Photo: JoJo Whilden (Netflix)
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Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Orange Is The New Black’s final season. The thirteen reviews will be going up over the course of this weekend: five on Friday, four on Saturday, and the final four reviews on Sunday. As always, the reviews have been written without knowledge of what happens in future episodes, so please try to keep from spoiling future events in the comments if you’ve seen beyond the episode in question.

Every semester, I give a lecture about television genre where I discuss the battle Netflix fought to keep Orange Is The New Black in the comedy category at the Primetime Emmy Awards, and I show my students the trailer for the show’s first season. I show this trailer because it’s valuable object to explore the balance of comedy and drama that marked the show’s early seasons, but it unexpectedly proved useful when I started watching “The Beginning Of The End” and realized that Jenji Kohan was returning to a device that I don’t think I would have remembered the show using if not for seeing the trailer a few times a year.

Like we saw with Game Of Thrones earlier this year, OITNB’s final season premiere wants to send you back to the show’s pilot. It’s a natural instinct, as it’s a quick way of reminding us both how much has changed in the intervening years (or however long has allegedly passed in the show’s wonky timeline) and how some things have stayed the same. While Piper has gone through an entire prison sentence, transformed from a privileged white woman living a normal life to an ex-felon struggling to pay to keep what little freedom she has on parole, other characters are exactly where they were when the series started. They might have gone on personal journeys, and might have a bit of extra time on their sentences, but they’re still in prison. Their life is still defined by their confinement, meaning that there is a fundamental limit to what kind of journeys the show has charted to date.

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Kohan’s script achieves this return to the show’s earliest episodes in a few ways. Piper’s flashbacks, integrated into the episode as her own memories, don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know: they just show us Larry, and Polly, and Piper’s father, and the remnants of a life that Piper thought she would eventually be able to return to. The show has long moved past those characters, but it brings them back here because it highlights that Piper’s social safety net has evaporated as she spent time at Litchfield. Larry is long gone, her brother expects her to pay rent (or more accurately ask their father to pay her rent), and her father is unwilling to help his felon daughter get back on her feet. She can’t even keep a job at a Thai restaurant that she would’ve thought was sketchy back B.L. (Before Litchfield), and even the job she did have was restricted by an 11pm curfew. Throw in the fact that Piper—due to her early release—has to pay the monitoring fees attached to her parole, and you have a situation where even the most privileged prisoner in the series’ run is on the verge of being unable to keep things together on the outside.

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It’s a productive story, but Kohan doesn’t let it play out on its own: it’s coupled with that device that pops up in the show’s first trailer, a voiceover from Piper placing her life into perspective. It’s a device the show first used in the show’s pilot, and it returns here because…well, because it was in the pilot, I guess, because I can’t think of any other reason it’s necessary. Taylor Schilling’s performance tells us everything we need to know about Piper’s internal monologue, and so the voiceover is overkill, especially when it randomly starts bleeding into Alex’s side of the story (but not any of the other major characters). It’s a decision that I found deeply confusing until the end of the episode, when the episode breaks from Alex and Piper’s first prison visitation by highlighting what they weren’t telling each other, and then journeys through the prison as an anonymous collection of inmates express their own inner feelings.

The message of the montage is clear: behind every inmate is a set of emotions and anxieties and histories that they often never show, and which make the day-to-day life of prison that much more of a challenge. In many ways, it’s the message of the entire show: it started from Piper’s perspective, but gradually expanded its focus to a broad collection of inmates whose lives shaped their experiences, often in ways their other inmates couldn’t understand. But it’s also something that the show established without the use of such on-the-nose voiceover, which at no point felt necessary to making this point. I remain perplexed why they felt the final montage—which would have been more effective if it featured even one character we recognized—needed to be preceded by mostly generic voiceover in order to make that point, and the callback to the pilot isn’t worth the confusion at disrupting the show’s perfectly good ability to convey its characters’ emotions through performance. We didn’t need to be inside Piper’s head to relate to Piper’s struggles, and Alex’s inner monologue did nothing to add to her anxiety as her efforts to fly under the radar go spectacularly wrong incredibly quickly.

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It’s interesting to see how the “happy ending” of the max inmates last season—remember the kickball game, and Barb and Carol’s demise?—dissipates. Alex doesn’t have to do anything to get Madison’s attention: she simply wants to steal Alex’s visitation time, and threatens to frame her for one violation or another in order to get it. What follows is a frankly ridiculous series of events, designed to leave Alex with $1500 of drugs to sell and no way to offload them except out in the open to whatever junkies are nearby. The episode doesn’t really stop to let any of what happens in that series of events—most significantly Daya poisoning Daddy—really land, because the episode’s argument is that it was unavoidable. Sure, Alex framing Madison with a cell phone led to her fight with her new roommate Taystee which led to Alex being given the drugs instead of Madison, but it’s not like Alex not trying to do something about Madison would have necessarily been a safe path. Outside of Florida, there’s no safe path in Max, which Piper knows but can’t really let herself think about as she waits on the outside for her wife. And just as Piper knows that things in Max are not “okay” for Alex, Alex knows that things on the outside are not okay with Piper, because she’s been through the same thing. But what other option do they have?

This is not an optimistic hour of television. Pennsatucky and Suzanne have a conversation in the yard when they first see Taystee, who has returned to Max with a life sentence, a denied appeal, and a far cry from the smiling, singing woman that Suzanne remembers as her friend. Pennsatucky posits to Suzanne that there are two types of prisoners: those who become better through their experience, and those who fall into a darker version of themselves. She’s right when she points out that she has become better through her prison experience, but we know that her read on Taystee isn’t right: she didn’t kill that cop, which even Suzanne has come to accept as the truth in her naïve belief in the justice system, and so whatever she’s experiencing is not just a reaction to being in prison. But it manifests the same way, and the episode lays no groundwork—a social justice podcast seems like a possible story thread they could explore—of hope for Taystee getting some sense of justice. We also don’t check in with Blanca in ICE custody, or any of the larger prison reform questions the show has raised over the years. If there is an intention to return to those issues to bring the show full circle, there is no evidence of it here

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Cindy—pushed out of her radio show by inmates angry at her for ratting out Taystee—tells Suzanne to face facts: “Everything is broken and life is unfair—when are you going to realize that?” And while this is absolutely the thesis of “The Beginning Of The End,” it doesn’t feel right that this would be the thesis of this show. There will be no dismantling of the prison industrial complex, and there may be no justice for Taystee, and it’s possible that the season will chart Red’s fall into dementia and Alex’s spiral into the drug trade and leave us with a bleak image of a future where these women are fundamentally doomed to fail within a system designed to keep them from succeeding. But there has always been a kernel of hope within Orange Is The New Black, whether in the lake or on the kickball field, and the idea of the show saying goodbye without embracing that part of its identity is pretty unlikely. But it’s also something the premiere avoids, mostly resetting the viewer to the things we learned in the very beginning: these women—and especially those women who don’t have Piper’s privilege—have faced immense challenge in their lives to bring them to this place, and this place will inevitably fail to offer them the support they need to put those lives back together.

And now the show has one final season to explore the tragedy of that reality, and find that glimmer of hope that all is not lost.

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Stray observations

  • The episode frankly doesn’t even unpack Daya poisoning Daddy—heck, I didn’t even realize it was Daddy that had died, given that we didn’t see the body at first. Once I pieced it together, I was mostly just reminded that nothing Daya does as a character feels particularly motivated, and that everything after she picked up that gun has been built on her circumstances rather than anything about her emotions. She’s high, and she’s jealous, and she didn’t think it would kill her, but I still can’t get a handle on what she is other than a victim of her situation. That having been said, Daddy was a complete bust of a character last season, so I’m not exactly mad at Daya, end of day.
  • Aleida’s life on the outside is a stark contrast to Piper: she has her life back together, on paper, with her kids under one roof with Hopper and his mother, but she’s having sex with Cesar in the back of cars, and clearly unsatisfied with the domestic doldrums she’s resigned herself to. I’m not sure that I care a whole lot about the state of her drug smuggling, but I’m curious where she lands personally in the whole affair.
  • Ugh, Larry: Despite my general position on Larry—it’s “ugh,” if that wasn’t clear—I do think it’s going to be interesting to see if he emerges beyond the flashbacks. It seems like something that would be necessary for Piper’s perspective on her time in prison, but it’s also unclear from the premiere just how much we’ll be focusing on Piper in episodes that aren’t using her point-of-view in such a direct fashion.
  • “This is America, I can’t give him some immigrant name”—I always sort of forget how racist Morello is until the show reminds me, but her naming her baby after Roger Sterling is wild and also sort of absurd because she doesn’t strike me as a Mad Men fan. (I also have questions about what kind of health insurance is paying for all that neonatal care, but we’ll sidebar that.)
  • I sort of admire how inept Alex’s plan to catch Madison is, down to the half-assed photo that clearly wasn’t a selfie as her wallpaper, but it does make me wonder how she wasn’t caught running drugs well before she was actually caught.
  • Gloria is still being held in solitary, but mostly because she knows the truth about the inmate draft, which seems to have been kept under wraps. She’s another character who doesn’t really have a clear “arc” right now, so I’m curious where she fits in.
  • Are we supposed to find Piper asking the woman’s son at the bus stop what she said—presuming he speaks English and that his mother doesn’t—anything other than kind of gross?
  • “Who’s vacationing in Jackson Heights?”—I mean, it’s a fair question, but it does seem unlikely they’d get $62 a night for a room in an apartment quite so chaotic. Here are the actual listings, FYI.
  • I’m curious what everyone’s expectations are going into the final season. By the time you’re reading this, I’ll have seen the entire thing, but I’ll be writing about each episode as I watch them, as always. For me, my biggest question is whether Kohan and Co. are interested in providing any kind of closure for the inmates who were moved to other prisons following the riot. I think they could really go either way on that one—it’s thematically appropriate for some of these women to fall through the narrative cracks, but at the same time the show’s power is in being able to highlight the stories of women in those positions, so I’m hoping for a check-in or two. In the meantime, thank you again for joining us here at The A.V. Club to read as you binge over the weekend, and I’m hoping these reviews serve as a productive companion to your own goodbye to the series.

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