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Halfway through its final season, OITNB gestures toward closure

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More than any other episode so far in Orange Is The New Black season seven, “Trapped In An Elevator” feels like part of a final season, full of the kind of full circle storytelling we would expect from a concluding chapter in this story. The premise of the show means that “closure” is perhaps an unrealistic expectation for the series, given that most of these women will remain in prison at season’s end, but there is clearly an interest in addressing some loose ends before the show reaches its conclusion.

There are two reasons why you address loose ends with limited narrative space to work with. The first is because it feels necessary, as it’s something that an average viewer will demand closure for. This is certainly the case with Cindy’s storyline, which returns to the forefront upon her early release. Realizing that there’s nothing she can do about having lied on the stand in Taystee’s trial without destroying her own life in the process, she throws her energy in Caputo’s restorative justice course toward her fractured relationship with her mother, and the daughter who was raised as her sister. When she’s forced to list an address where she’ll be living on the outside, she has to come to terms with her mistakes, and writes a heartfelt apology that she delivers in Caputo’s class. While she doesn’t get through the entire thing on the phone to her mother, she gets the important part—an apology for everything she did—out, and her family is willing to offer her some support (albeit with some strict rules) to help her get back on her feet. Caputo tells Cindy not to focus on what she can’t fix, but instead on what she can, and her focus provides a moment of perceived closure as she leaves Litchfield to a homemade sign and exactly the kind of slushie to put her in a better mood.

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It’s the kind of feel good moment the season could have chosen to focus on, but Orange Is The New Black is not ultimately a feel good show. Taystee spends the whole episode thinking about her own form of justice, well aware that her window for getting revenge on Cindy is closing. Daya tries to convince her to steal her date, or destroy her face, or have Adeola throw her off a balcony, but Taystee resists each of these efforts. For a moment, the episode gives us hope that Taystee might decide that she doesn’t need revenge given that she still intends to take her own life as soon as she gains enough leverage for Daya, but then we learn that Taystee is just as interested in loose ends as the show itself. Her choice to send Cindy’s daughter Monica a letter telling her the truth about the fact Cindy is her mother is diabolical, and in some ways worse than any of the options put on the table. It gives Cindy her freedom but promises to destroy any stability she hoped to find, and the future she might have imagined. Danielle Brooks absolutely nails the moments after Taystee puts the letter in the mail, knowing the gravity of her actions and having to face the choice she has made. It’s a tough moment to watch, making Cindy’s reunion with her family into a ticking time bomb, nothing like the closure she imagines it to be.

I certainly feel it would have been strange for the show to end without returning to the issue of Cindy’s daughter, but I don’t know if I would have said the same for Maria and Yadriel. However, the episode makes its case for why Maria needed to come to terms with her baby daddy, who we last saw refusing to bring their daughter to see her mother out of fear for her starting to understand where she was. This was before the riot, and before Maria had ten additional years added to her sentence, and so his return here is a bit of a surprise. But he wants to move on with another woman—also named Maria, which is a fun punchline—and Ruiz is working through her anger at all the ways she’s been wronged, and the show chooses to return to her backstory to clarify her federal crime (selling counterfeit jeans as the manager of a clothing store to try to achieve class mobility) and her moral crime, cheating on Yadriel with the slick-talking married guy who gave her the counterfeit jeans and letting Yadriel raise a child that may not be his.

As with Cindy, there’s no clear closure here: Cindy’s letter to her mother wakes Maria up to what she’s put Yadriel through, and she apologizes and rightfully agrees to not fight his choice to move in with New Maria as long as he’s willing to bring Pepa in to visit her. However, she doesn’t tell him the truth about her affair. Unlike with Cindy, there isn’t someone out there with revenge on their mind, threatening to blow up her secret: she has the choice to keep the truth to herself, just as she had a choice over whether or not she wanted Yadriel to be the father of her child when she called him from Litchfield (in a flashback that takes a second for you to realize it’s a flashback). The fact she calls it a choice to Yadriel doesn’t seem to register for him, and that’s really for the best. He’s the only father Pepa has ever known, and regardless of the truth Maria knows he is her daughter’s best chance at a normal life even if he isn’t really in love with New Maria.

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I don’t know if we necessarily needed closure on Yadriel, but I will say that given that one of my favorite early moments writing about this show was our arguments in the comments over whether Yadriel’s sullen demeanor was a red flag, it was nice to get this check-in. I don’t know, again, if the entire flashback was expressly necessary, but the parallels between Cindy and Maria’s situations were productive, and the show clearly felt that both characters needed this reconnection with their pasts in order for their arcs—however they eventually resolve—to conclude. It’s possible we never see Yadriel again. It’s possible—although less likely—that we don’t actually see the fallout from Taystee’s letter. If so, these are effective grace notes for those stories, and for the show as a whole.

I said before there are two reasons for bringing back a story: if the show is arguing that Cindy and Maria’s stories are examples of story elements that needed to be returned to, Caputo’s Me Too reckoning courtesy of Lauren Lapkus’ Susan Fischer is an example of the past providing a productive opportunity. I doubt anyone was thinking about Fischer much over the past few seasons: she hasn’t appeared since she was fired in season two, and while some of the other guards have returned in recent weeks, I wouldn’t have anticipated her to be among them. And so when Caputo—on his way to “ball surgery” to speed up his swimmers—realizes that he has been “Me Too’d” by his former employee, it’s a surprise, although a productive one. Without knowing where the story is going, I appreciate the show not letting a mostly reformed Caputo off the hook for his past creepy behavior. The idea of him having to follow his own advice on restorative justice to reevaluate his actions against Fischer—who he fired with some cause, but after a long campaign of trying to have sex with her—strikes me as a self-reflective way for the show to deal with Me Too without creating new traumas, and so this particular return to the past strikes me as a smart acknowledgment of the story thus far, and its consequences.

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Caputo’s thought experiment that gives “Trapped In An Elevator” its title is itself a good way of thinking of the last season of a TV show: if this is the last elevator ride, then there are certain showdowns we expect to see, certain stories that need to be addressed. And since I don’t think we’re going to see the collapse of the private prison industrial complex or mass incarceration or racial injustice even in the alternate universe of Orange Is The New Black, it becomes about bringing these stories to a point where we feel we can move on, knowing their lives—difficult as they may be—will go on. This episode felt like the start of that process, bringing the season close to its midway point and truly beginning the journey to the series finale.

Stray observations

  • I note above that it’s possible we won’t be seeing Cindy again, but that seems really unlikely to me. That said, if this was Adrienne C. Moore’s last stand? A strong way to go out, right up there with her performance at the end of season three.
  • The show continues to lean into weird sexual tension with Alex and McCullough and I just do not care. I get that Alex’s suggestion that Piper get laid so she doesn’t go crazy and get herself back into prison feeds into it, but it just feels overdone, and claustrophobic all taking place in that laundry closet (a reminder that Laura Prepon’s schedule was probably pretty condensed, as she barely appears outside of those scenes). Just not working for me.
  • We don’t drop into ICE at all, but Ward drops by to see Fig, and we get a bit of Ward/Caputo/Fig backchannel on how private prisons work, and the corruption therein. I’m curious if they use that to take down Polycon in any way, or whether Ward’s attempt to shame them into using the cost savings to actually improve prison programs will fizzle out as you’d expect.
  • I know literally no one is as bothered by the timey-wimey setting of the show as I am, but I can never tell if Piper’s “old” iPhone is meant to be a sign that she can’t afford a newer one that runs an updated version of iOS or production’s attempt to avoid seeming like this is truly the present day and I honestly am so broken, y’all.
  • I appreciated that Crying Lady’s phone call during Maria’s flashback at the phone bank in Minimum was about how to win a prize in a claw machine.
  • How timely that Fig’s binge-watching of Love Island U.K.—I’m going to presume it’s on Netflix instead of Hulu in OITNB’s alternate universe—comes as CBS attempts to launch the show in the U.S. As I’m writing this, the first week of episodes has aired, so I got a kick out of its inclusion here.
  • I liked the detail of Luschek jumping into Fischer’s Facebook commentary to mention Caputo jerked off in his office, as though he isn’t rife for his own reckoning in this area.
  • We get a quick glimpse of Hopper’s emotional reaction to Aleida’s arrest, but no other followup, so curious to see where that story lands (and when Daya finds out).
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About the author

Myles McNutt

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.