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.
“Maybe this is the beginning of a road back. There’s gotta be a way back.”
The choice to tell Piper’s reintegration into society alongside the stories of racial injustice that are driving the core of the stories inside of Litchfield is an interesting one. When I sit down to write about each episode, I can’t help but acknowledge the disparities: even stripped of much of her privilege and struggling to find employment and support structures, Piper still has a wealthy father to turn to in a desperate moment. There is still something for her to travel to on that road “back,” something that would not be the case for many inmates upon their release, and would certainly not be the case for Blanca, who if deported is returning to a country she hasn’t visited in 15 years.
But thus far, I think the final season of Orange Is The New Black has avoided seeming like it is suggesting Piper’s struggles rank on the same scale. A day before I watched the screener for this episode, New York Times critic James Poniewozik posted a question on Twitter asking who his followers thought the “most important character” on the show was, and the premiere’s focus on Piper would certainly suggest that she remains maybe the closest thing the show has to a “lead” in technical terms. However, I don’t think her prominence within the narrative makes her the most important, and the season seems to be under the same impression. Piper’s story here is not insignificant—her probation officer finds out she doesn’t have a job, the Moms group abandons her when they find out she’s a felon, she begs her father for a menial job—and there are clear stakes if she fails to get her life on track, but putting it in contrast with Blanca’s story continually puts Piper’s experience into perspective. Piper is still the show’s most central character, but she’s among its least important in terms of what it’s trying to say about the justice system, and the show has managed to make that delicate balancing act work over the first few episodes of the season.
Blanca’s story returns us to a series of more traditional “flashbacks,” half of which cover territory from before Blanca went to Litchfield with the other half filling in some gaps in her time in ICE detection. The former are more or less pure exposition, there mostly to establish that Blanca had a green card, and that she was serving time for her role in covering up her elderly boss’ hit-and-run attack on a mailman. The latter, meanwhile, give the show a chance to dramatize the chain link holding cells of the southern U.S. immigration detention facilities, as well as the corruption of ICE as Diablo is picked up while visiting with Blanca to confirm that her guilty plea was a deportable offense. It’s all there to explain why Blanca is barely trying to fight her situation once Maritza finds her at Litchfield: she knows the only person who was fighting for her has been swept up in this chaos. She has no reason to believe there is any hope she will avoid deportation.
Things are different for Maritza. She knows she’s an American citizen, and that a single phone call or letter could solve her problem, and so she keeps running so the show can burn through every roadblock that Blanca had already found during her time—more on that in the strays—in detention. You have to pay to use the phone, but the machine is broken, so no one can buy any time, unless they barter for someone else’s. You need a stamp to send a letter, but you need the machine to buy the stamp. There’s no access to lawyers, and everyone’s being treated like a criminal even if they committed no crime other than lacking documentation (although the felons get red jumpsuits). It’s a fresh new set of injustices, and one that will clearly be getting more attention as the crew from Max arrives to run the kitchen, and Fig’s “Ice Queen” reputation makes her Polycon’s choice to oversee this shareholder-friendly operation.
And while there’s nothing particularly hopeful about anything we’re seeing in this storylines, I was struck by how much this episode laid a foundation for a more hopeful future. The Max inmates running the kitchen means that Flaca and Maritza will be reuniting, and there will be people with greater access to the outside world who know about what’s happening in the detention facility. Ward might struggle with her new promotion to warden, but she finds her footing with Fig’s help, and sticks to her reform policies, abolishing solitary confinement and successfully shipping away Madison (which I will take as a personal gift to me, for which she has my gratitude). And while Suzanne’s “Parent Trap” for Cindy and Taystee goes terribly, the fact that Pennsatucky—sorry, Sock Puppet Suzanne—knows about what happened in the pool creates at least a tiny bit of momentum for that particular truth to find its way into the public record. It even seems possible that Fig, clearly wary of her reputation of coldness as she prepares to be a mother, could become part of the resistance, even if her choice to procreate with Caputo suggests a tendency toward lapses in judgment.
I don’t know exactly how hopeful Orange Is The New Black wants to be. There’s definitely not going to be a “happy ending” in a traditional sense, but it feels like the show wants to believe in the reform of the system, and plans to use its place as a fictional commentary on current events to dramatize the kind of action the writers want to believe can take hold in the real world. But this episode is also a reminder that the consequences of the current system have already taken hold for many inmates: Red, finally released from solitary, has begun to lose her mind, struggling to remember which of her girls were still in Max and barely remembering that Lorna was even pregnant. There’s no fixing whatever has happened to Red, just as there’s no fixing so much of what has happened to these women. But perhaps there’s hope that Alex can successfully steer McCullough toward battery packs instead of heroin, and a chance—if not a huge one—that justice can prevail. And yes, also a chance that when these women do leave prison, there will be a life for them like there is for Piper.
- On the topic of time: I’ve more or less accepted the show’s decision to bend time and space broadly in order to be topical while still adhering to Piper’s prison sentence, but I really don’t understand how much time passed between seasons? It felt like we picked up more or less directly after the Barb and Carol situation, but Blanca’s story feels like it would have taken more time than that to move her all around the country and have Diablo get a meeting with a lawyer to investigate?
- The other detainee describing Maritza as “that girl from Glee with sharper lines” made me chuckle. It also made me think that whoever wrote this episode was thinking a lot about Glee because do you remember how Finn’s strategy for cooling himself down when making out with Quinn was thinking about the time he ran over a mailman? Well, that is an actual real thing that happened on that show. (There’s a new-ish Glee rewatch podcast, GleeWind, if you want to rediscover this and other absolutely insane things that happened on that show).
- How old is Blanca, do we think, that she would have seen Perfect Strangers growing up?
- “Also butterscotch. That’s the natives”—Suzanne and Pennsatucky are definitely the only corner of this show that feels much like a comedy these days, but it does admittedly make me laugh, so I’ll accept that.
- “I’ll go to a Target. Or is this more of a Costco kind of thing?”—okay, McCullough trying to be a criminal mastermind is also funny, but that’s not exactly supposed to be a comic kind of incompetence, you know?
- “And they say Russians are the ones to leak things”—okay, I know I just said I was perfectly fine with the whole time warp situation, but how does Red know about this? Who told her? When did they tell her? Where did she get the context to be able to make this topical joke in her dementia-addled state?! (It’s fine. I’m coming to terms. Truly.)
- Between the costuming and the sinking chair, the efforts to make Ward seem tinier than usual in the episode were maybe a bit too on-the-nose, but I appreciated the power move of stealing Hopper’s chair and the visual of Dixon carrying it out.