told stories about wistfulness and regret and time travel. Lolly builds a potato-powered time machine out of cardboard and foil, then she and Healy talk about what they would change if they could. In episode eight, members of the Construction 101 class talk about what they might do if the time machine worked, and an unusually thoughtful Hapakuka says that rather than kill baby Hitler, she'd go back and raise him better, encouraging his artistic side. As part of the same conversation, Doggett gives Coates an opportunity to say whether or not he regrets raping her — an opportunity he doesn't even recognize until later. In episode 11, Piper and Alex talk about whether they'd want to change the past. Alex's opinion is fatalistic; their choices don't matter, she tells Piper. They are "doomed to be together."
This idea — that regret is real, but time only moves in one direction — is threaded across season four, and it's also implicit in OITNB's flashback structure. We can jump back to watch what happened in the past, but we can't change anything. As Doggett tells Coates, in what is my favorite episode title of the season, "Toast can't never be bread again."
The finale uses OITNB's season-long meditation on regret to painful, pointed, lovely effect. In the aftermath of Poussey's death, we get an extensive flashback that paints a portrait of who she was before her imprisonment. She's visiting New York City for the first time, and after she gets separated from her friends, she has a magical, surreal, sparkling experience of the city. Poussey gets pulled into some kind of performance-art club in her quest to borrow someone's phone, she gazes warmly at the diverse humanity on the subway, and she hitches a ride with a group of Improv Everywhere performers dressed as bicycle-riding Buddhist monks. She's young, embodying that potent mixture of worldly desires and naïveté, and she's a joyful witness to the best that people can be.
But as Litchfield forces us to remember, she's now dead. Lolly's time machine does not work; we cannot go back and undo what Bayley, Piscatella, Caputo's neglect, and MCC's corporate greed did. It's fitting that the finale shows us such gorgeous, maddening scenes of Poussey's past, only to return to the present day, where Angie and Leanne decide the time machine is cursed and tear it to pieces.
Time travel and regret also play into MCC's corporate response, although the crisis management team would never describe it in such suggestive terms. (Regret, I'm sure, implies some level of legal liability that they would never cop to.) As Poussey's body still lies prone on the cafeteria floor, Caputo has to meet with the two-man team that arrived to "manage" the situation. They do nothing that's actually helpful, of course. They're there to find an angle, a way to spin the situation to protect MCC. In macabre parallel, while Poussey dances happily in that charmingly odd nightclub, these men sort through every image they can find from her past, searching for something that will transform her into a villain. When they can't find anything, they move on to Bayley. They're doing exactly what Lolly tried to do in her time machine. They're trying to rewrite the past.
And because they are white, privileged, male corporate monkeys, rather than disadvantaged inmates who have been stripped of their humanity, they can almost get away with it. Caputo's last-minute script change prevents MCC from functionally rewriting past — but even then, he's only stepping in to save Bayley. He has nothing to say about the woman who died.
The MCC crisis-management team aren't dressed in overtly threatening uniforms. They don't drag anyone off a table, torture them, or kill them. But their effort to turn back time is, at its heart, an extension of the dehumanizing work Piscatella does at Litchfield. Their efforts to force Poussey's life into their own narrative, to redefine her as a cookie-cutter-shaped villain who will serve their own purposes, is brutal. It's identical to the kinds of dehumanizing narratives written by institutionally racist cultures, which eliminate individuality and reshape stories to fit prescribed narratives of criminality, animalism, and worthlessness.
The corporation seeks to write Litchfield's inmates into a story that ignores their individuality, which means the inmates are the only ones left to stand up for their own selfhood and for the selfhood of others. Piper realizes that Alex has been leaving notes all over Litchfield with the name of Kubra's hitman written on them. "His name is Aydin Bayat." they read. Alex, who was pursued by a man trying to kill her, is still able to recognize and try to mourn him. "He was a person," she tells Piper. "No one should die without a name."
Suzanne copes with Poussey's death by trying to experience what it must be like to suffocate — she quite literally wants to experience Poussey's suffering. Soso drinks herself into a stupor. Judy King, brought face-to-face with the dehumanizing effects of imprisonment for the first time, grabs her corporation-granted opportunity to leave and runs with it. (Celebrity, it seems, is one of the few guarantees that your humanity will not be instantly disregarded when you put on a prison uniform.) Red clutches her family, assigning tasks that will keep them busy and out of the inevitable riot to come. She reads to them from Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, a book Poussey gave her when she first started the garden.
Poussey's friends are left to sit shiva, alternately raging and weeping and laughing at the surprising reveal of Alison Abdullah's shockingly red hair. And in yet another classically OITNB move, the subplot I laughed at and loved, the one that provided lightness all season — Taystee as Caputo's administrative assistant — ultimately slices to the core of things. Tentatively, and because he truly doesn't know, Caputo asks Taystee to describe what happened in the cafeteria. "What are you asking me?" she spits back. "If she deserved to die?!" Poussey did not have a knife, Taystee tells him. She did not act aggressively in any way. But even if she did, how could that ever justify her murder? Taystee is furious. "Ain't NOTHING she could've done that called for that!"
And so, when Caputo offers his meager attempt to mitigate MCC's monstrousness by publicly defending Bayley and ignoring Poussey, Taystee is driven to action. While Piper and Alex burn the Aydin Bayat notes (and Linda From Purchasing sits cluelessly in a bathroom stall), Litchfield rises up from each of its racially segregated dorms and goes marching into a full riot. The COs are helpless to stop it. The gun that CO Humphrey brought to prison skitters across the floor, ends up in Daya's hands, and she aims it at his head. (Daya, whom Gloria promised Aleida to protect.) In the end, the thing that brings Litchfield to the brink is not physical violence against one of their own. They riot when MCC tries to erase her from the story.
The story that OITNB tells about Poussey's death is not just about Poussey, or about Litchfield. It's about the way institutions everywhere are capable of overwriting and undervaluing individual human life — most often on the basis of race and gender. But this finale does a beautiful, humane, generous thing: It refuses to reenact that same erasure in its own narrative. It would have been easy to lose Poussey's individuality in the larger story about what imprisonment does and how institutions behave. It would have been even easier to let Poussey simply become a martyr to the cause.
Orange Is the New Black does no such thing. Far from allowing Poussey to be lost, "Toast Can't Never Be Bread Again" forces us to remember her as the person she was, both in its flashbacks and in her friends' remembrances of all the ways she was unique and loved. Just as "The Animals" ends with the representation of an eye, this finale ends with a matching visual. As we reel with the massive injustices and the huge body of people clustering in Litchfield's halls, rising up against the faceless evil of a corporate prison determined to see them as mere bodies, the final thing we see is Poussey, in all her loving, irreducible humanity, looking directly at the camera. She's smiling.