Photo: Nicole Rivelli (Netflix)
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“Sometimes you hit a wall and say—okay, that’s all I can handle.”

How much did you know about what it meant to be in prison before watching Orange Is The New Black?

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I have no doubt some of you know people personally who’ve been to prison. And many of us have surely watched other TV shows and movies that focus on prisons, and on the experiences within. And in our age of true crime content dominating across all media, we have numerous outlets to learn more about what it means to be incarcerated in America today.

However, for me, Orange Is The New Black has been a pretty significant education on the complexity of the prison experience. Its narrative has been, at its core, a pedagogical narrative, designed to educate its viewer on the struggles that these women face as inmates. It’s about the problems that led to their incarceration, the institutions that fail them when they’re in prison, and the societal factors that keep them from ever getting back on their feet when they’re out. And while the narrative no doubt takes certain shortcuts, and the tonal issues that have plagued most seasons—although not this one—have sometimes stood in the way of this pedagogy, the show has actively worked to ensure that we leave this story more educated than before we started.

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And if there’s one lesson I’ve taken away from the show more than any other, it’s that this system is designed to break these women down to the point where they hit the wall that Red describes, and realize that they’ve had all they can handle. Red’s talking about it in the context of self-preservation: Nicky is trying to figure out how her own prison mother kept everything together for so many years, helping her get clean and organizing the kitchen crew and keeping Litchfield in order. Red’s advice is that sometimes you need to know when something has gone beyond your control, and Nicky sees that moment with Lorna where she realizes that she can’t keep pretending that stopping Lorna from moving to Florida is a feasible option. Morello’s entire pattern is about how her brain can’t handle the truth, and this is the darkest truth she’s ever faced, and there’s no way for Nicky to get through to her. It’s an incredibly hard decision, but Nicky has to make it if she’s going to keep going herself.

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But sometimes people make different choices. Gloria could have made a similar choice by refusing to bring a cell phone in for Carla, but she didn’t, because her empathy outweighed her self-preservation. And when she’s faced with the option to enact revenge on Ruiz and say that it was her who brought the phone into the kitchen, Gloria chooses honesty after Ruiz’s tearful plea to be allowed to be out for a part of her daughter’s childhood. And so Gloria’s date—provided the threat of five extra years follows through—goes from nine days to 1900 or so, a cautionary tale to anyone else who decides to do anything other than protect themselves. It’s a deeply unfair punishment for Gloria’s humanity, but the ICE storyline reinforced that the system doesn’t treat any of these women as humans. Ward can create all the programs she wants, and throw a big party that invigorates Dixon and recalls the early days back at camp, but at the end of the day the system is going to treat humanity as a weakness unless the system has some way of accounting for it.

The system will never account for it. Pennsatucky was told she’d be getting extra time, but Luschek is a subhuman piece of shit, and failed to submit the right paperwork, and the person administering the test can only go by what the system says because the system doesn’t account for her dysgraphia by default. And so she’s left feeling as though she’s worthless, once again failing at achieving just one small thing to prepare for her future. And as she senses Daya has come back into possession of her fentanyl, and as Taystee—I need to gird myself for talking about Taystee, give me a bit—does nothing to discourage her defeatist attitude, we’re reminded about the knife’s edge of self-preservation that is prison. All the buildup of the test, and the dysgraphia diagnosis: it all made Tiffany Doggett feel more human than she’s maybe ever felt while she has been in prison, and to have all of that erased in an instant by what amounts to a clerical error is more than she can handle. And while we might be screaming at the TV—I scream into my notes, personally, it’s a bit less disruptive to my neighbors—telling her that she has more to live for, it doesn’t stop her from taking the fentanyl, and searching for a way out.

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It’s a tragic moment, regardless of whether or not Tiffany is dead or alive, because we know how far she had come. Given the “Pennsatucky” we were introduced to, who she is today is a profound change, and honestly I think we’ve lost track of that over the past few seasons. Doggett’s arc hasn’t always been well-handled: the Coates storyline lasted way too long and often risked romanticizing their connection, for example. But everything after she chose to return to prison after escaping with Coates in the wake of the riot has been the epitome of the show’s promise, sticking with these characters long enough to see true growth. Seeing her settled into her friendship with Suzanne just felt right, even if she didn’t have a clear “arc” in the wake of the riot. She was just someone who was trying to keep living life on her own terms, whose only “mistake” was taking an opportunity to better herself. It took immense strength to face her fears of learning in order to take the GED to begin with, but the truth is that the system doesn’t reward strength, just as it doesn’t reward humanity.

We could say that Tiffany should have known that she had people—Suzanne, Taystee—who would help her and fight for her, but there’s no guarantee that will be the case. There is no certainty in prison, which is why Alex has no recourse when McCullough has her transferred out of spite, and Aleida and Hopper fall into Daya’s trap and completely destroy the life they’d pieced together. When you’re in a situation where you have no control, it’s harder to see the other side of the wall when you come to it, and “giving up” is the only option you can see. And it doesn’t help that her support system isn’t there: Suzanne doesn’t arrive until after Pennsatucky has left the party, and Taystee is…well, Taystee is lost in her own situation.

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Taystee is the heart of this show, and the writers know it. She’s been through more than any other inmate. She was released and then forced back into prison when the system failed to give her the support necessary to stay afloat. She watched as her friend was murdered by a guard, and led the quest for justice in a riot that swiftly turned into its own form of injustice. She was framed for a murder she didn’t commit, and watched as friends turned against her, and the system shrugged its shoulders. She’s seen everything that prison can throw at her, and as hard as it is to see her contemplating ending her own life, it’s not like we don’t understand why. But we also see how deeply human Taystee is: how quickly she turns a GED tutoring assignment she resented into a passion for her students, and how deftly she sees the opportunity to help women like her upon their release by setting up some kind of loan system. This season has been all about Taystee wanting to die and yet constantly reminding herself of the value of life simply by living as the positive, inspirational, and bright person that she is. That doesn’t mean she’s perfect—her revenge on Cindy was a crueler punishment than she maybe realized, given it forced Cindy into the exact same position she struggled in upon her release—but even her mistakes are byproducts of her deeply felt humanity, in a way that defines the very best television characters.

But Orange Is The New Black has immersed us in a world where humanity is a weakness, the qualities that make Taystee such a powerful character the same that define her life as a tragedy. Her lawyer believes that she is innocent, and believes that Suzanne’s story is true, but the organization doesn’t believe that Suzanne’s testimony will hold up, and isn’t investing in taking the case further. As with Pennsatucky, it’s the pain of having pursued something you’d given up on only to have it ripped away, and Taystee immediately goes for the Chekhov’s heroin and begins planning out her last day. She seizes an opportunity to have Tamika bring in Storky’s for her last meal, she finds time to give Caputo and Tamika some final words, and she searches for Suzanne but ultimately can’t face that particular farewell. And the whole time, I’m hoping against hope that she won’t do it, but realizing that I can hardly blame her if she does. She might have a lot to give, but she’s had a lot to give for years, and the system has never given her anything but pain in return.

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I was pretty convinced that Taystee was going to go through with it right up until I realized that Samira Wiley’s cameo—I really wish they wouldn’t have put her name in the credits—was going to be a flashback as opposed to a dream sequence. I had convinced myself that Poussey would appear as a vision of sorts, either before or after Taystee had gone through with her plan, but once the flickering light brought her back to the night she learned that she was losing her housing after her release, and in the process losing a path to a clean life, I realized it was a wakeup call. Their discussion about pain, and the temporary nature of the deepest pain you feel, is maybe a little bit convenient, but it’s a heartbreaking reminder of how important that kind of friendship is to survival. It didn’t ultimately help Taystee in that situation—she was back in Litchfield swiftly after that—but it stuck with her, and those connections are your salvation. Sometimes you need there to be somebody there to tell you that pain is temporary, and that there’s hope on the horizon. And while we might never know if Taystee would have gone through with it anyway if not for discovering Tiffany in the laundromat, the fact is that her focus shifted to someone else’s pain, and to how she could help them.

With the ICE storyline “resolved” last week, Orange Is The New Black has shifted to its remaining core cast, and the result is a nerve-wracking and challenging episode of television. And while you could argue that the climax came out of nowhere as stories escalated—McCullough’s transfer request of Alex, Hopper getting caught with Aleida and fired—that’s sort of the whole point of the show. Things happen before you can really react to them—life comes at you fast, but prison life comes at you faster, and this feels like a final reminder before the show has to decide how to bring that “life” to a close.

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Stray observations

  • The episode is quite stirringly soundtracked by Sam Cooke, who Cindy listens to while trying to lose herself in her job at the nursing home to block out the fact she’s homeless, and whose music opens and ends the episode as well. The closing song, a cover of “The House I Live In,” was particularly evocative of the show’s central themes.
  • Piper says she’s never going to stop loving Alex, but both seem to agree that their current arrangement is unlivable for them both, and on some level McCullough’s transfer order—while diabolical, and still a bit unmotivated to me—might actually be a favor. But then again, as emphasized in the previous review, I’ve never been invested in that relationship.
  • As much as I find Caputo loathsome, I don’t disagree with Beth the Baby Killer that he deserves a chance at redemption, insofar as I hope he continues to follow through on Taystee’s idea as a form of reparations for his actions. So long as he doesn’t expect to just go back to living his life in the same way and holding the same forms of authority, a “comeback” is not an inherently bad thing.
  • So I felt like it was an open question last week as to whether Fig was lying about abandoning IVF in order to get the prescription to force a miscarriage, or whether she was just lying about the pregnancy for that and was actually abandoning IVF as well, and I still sort of don’t know where we landed on that, to be honest. But I took “binge watching Love Island and having popcorn for dinner” as a sign that she might be abandoning IVF for real.
  • There was definitely not enough liquid in those Storky’s cups as they picked them up and honestly I felt very attacked.
  • Felt weird not to have any kind of followup on what happened to Aleida after she was caught with Hopper, especially since Daya basically just doomed her own siblings by cutting off their support system.
  • Since I said I yelled into my notes, here’s everything I wrote in all caps, presented in order: “OH NO. OH FUCK THIS. GODDAMN FUCKING LUSCHEK. TAYSTEE. TUCKY NO. TUCKY. TUCKY NO. TUCKY NO.”
  • For the record, if you’re wondering about my process: I’ve been writing each of these reviews as I’ve watched the episodes, which means I’m about to sit down and watch the finale. I usually take notes as I watch, for the sake of efficiency, but I’m going to put away the computer for the first viewing of this one. If you’re reading along as you watch, I’ll see you on the other side.

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