For a while now, it’s felt as though Orange Is the New Black had come off the rails a bit; its performances continued to be great, but pieces of it began to feel unnecessary. At its best it was as compelling as ever, but at its worst in the last several seasons, it was too slow, focused on characters with no particular draw, and telling stories that often went nowhere. But in season seven of Orange Is the New Black, the show’s last season and also one of its most ambitious, the train is firmly and unerringly back on the track.
In 2016, when Orange Is the New Black was given a huge, three-season renewal order, I wrote about what I felt the show needed to do in order to keep itself fresh. The best mechanism for the show, I felt then, would be if it could give up most of its main characters and welcome in an entirely new slate of protagonists. Characters like Piper, Alex, Red, and Taystee were already exhibiting diminishing returns, and the series was turning to increasingly heightened, sometimes goofy stories in order to keep the energy up.
To some extent I still stand by that assessment. Through seasons five and six (especially six), the show struggled to balance its narrative need for momentum with the subject matter’s inherent tendency toward stagnation. The show never did ditch much of its original cast; OITNB jettisoned many characters over the years, but its efforts to tell continually compelling stories about the remaining main characters was iffy at best. After using Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as its privileged-white-lady audience surrogate for a more diverse, more gripping group of characters, the show could never summon the courage to ditch her. For much of the later run of the series, it was a real weakness.
But when I wrote about how difficult it would be for OITNB to stay compelling without dramatically changing its cast, I also demonstrated my own failure of imagination, and my own inability to predict that by the time the show’s last season would appear three years later, the news would be full of stories about people in cages. I could not predict that by the end, OITNB could become a show about ICE deportation policies and the hopelessness of getting caught in the black hole of inhumane immigration facilities. I especially couldn’t predict that keeping characters around from the very beginning, freeing them to live their lives, and then trapping them in sudden, inexplicable, inescapable, monstrous immigration proceedings at the very end of the show would be a particularly crushing way to tell that story.
The show has always tracked the bigger conversations about incarceration as they’ve shifted over the last decade. With new reporting about the horrors of private prisons, OITNB introduced a new private company to run Litchfield. With stories about the torturous impacts of solitary confinement, OITNB told more stories about the serious harm to characters who got thrown in the SHU. One of the show’s problems over the past few seasons is that it’s always faltered on how to weave those ideas together with the rest of the narrative proceedings, especially when its original premise — wealthy white woman is incarcerated for a low-level drug crime and learns about herself — was still, stubbornly, a large part of its DNA.
All of that is still true in season seven. OITNB is still a show about Piper Chapman, now out on early release and struggling to meet the onerous demands of her parole. It’s also still a show about her love for Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), and how hard it is to maintain a relationship when one member is in prison. But the original setup of the first season has now been inverted. Piper’s the one living on the outside, struggling with how to feel connected to her partner. And instead of her early, obnoxious, unending naïveté, Piper’s issue is that she now knows things most people in her world do not. Those shifts don’t dramatically change the large Piper sections of the season. She’s still herself. But they do soften and shift her perspective in some important ways, and because she’s now aware of how much she needs to readjust to the world, because she’s trying to grapple with her incongruity in a new way, her story doesn’t feel as out of place with the rest of the show.
The rest of the show, meanwhile, tells some of the season’s most brutal, emotionally affecting stories. One of the best belongs to Taystee, played once again by the unbelievably talented Danielle Brooks; after season six doomed Taystee to an unjust life sentence, she spends much of season seven in despair, wondering how to go on living. There’s a surprisingly thoughtful, self-aware arc for former Warden Caputo (Nick Sandow) and his now-girlfriend Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner). There are tragic ends for some inmates, and redemptive ones for others. Almost all of them feel, if not inevitable, then still plausible, still grounded, still purposeful. Of the many that will stay with me, Pennsatucky’s (Taryn Manning) will be high on the list.
But the larger story of the season is its swerve into the world of immigration, deportation proceedings, and ICE detention centers. It’s tough to dive into the details without spoiling which characters get caught in ICE facilities and what happens to them by the end. But the story doesn’t feel like the show has suddenly turned to immigration as a way to exploit the drama of current events. It feels inevitable, and awful. It’s a sign of both the season’s thoughtfulness and of the desperate crisis happening in the real world that this largely new premise for the show can feel like such an obvious, unsurprising development.
So much of the final season has the sense of gaining on the show’s past, making good on stories it’s been following for years and finally following through with the implications of its premise. But there is something Orange Is the New Black has lost since its original season: It used to be just a little less direct. In the first season, a chicken ran free around the prison yard, and both within the fiction of the show and in the external understanding of the show’s symbolism, the chicken had a hint of mystery. It was an open, strange, miraculous, inexplicable sign, a bit of magical realism in an otherwise grindingly realist story. Chickens return in OITNB’s final season, but they’re no longer free to run around the show in free-associative symbolic openness. The chickens have been flattened into a very direct analogy, obvious stand-ins for theories about the carceral state. There’s less of the distraction and circumlocution of earlier seasons of the show, less of the surreal strangeness. It’s been stripped of nuance.
For many shows that might be a criticism. But it’s the right move for Orange Is the New Black, especially as it seeks to loop its beloved, occasionally comic bunch of inmates into the massive humanitarian injustices of the immigration crisis. It’s right that at the end, Orange Is the New Black would dispense with the magic and get straight to the point. It’s brutal. It’s unambiguous, and surprisingly emotional, and it’s a fitting end for a show that helped launch a new era of TV.