Based on the sheer scale of its hopelessness, season six of Orange Is the New Black might be the series’ most resonant yet. It’s certainly not its best season, but with a brutal final three episodes hitting on the monetization of incarceration, immigration and detention centers, racial bias in the prison system, and privilege, it still demands viewing. That’s as long as you can struggle through a lethargic batch of mid-season episodes that spin its wheels on the way to a devastating conclusion.
Orange Is the New Black has always been a remarkable show.
In many ways, it is the proof of concept of original series from streaming services. Netflix’s first big gamble, House of Cards, could arguably not be considered a gamble at all: David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and Robin Wright doing a political drama at the height of “golden age of TV” talk hardly seems risky in hindsight. But Orange was a show with no such bold-faced names, tonally wacky while still uncomfortably dark, and which proudly displayed its prison-reform activism and cast women of races, sizes, and sexualities that the medium had traditionally banished to the background.
Now, it’s produced more seasons—and less behind-the-scenes scandal—than House of Cards, earning its pseudo-status as streaming TV’s longest-running drama. As such, it must make noise over the hundreds of other streaming series that have sprouted over the course of its run. While its buzz may amount to a whimper in comparison to some of those, its message, particularly this season, is still a rebel yell. Even if the execution can be frustratingly messy.
Season six saw the series, which toes the line between broad, sometimes surreal comedy and brutal, ripped-from-horrifying-reality drama, confront a bit of an existential crisis. At a volatile political moment when its themes are as timely and immediate as ever, can Orange Is the New Black still be both silly and important? More, should it? At the very least, that was the question behind my viewing experience.
(MAJOR SPOILERS lie ahead.)
Season five, premiering six months after Donald Trump’s inauguration, centered around a prison riot, born out of abused, mistreated, and ignored inmates fed up with the systemic violence, deaths, and unlivable conditions they faced. You could say it mirrored a certain cultural mood of #resistance, which makes the major theme of season six all the more haunting. No matter how justified the anger, inhumane the policies, or rightful the push for change, things won’t change. In fact, they may even get worse.
That’s what one could feasibly discern from the season’s most powerful storyline: the trial of Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson.
Taystee (played by Danielle Brooks) is fingered as the scapegoat not just for assisting in inciting the riot, but for the death of Office Piscatella, the terrorist guard who made sport out of torturing and assaulting inmates. Taystee didn’t do it. He was accidentally killed by another officer after escaping, but the riot police staged his body to make it look like he was killed by an inmate during the stand-off. The other inmates who were implicated all play along with framing Taystee in plea deals to lower their own prison sentences and get out of “Ad Sec” solitary confinement.
Shouldered by a shattering, Emmy-worthy performance from Brooks, Taystee fights the charge, made without even interviewing her to expedite the investigation and plug the dam of bad press embarrassing the prison. The scenes in which the inmates meet with investigators and their public defenders are mini horror shows, as it becomes clear that their innocence or guilt doesn’t matter. They realize they have no option but to accept plea deals to escape more jail time, and become resigned to an inhumane helplessness.
Taystee’s trial draws the interest of the ACLU, activist press, and a crusading former warden, Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), in one of the most impressive transformations of a show’s worst character into one of its best.
It’s all enough to make you think that justice may actually be served. But of course it isn’t. Taystee is found guilty, a punch to the gut and a brave move for a show willing to resist sugarcoating reality to warm viewers’ hearts. In real life, a Taystee wouldn’t get the happy ending. We need to see that to be angry about it and change that reality.
Speaking of the show mirroring real-life anger, the finale has a devastating one-two knockout that lands squarely in the face of the immigration debate.
The immigration pivot
The first comes at the end of a season-long rebranding of the corporate MCC company that owns Litchfield prison into PolyCon, and its grand unveiling of the final step in its plan for profitability: building immigration detention centers. The show salts the wound cleverly, though painfully, by giving that depraved greed a human face. When it’s announced that select inmates are getting an early release, Blanca (Laura Gómez) is among those elated to find out that freedom is on the horizon. Finally, after such a bleak season: hope.
But when those eligible for early release march towards the exit, the line Blanca is in pivots. She is taken to a loading dock, where a bus and immigration officials are waiting. She’s not getting early release. She’s getting sent to an immigration detention center, or, worse, deported.
With stories like this in the news every day—and more that aren’t even given that megaphone—we don’t need a fictional character to feel the sting of what is happening in our country to immigrants. But if you’re going to have a show about the prison system, this is the way to tackle that shade of the conversation.
That’s one thing Orange Is the New Black has always done so well. I don’t need to tell you that the show has been championed for its diversity, but it’s about more than just casting actors of many ethnicities. It’s about scripting narratives authentic to the experiences of many in those cultural communities. Blanca’s storyline is certainly in line with that.
In that vein, it’s interesting that releasing the lead character of a show set in prison from that prison is only the third most shocking thing to happen in the finale.
Piper’s early release
The release of Piper (Taylor Schilling) is narratively adventurous, sure, but it also makes a profound point.
Earlier in the season, Piper asks Taystee why she’s always a target for other prisoners to mess with. Taystee tells her that it’s because she represents things—money, education, opportunity—that they’ll never have. For Piper, the targeted discrimination she faces is just within the prison walls. For people like Taystee, it’s everywhere. There couldn’t be a more a damning comment on privilege than two episodes later, when Piper gets an early release she didn’t deserve, while Taystee is convicted for a crime she didn’t commit. Their cars literally cross paths in and out of the prison.
(Brief sidenote to praise how lovely, intimate, and necessarily warm the romance between Piper and Alex Prepon’s Alex was this season. A wedding scene in the finale that could have been offensively corny was completely earned, and among the show’s most beautiful and heartfelt moments.)
The personal experience of Piper Kerman, whose book Orange Is the New Black inspired the show and Taylor Schilling’s character, has long stopped directly informing the show’s narrative. Kerman never was sent to maximum security, or survived a prison riot. But she is still a consultant for the show and a prison reform activist entrenched in both the broad strokes of the criminal justice system and the minutiae of its statistics, budgets, and policies. For all of the farce and outlandishness of the series, this is what grounds its impact.
But about the farce and outlandishness. The silliness is still entertaining, and a needed yin to the traumatizing yang. Crazy Eyes and Pennsatucky pretending to be cop show sidekicks, Lorna’s loony transformation into a pregnant gang-banger, Flaca and Tovah’s radio show, Crazy Eyes performing Shonda Rhimes monologues: it’s all a hoot, especially when the humor is used to pivot towards the darker elements. That’s how you make a great show!
But the season opened with a provocative conceit in one of Crazy Eyes’s hallucinations: be wary of sideshows that merely distract from the brutality of reality, making it more palatable. When that very thing is what’s going on in the world, it’s hard to decide if the show is being canny, or upsetting.
And we haven’t even touched on this season’s major framing device: a turf war between gangs in the different prison blocks, sparked by a life-long feud between two pivotal new characters we haven’t mentioned yet, Mackenzie Phillips’ Barb and Henny Russell’s Carol. This is the storyline that envelops many of the show’s most talented actors (Kate Mulgrew’s Red, Natasha Lyonne’s Nicky, Selenis Levya’s Gloria, Jessica Pimentel’s Maria), but it’s equal parts terrifying and tedious.
If you’ve read this far, you might mistake this for a rave review of the new season. While it sticks a powerful landing, it’s woefully uneven and inexcusably busy. One effect of the prison riot is that many former inmates were shipped off to new prisons, meaning nearly a dozen fan-favorite characters don’t return this season. You’d think that would refocus the show but, no, there are new prisoners, new prison guards, former prison guards, wardens, former wardens, corporate employees, and released inmates who are all given full story arcs.
There is too much going on. At one point we feared the crux of the season was going to be about why it’s never a good idea to play kickball.
The once greatest freedoms of bingeing, like episodes of any length and not having to wait a week to watch the next installment, are now becoming many streaming series’ biggest downfalls. Very few seasons of television at this point warrant or can narratively sustain a full docket of full-hour episodes, and bingeing those drawn-out, stalled narratives has become more frustrating than fun.
Orange Is the New Black has made it clear that it still has something important to say, and it has at least one more season to say it. Our bet, or at least wish, is that after that seventh season, the show does the right thing and releases it on account of good behavior.