behind the scenes

How Orange Is the New Black Said Goodbye to the Litchfield Inmates

Photo: JoJo Whilden

Spoilers ahead for the entirety of the final season of Orange Is the New Black.

Orange Is the New Black may have sparked from Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir about the 13 months she spent in federal prison on money-laundering charges, but the Netflix series thrived by looking beyond protagonist Piper Chapman’s story and toward the large, diverse group of women incarcerated with her. No TV series had ever featured such a sprawling group of women, each with her own singular story, and in the final season, those women’s stories form the foundation of thoughtful and empathetic explorations of empowerment and growth, mental illness, death, and the country’s polarizing immigration policies.

Creator and showrunner Jenji Kohan decided in the fifth season that she would end the show after seven cycles, and the endgame planning began then. But none of it came easy, says executive producer Tara Hermann. “We are a room of debaters; for sure, there was a debate about how everybody ended up,” she said. “Jenji often has to make the final call. But mostly we fought and talked it out and got to a place where we all felt good about where they all landed.”

Viewers get to find out where everyone lands in series finale “Here Is Where We Get Off,” which also includes a montage of characters viewers haven’t seen since the fifth season, when the inmates were separated and assigned to different federal prisons. The surprise comes when Alex (Laura Prepon) is transferred to a prison in Ohio and is reunited with Carrie “Big Boo” Black (Lea DeLaria), Erica “Yoga” Jones (Constance Shulman), Angie Rice (Julie Lake), Leanne Taylor (Emma Myles), Norma Romano (Annie Golden), Alison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen), Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy), Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), Gina Murphy (Abigail Savage), and Anita DeMarco (Lin Tucci).

“It was intended so you could hold those people in your mind and imagine them, just like we hope that everybody can keep imagining all of the characters living in this maybe-parallel universe,” said Hermann, who walked Vulture through the writers’ thinking behind each of the show’s main story lines, broken down by character. “Their stories go on, and we wanted to place them for people so you felt satisfied for their ending, and then also you can maybe visit them in your mind every once in a while.”

Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) and Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling)

Photo: Netflix

Piper Chapman spends the last season as a conflicted free woman, after being released early from prison in the sixth-season finale. Piper is torn about leaving her new wife Alex (they wed in a prison ceremony officiated by Nicky) and being apart from her for two to three years. As the season progresses, Alex suggests that Piper find companionship elsewhere, while she herself gets involved with prison guard CO McCollough (Emily Tarver), in a thorny relationship that begins with blackmail and drug sales and progresses through cell-phone-charger sales, sex, and stalking, and, by season’s end, Alex’s transfer to an Ohio prison. Although Alex breaks up with Piper because of the move, Piper ends up moving and starting a new life in Ohio to be closer to Alex. The last image of the couple is them laughing together during a prison visitation.

The writers arrived at Piper’s story arc early in the series, moved by Piper Kerman’s life story. “It was based on how inspiring the real Piper’s story post-prison has been, that she remains active in advocacy and criminal-justice reform,” Hermann said. “So we knew we wanted to get Piper to that place, but the Piper that we created on the show took a lot of turns and detours that the real Piper hadn’t, so we definitely needed to make sense of all that through the character. She had gone to some dark places, but in the end we knew we didn’t want her to end up taking the easy road.”

Alex was given a darker story to show how she responds to feeling vulnerable. “She tries to bail,” Hermann said. “She’s foreseeing heartbreak or hurt, so she tries to get out of it before it happens to her.” But, in the end, the couple gets one of the few uplifting endings of the series. “Of all the stories, this is one where we could get away with a hopeful, happy ending,” Hermann said. “With a lot of them, just knowing where people’s lives began and what’s happening in the world, it would be hard to get out of. I think that’s why people struggle with the character of Piper, because she does come from privilege. But hopefully we were able to tell the story that she’s decided to put her nose down and do some of the hard work. I’m happy that the two of them are giving it a shot and being adults, finally.”

That doesn’t mean it lasts forever, though. “I think we all want to believe that they beat the odds, but the past can really map out the future,” Hermann said. “I think Piper’s really strong and feeling fully convicted in what she wants to do in the world, but we’ll see if they survive. In my head, I wonder.”

Cindy Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore) and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks)

Photo: Netflix

One of the show’s most multilayered tragedies has been the painful dissolution of the tight-knit and often fun-loving Black Girls crew. No story is more devastating than that of funny, sweet Taystee, who is crushed by the prison murder of her best friend Poussey in the fourth season, instigating a prison riot that gets everyone transferred to maximum security, and finds herself wrongfully accused, and eventually convicted, of murdering a prison guard who was shot by friendly fire. Sentenced to life in prison, Taystee is betrayed by one of her closest friends, Cindy, who is tricked into testifying against her in exchange for immunity.

The seventh season introduces shadowy sides to each character, with Taystee overwhelmed by grief and hopelessness and Cindy racked with guilt and sorrow. Although Cindy is released early and begins to rebuild her life with her mother and daughter, everything falls apart again when Taystee anonymously sends Cindy’s daughter a letter revealing that Cindy is her biological mother (the girl was raised to believe they were sisters). After a confrontation, Cindy leaves her family and winds up homeless, but by the end of the season she’s taken steps to mend her broken relationships.

When the producers called Moore to discuss Cindy’s arc, the actress requested Cindy’s end not be as bleak as what the writers originally had planned. “We had planned something darker,” Hermann said. “We felt Cindy had burned some bridges and she would try to go it solo. Adrienne’s a professional and she would have done whatever we asked her to do, but she was hoping for a little bit more light and hope for Cindy. She was hoping Cindy would have reconciliation with her daughter. We heard her and decided to make a few changes.”

Back at Litchfield, Taystee, who is suicidal for most of the season as her appeals are denied, finds her voice again by tutoring other inmates for their GEDs, teaching financial literacy, and starting a fund in Poussey’s name to give loans to inmates when they are released.

Part of Taystee’s story arc was inspired by Curtis Carroll, a San Quentin inmate skilled at picking and trading stocks who founded the prison’s financial-literacy program. “We thought it would be beautiful that she can remain hopeful, given her life sentence, so it was exciting to come up on that story for Taystee,” Hermann said. It does come as a relief, after many episodes of Taystee contemplating suicide, going so far as trying to hang herself and purchasing poison. “Sadly, that happens far too often in prison, that you get stuck in the system and it just beats you down,” Hermann said.

Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew), and Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne)

Photo: Netflix

This close trio, part of Red’s family from the beginning of the series, begins the season in different states of mental health. Nicky is sober, confident, and trying to stay out of trouble. After delivering her son Sterling prematurely, Lorna obsesses about his fragile state through photographs her husband sends her. And despite the best efforts of her neighbor Gloria (Selenis Leyva) to stimulate and motivate her, Red is struggling in isolation, where she was sent after trying to strangle Frieda (Dale Soules). Things only get drearier for all three of them after Red moves back to general population and it becomes obvious she is suffering from dementia. She and Nicky are part of a group assigned to cook and serve meals at the immigration detention center on campus, where Nicky falls for an Egyptian detainee who is later deported. After learning from her husband that their son died, Lorna detaches from reality and opens Instagram accounts with fake baby photos, never sharing with anyone that she lost her son. Eventually, Nicky learns about Sterling’s death from Lorna’s husband and tries to help her friend, but realizes it’s too late. The series ends with Lorna and Red both in the “Florida” psychiatric ward of the prison, and Nicky taking Red’s place in the kitchen and becoming a new “prison mom.”

“We were introduced through Nicky to the idea of a prison family, and Red being her mom,” Hermann said. “And then a lot of Nicky’s flashbacks and past stories showed she definitely had some mom issues in her life, and then continued to have them with Red in prison. So we loved bringing her full circle and seeing her in the end step up and become that maternal figure for the new girls.” And as for the chef jacket, manicured nails, and cat-eyed eyeliner Nicky’s sporting at the end of the season? That was Lyonne’s idea. “I absolutely love that,” Hermann said. “It was a little nod to Red.”

In the ninth episode of the season, “The Hidey Hole,” viewers learned how Lorna suffered her first psychiatric break after she throws a rock at the windshield of an oncoming car, assuming the driver is a man she rejected at a bar, and causes a collision that kills a newly engaged couple. “Oh Lorna, she’s such a crazy-pants!” Hermann said. “We were so happy to write the direct origin story of her split, and Natasha Lyonne directed that episode, which I just think was stellar. Lorna’s a heartbreaker, but early on we tried to figure out, given Red’s story of dementia, how the two of them could end up living their days together. So it’s happy and sad.”

When the writers spoke to Mulgrew about her story line, they were surprised to learn her mother had suffered from dementia. “That story was inspired by a lot of research and the fact that there’s sadly no elder care in prison,” Hermann said. “Her condition is exaggerated by the fact that she was in isolation for so long. We were excited to dramatize that story because it’s happening in prisons with that age and generation. Kate’s mother’s condition was neurologically different and little more nuanced, but she was one to really dig in and make sure that we were telling it in an accurate, representative way.”

Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett (Taryn Manning) and Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba)

Photo: Netflix

Suzanne and Pennsatucky embark on an unusually touching friendship this season when they become cellmates in the “Florida” ward. As Suzanne spends much of the season fighting to reconcile her estranged friends Taystee and Cindy, and taking care of the chickens at the prison’s New Cluck City, Pennsatucky takes a chance on herself by taking advantage of the prison’s new educational programs and studying for her GED. When she discovers she is dyslexic — and not stupid, the way her father made her believe — she lands Taystee as a tutor. But her story of empowerment takes one of the most heartbreaking turns of the season. When a guard fails to give her the extra time for the test she is legally entitled to because of her condition, Pennsatucky assumes she failed, takes drugs to cope with her despair, and ends up dying of an overdose. Viewers learn later that she actually passed the test.

The finale opens with a close-up of Pennsatucky’s corpse. “We never like to kill any of our characters, and it doesn’t happen without a lot of thought,” Hermann said. “Sadly, she is one of those cases where the prison did her no favors, and while she managed to find people within the system to help her grow and educate her and enlighten her, she still had a lot of trauma that she was dealing with that hadn’t been therapized enough. The best ear that she could turn to, sadly, was drugs. We were obviously all sad to have to do it. But when we had the conversation, Taryn was able to separate herself and understand the greater good and the bigger story that we were after.”

Pennsatucky’s death also serves to highlight how much Suzanne has grown during the course of the show. Instead of losing control as she might have in earlier seasons, she organizes a memorial service for her friend and sings the Mountain Dew jingle in her honor.

“I don’t know if Suzanne has changed so much, because I think still somewhere deep down, if she is challenged, she will have an outburst,” Hermann said. “But I just think we dug into her character and let her grow up. This was supposed to be the year of her coming into her adolescence and working through the teenage years, and I think that she has grown up. She’s seen the world differently and, like Taystee says to her, I hope she continues on that path.”

Dayanara “Daya” Diaz (Dascha Polanco) and Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez)

Photo: Netflix

Where to begin with this mother and daughter? When the season opens, Aleida and prison guard Hopper (Hunter Emery) are still living together and smuggling drugs into the prison, with Daya as their seller. Daya, who has been sentenced to life for killing a guard during the riot, has become her block’s ruthless boss. But when Aleida’s younger daughter becomes involved with an older drug dealer, Aleida beats him up and smashes his car, landing the mother of five back behind bars. Daya sets up Hopper to get fired and recruits her younger sister Eva as her new external drug pipeline. When Aleida learns this in the finale, she confronts Daya and things quickly escalate in one of the show’s most shocking climaxes. After Aleida calls her eldest child an “evil junkie,” Daya asks her, “Do you know what it’s like to kill somebody?” Aleida punches her in the throat and climbs on top of her on the floor and starts strangling her. “Maybe now I’ll know what it’s like,” the mother says to her daughter. It’s the last time viewers see them.

“Daya shot a guard and she was not feeling bad about it, so we just wanted to follow that story and show a different side of how prison can affect you,” Hermann said. “You can come in as the doe-eyed innocent and become a hardened, hardened criminal.”

But is Daya dead? “That’s another ambiguous one,” Hermann said with a laugh. “People have some theories. Does Daya survive that punch in the end? It’s hard to say. Did Aleida feel like she had to take out one kid to save the other? I don’t know.”

Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) and Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva)

Photo: Netflix

These two seemingly spend the entire season nursing their post-riot grudges, which stemmed from each mother wanting to do right by her children. During the riots, Gloria had asked to be furloughed so she could visit her son, who was having emergency surgery. A prison official agreed, provided that she free the guards being held hostage by the inmates. But Maria overheard the plan and freed the hostages herself, thinking it might earn her brownie points so she could be with her baby daughter. Gloria then got revenge on Maria by telling special agents that she coaxed Daya to pull the trigger and started the riots, resulting in more time being added to Maria’s sentence.

This season, after Gloria is released from isolation, she joins the kitchen team that cooks for the immigration detainees and, together with Flaca (Jackie Cruz), helps them reach family members and contact lawyers in the outside world. Maria, meanwhile, struggles inside prison after learning her boyfriend is dating a “new Maria” who is spending a lot of time with her daughter.

“Gloria and Maria went through some real shit,” Hermann said. “The stories about moms in prison continue to really destroy me on a personal level — the real-life stories — and we definitely wanted to make sure that we told some of those. You can defend both of them for their actions. I don’t think either one of them is necessarily right or wrong in the way they proceeded.”

At least these two managed to find a little common ground in the end. After Gloria is released from prison, viewers see her at home, where she finds a children’s book called Mi Burro, Mi Burro. In the next scene, Maria and “new Maria” take turns reading from the book to her daughter while Maria sits behind the prison’s glass partition.

“I love where Maria went, trying to make amends and do right by her daughter,” said Hermann. “Gloria sends her that book in the end, so there is a little bit of an olive branch, I think, or at least just a peace treaty.”

Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox)

Photo: Netflix

Like Piper and Blanca (Laura Gomez), Sophia was released from prison at the end of the sixth season, after she threatened to sue the prison and was offered $300,000 and early release to stay out of court. Sophia makes brief season-seven appearances in the 11th episode, “God Bless America,” first running into Piper in the parole office, where she gives Piper the business card to her salon, Vanity Hair by Sophia. Later, Piper goes to the salon and Sophia advises her to move on from her relationship with Alex while doing her hair.

“We would have loved to have told bigger, more lengthy stories for Sophia, but sometimes it just comes down to schedule availability, sadly,” explained Hermann. “So we had to tighten her story line. But we did want to do a story where we saw Piper dealing with what her life is gonna be, and Sophia dealing with hers. I think we did a pretty good job of distilling it to that one scene in the hair salon, where she tells her she doesn’t have to keep the title of ‘inmate’ anymore. And that was fine for Sophia. That worked for her.”

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