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.
In order for Orange Is The New Black to function, it has to be a little bit like a heist movie, full of stolen moments and secret plans that aren’t going to be picked up by the guards or the inmates who aren’t in on it. There’s not really a story in the day-to-day of prison existence, on the surface: there needs to be a seedy underbelly, or at least what the administration would think of as a seedy underbelly.
The show has always had a bit of that energy, of entire worlds existing just below the surface, but it’s particularly true in the introduction of the ICE detention storyline. It’s Gloria using a smuggled cell phone to get legal representation, and staging kitchen accidents to get time to talk to Maritza. It’s Blanca bickering with a woman from El Salvador at her hearing but then getting saved by the woman’s understanding of her rights, creating a blueprint for delaying her own hearing. And elsewhere, it’s Piper figuring out how to get away with a day of weed-fueled freedom, or Taystee selling Ward on her desire for a future in order to convince Daya to give her what she needs to cut her life short. It’s an energy that the show hasn’t really had for a few seasons: everything was anarchy during the riot, and the arrival at Max was too chaotic to settle into this kind of rhythm. There’s a looseness to the scheming—Nicky flirting with the ICE detainee, Maritza praying to Beyoncé— but the stakes remain high, a tricky balance but one the episode mostly achieves.
And then it all falls apart. Or rather, Maritza consciously blows it up, in a moment that would appear to signal the character’s last appearance. Maritza was the “missing” character after the riot with the most unfinished business, and so I’m glad Diane Guerrero was able to return, and that the story she was given ended up making such an impact. Maritza, accordingly to her lawyer, has a pretty good case: they never outright say that she was a Dreamer, but unlike many of the other women she likely has a real shot at being able to wait a few days for a lawyer to arrive and resolve her situation. But after a woman pleads with her after overhearing her on the phone with a lawyer, she looks around and realizes that she is in a crowded room filled with women who have similar stories. They have been separated from their children, moved around different facilities for a year and a half, with no idea if or when they’ll receive a hearing to learn their fate. And so she takes her notepad, writes down the number, and starts distributing it to the women around her, catching the attention of the guards and leading her to a plane, where she becomes another one of the detainees lost in a corrupt and inhumane system.
The character’s absence for a full season means that this doesn’t really read as the conclusion of her arc: she doesn’t get a big speech about learning to appreciate her freedoms or the “vapidity” of her previous existence, but the show did reintroduce her winning a booty-shaking contest, so there’s definitely a certain kind of woke narrative here. The general theme is the recognition of privilege: Maritza’s life was taken from her, but on some level she’s aware that there wasn’t as much at stake for her as there was for everyone else in that room. It’s a similar message to the one that Piper gets from her probation officer after an ill-advised attempt at contaminating her urine sample, and there’s a similar theme running through Aleida’s struggles to keep her daughter from falling into the patterns she had as a teenager. And in the end, no one gets away with it. The heists fail. Maritza is taken away. Piper is sentenced to 10 NA meetings. And Aleida is headed back to prison.
Aleida’s storyline is another case where the flashback was entirely unnecessary, and easily portrayed in dialogue if not for the casting department wanting another shot at uncanny young actress casting before the show comes to a close. It’s ultimately just a collection of facts: her mother had her turning tricks to cover the bills while her deadbeat dad was in prison, she set out on her own, and she eventually cut ties with her mother. Laura Prepon—who directed the episode—creates a lovely little visual contrast between young Aleida’s triumphant look back to her mother and Aleida’s tragic look back at her daughter from the cop car after assaulting her drug dealing boyfriend, but my points in the previous review about the flashbacks stand. I’ve struggled with the utility of Aleida’s post-prison story in general—especially if they’re going to keep giving Piper her own post-prison stories every episode—but I don’t feel the flashbacks added much to keep her side of the story from feeling much less essential than anything happening in ICE detention.
Daya’s role as the prison’s alleged kingpin remains an issue, but the intersection with Taystee at least gives it something that I care about in its orbit. This is a case where we’re the victims of Taystee’s heist: when she sits down with Ward, we have every reason to believe that her aborted suicide attempt has led her to want to turn around her life. And so the rug is pulled out from under us when she goes back to Daya, planning to betray her friend to get the release she’s searching for but can’t go through with herself. There’s still some hope that she’ll actually find purpose in her time working with Tamika, but all she finds is Cindy’s file marked for early release, and nothing good can come from that information. For a moment, it seems like Taystee was legitimately inspired by the rehabilitation rituals of the previous episode, but that may just be a false front, like the ones that so many women in the prison are putting up for a wide range of reasons.
“Minority Deport”—which, just so we’re clear, is a very dumb and very good episode title—trims down the size of the cast considerably, with no time spent in the blocks of the prison and only quick check-ins on other storylines (Alex’s relationship with McCullough, Red’s dementia). The result is an episode that is able to give Maritza’s exit the proper focus, while keeping the underbelly of the prison active enough to build momentum for the mid-point of the season.
- Okay, so it was one thing when Taystee was made Caputo’s assistant at a minimum security prison, but the idea that Ward would have an inmate assistant at a maximum security facility and that the assistant in question would be a woman who was convicted of killing a guard is…wild. And I realize Ward admits it’s a hard sell and does it to screw over Hopper, but even then the idea of it just feels absurd.
- “Bitch, like you know about senators”—this ended up being one of the final interactions between Maritza and Flaca, and I was really charmed by it, and some part of me is hoping for a Six Feet Under-style ending where we see them reunited years in the future.
- I really don’t know what the show is trying to accomplish with McCullough’s sexual energy as she interacted with Alex’s clothes in her storage unit? I get that they had Alex see her pin-up shots earlier, but I don’t have a clear grasp on what the show wants me to take away from the whole situation.
- “A lot’s changed since you went away”—okay, I don’t want to make everything about me, but they 100% had Cal say this just to infuriate me. Because Cal’s whole speech is written as though Piper has been in prison long enough for huge social changes tied to hipster culture, when in fact she’s been in prison for a much shorter period of time and I really wasn’t going to die on this hill but the show keeps bringing the hill to me and I’m not made of stone I am made of glass and the show is throwing stones so I have to throw stones too that’s just how it works.
- I really liked the parallel shots of young and old Aleida that I mentioned above, but Prepon didn’t have much subtlety with the pan across the front of the ice cream truck’s “Watch out for our children” decal.
- Screener Privilege: Because I spent a lot of the season naïvely waiting for the show to be more explicit, I’ll help you out if you’re reading along: Blanca’s frenemy from El Salvador’s name is Karla, while Nicky’s crush is Shani.