You could argue that Orange Is the New Black ended on a heartwarming note.
If things ended a little too nicely and, at least emotionally speaking, positively, perhaps the most realistic thing the series did was lay our standards for what might be considered upbeat so low.
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
We’ve spent seven seasons and nearly 100 hours with these characters, so we arguably deserved the gratifying closure we got with Piper, Taystee, Gloria, Blanca, and, you could argue, Nicky, Cindy, and Alex as well. But the show wouldn’t have been true to itself if it wasn’t also a pointed, timely reminder of the injustice of the criminal justice system and its relentless hopelessness.
The final episode encapsulated what the show had, at its best, done: a balance of intense feelings, zany comedy, and social justice. On that last point, the season was a damning indictment of the government’s immigration panic and detention center policies, and a middle finger to the Trump administration because of it.
The final season continued the series’ narrative sleight of hand. Because we knew from the end of season six that Piper (Taylor Schilling’s character) was released from jail, there may have been a misguided assumption that the season would be about the roadblocks to redemption for inmates after they’ve served their time.
But just as she was for the series, which quickly moved away from the fish-out-of-water drama of Piper’s introduction to prison life to focus on the underrepresented minorities who the system routinely fails, the final season used Piper once again as a sort of protagonist Trojan horse. Contrasted with the privilege Piper has even as an ex-con is the inevitability of the injustice and despair handed to the other women.
Nowhere is that more evident in what happens to the characters of Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett, Blanca Flores, and Maritza Ramos.
There was season-long foreshadowing that at least one inmate was not going to make it out of the series alive—likely because she was going to take her own life. In a devastating bait-and-switch, it is not Taystee, who we are led to believe is going to do it as an act of desperation because of her lifetime conviction, a decision being made because it is the one thing she finally would have control over. Instead it is Pennsatucky who overdoses on fentanyl after she assumes she failed her GED test because the proper paperwork wasn’t filed to allow her extra time for her learning disability.
Her death was not just tragic on face value, the loss of a character we’ve gotten to know as a deeply compassionate figure outside of her initial introduction as a villain. It’s because of the circumstances behind it, and how directly tied they are to the prison system that failed her. She didn’t get the extra time because of a guard’s incompetence. It was one final reminder that, no matter her best intentions or what she deserves and is owed—even legally—her life and her future doesn’t matter.
We’ve seen countless examples of that throughout the Orange Is the New Black run. Underlining it in the final episodes with a character’s death is the show’s way of making sure, even while hinting at happy endings for some characters, that message never leaves its fans.
But perhaps the biggest legacy of this final season will be its unmistakable, powerful condemnation of ICE.
While Orange Is the New Black has always traded in gray areas and the overlap between right and wrong, love and tragedy, and comedy and drama, there were no minced words or mixed messages in its immigrant detention center plot.
What made this arc so remarkable is that, while a full-throated denouncement of our country’s immigration policies and the treatment of detainees, it didn’t feel political, didactic, preachy, or message-heavy. It was an exploration of the human impact of these policies, and the legal system behind it. It was an education in the procedures they must deal with.
Blanca was the narrative entry point for the show’s handling of the government’s “immigration crisis,” but diversifying that arc with the stories of several other detainees, including Maritza, made it all the more impactful and damning.
We meet several women, all with unimpeachable reasons to have come to the United States and most of whom had spent their entire lives in the country, even raising families here. Despite every effort made to ensure that they don’t know their rights and what recourse they have to prevent deportation, some of them still manage to follow every legal procedure there is. And, with the exception of Blanca, all of them are deported anyway. It is horrific to watch.
The news has devoted much attention—and deserved attention, at that—to the inhumane squalor of some of the centers where detainees are being held. Litchfield’s detention center, make no mistake, is not nice. But it is veritably palatial in comparison to the images we’ve seen, and the sterility of that allows viewers to instead concentrate on the systemic horrors immigrants are facing.
More than most shows, Orange Is the New Black is a series that always seems to have had a higher purpose. If that’s the case, these storylines are among the most valuable the series crafted, and rank among the most important I’ve seen on television this year.
This is a series that had many stories to tell—critics of it might argue too many—which made wrapping up its run seem like an impossible task. But, at least in terms of the immigration arc, having so many other narrative threads to explore may have made it resonate more.
Because we need to see what is going to happen with Taystee and Suzanne, are still invested in Piper and Alex’s relationship, so curious about how Cindy is going to fare on the outside, and wrapped up in the familial dynamics between Red, Nicky, and Morello—and this is just scratching the surface—the show can’t focus solely on what’s happening at the detention center.
So we flit in and out of those storylines, spending fleeting—albeit intense—time with these characters before returning to what’s happening outside those walls and that system. It’s an uncomfortable mirror to how many of us digest news about the immigration crisis in our own lives, a traumatizing relationship to the stories when we are confronted with them before moving on to other concerns.
If Orange Is the New Black’s final season encourages us to linger on those stories, that system, and, most importantly, those people a little longer, that can only be a good thing. We shouldn’t need a show like this to feel empathy, but that is what happens when we watch it. It’s a series that is activism as much as it is a television show, and it’s never been insecure or shy about that. In fact, it’s how proudly these storylines are on display that’s been the show’s greatest strength.
The legacy of Orange Is the New Black may be in its diversity, because it’s what every other impact the show has had can be traced back to. There had never been a series as diverse as this when it premiered. That goes beyond just casting actors we hadn’t seen on TV before, to also scripting narratives authentic to the experiences of many in those cultural communities. Doing that allowed for a final season storyline like Blanca and Maritza’s to unfold.
As much as the last moments of the series were meant to make us feel comforted by the fates of so many characters, it’s the ones who didn’t get their happy endings that will stick with us the most.