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.

“Do you really think you deserve to be here?”

In the season premiere, something was awakened in Suzanne. Faced with the truth that Taystee didn’t kill a guard but was found guilty by the courts, she starts to question the justice of her incarceration. In a visit with her mother in “Just Desserts,” she confronts her, and works through everything that happened with Dylan, and ultimately realizes the truth: given that she didn’t understand what she was doing, and that it was all an accident, her sentence is a form of injustice.

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Every inmate in Litchfield—especially in Max—was not necessarily the victim of injustice at her sentencing. But the core of the show is that everyone who enters into this prison is subject to some form of injustice, and that even when they leave that system they are forced to carry that injustice with them. It can take the form of the complete failure to provide the resources necessary for the inmates to reintegrate into society, or it can take the form of corrupt guards using inmates to sell drugs. And ultimately there’s nothing that can really be done about it: Suzanne rails against the inequality of dessert distribution in her first conscious act of rebellion, but what does getting a shot achieve in this case? Suzanne has yet to learn the futility that her fellow inmates understand too well, and which fuels a particularly bleak situation in Litchfield as a whole.

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The episode uses two characters as an entry point to this futility, splitting time between them: McCullough gets a flashback to her time in the military, while—as if the episode could hear me in my previous review—a check-in with a paroled Maritza shows another glimpse of life on the outside. Both are about injustice, although in different ways. For Maritza, it starts as a story about a parolee who sees a glimpse of a fresh start with an NBA player but is forced to push it aside being unable to travel out of state. It’s an injustice, maybe, but not a necessarily unreasonable one, which is why the story feels a bit slight right up until an ICE raid at a club finds Maritza with no identification. Suddenly, a story about the misfortune of being unable to follow your NBA beau to Los Angeles becomes a story about an American citizen caught up in the sweeping injustices of immigration policing, giving us another vantage point into the new immigration detention facility and Blanca’s place in this story. What started as a bit of closure for one of the Ohio inmates becomes a reminder that the show introduced a new, timely engine of injustice in last season’s finale.

McCullough’s storyline is equally interested in being timely, reframing her military service as a case of gender discrimination leading to sexual assault. There’s no subtlety to the storytelling here, although that’s sort of the point: the men in her unit were not subtle about their disregard of her capacity based on her gender, and no amount of debauchery was ever going to make her “one of the guys” enough to change that. McCullough goes the extra mile—even paying off another soldier to be an extremely racist stripper—to try to earn their camaraderie, but it all disappears the second she reports her sexual assault, and the trauma of the battlefield becomes compounded by the trauma of the system refusing to acknowledge the truth of her experience. And it adds an extra layer to the injustice of having to be paid eight thousand dollars less than the absolute garbage men who serve alongside her at Litchfield.

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Conspicuously keeping Blake—the only remaining guard who I’d argue seems remotely human—off duty, the episode amps up the awfulness of the men of Litchfield, both in their interactions with McCullough and in their pursuit of the Head Guard position. And the episode is set up for McCullough to upend Hellman’s drug ring, using the stash she confiscated from a desperate Alex to catch her most odious colleague in one of the expanded drug sweeps. And as she sits on the toilet smoking, and rubs out the cigarette on the bowl instead of burning herself, it would seem to be her getting ready to leverage the drugs into a better chance at Head Guard…but that’s not the play. The play, it turns out, is forcing Alex to sell the drugs for her instead, because within financial struggle she can’t place her trust that the system would reward her for her honesty after the military system failed her so significantly.

It’s a timely story, certainly, and I appreciated that the ending avoids rescuing Alex and doubles down on the lack of trust the inmates can reasonably place within authority figures in the prison. This is also evident as Daya, faced with Daddy’s crew fully realizing that she poisoned her, is encouraged by Ruiz to approach the administration but eventually ends up with asserting her authority with Adeola’s help instead. But there’s some part of me who feels a little bit skeptical at any time spent with the guards—I understand the show’s initial instinct of going deeper on the guards to show us the corruption within the authority structure of the prison, but I look at the time spent on the lecherous interviews with Linda from Corporate, and I think about the inmate stories that could have been told during that time, especially with so much of the cast (everyone in solitary, for example) sitting out the episode. McCullough’s flashback is far from the worst guard story, but I guess I don’t know if the guards are worth the narrative oxygen if they’re not more explicitly linked to an inmate (Taystee and Ward) or former inmate (Aleida and Hopper, although I could do without them too if we’re being honest).

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Those interviews with Linda from Corporate fuel the episode’s one beacon of hope. After swiftly moving to ditch Fig as a scapegoat for the inmate deaths (Barb and Carol, now Daddy), Linda stumbles her way into hiring Ward as the Warden. Is it mostly because she’s a young black woman who successfully bullshits her way through the interview with status quo-speak that sounds non-threatening? Absolutely, but we know from her experience with Taystee that she believes in the core principles of justice, and her night school classes with Caputo have given her a foundation the other guards don’t have. Does it seem likely she can cut through the pure garbage of the guards beneath her in order to make meaningful changes? No, but it provides a foundation for the show to start searching for the justice that these women have been denied, even if it is piled beneath the aforementioned garbage.

After two seasons where the beginning and aftermath of the riot, respectively, dominated the earlygoing, it’s an adjustment to return to a Litchfield that’s actually pretty peaceful all things considered, and the show is taking its time in escalating tension. The result is an episode that likely won’t linger considerably as you binge your way through the seasons, but feels in line with the show’s central ideas enough to keep the final season train on the tracks, as it were.

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Stray observations

  • I sort of wish we weren’t following Piper throughout the episode. I didn’t think her conversation with the parents’ group or the look at her babysitting job added much to the story, and I feel like the show would more successfully center Alex’s point of view (which always feels kind of at a distance for me) if their phone call wasn’t mostly about Piper’s side of things.
  • McCullough’s flashback reminded me of Bennett’s flashback, and I briefly considered rewatching it to compare them, but then I realized there were already enough garbage men in this episode and adding another one would just break me.
  • So this is an actual question: I always get annoyed when college courses have bells on TV because as a professor I know that almost no buildings actually have bells, but maybe this is different in community colleges? I open the floor to insights before I formally make an objection.
  • If you are anything like me—which, I’m sorry—you immediately noticed that the episode of Nailed It! that Aleida’s daughter was watching was only at the start of Round 1, and therefore there were considerably more than 10 minutes remaining as the daughter claimed, which means that either the show wants us to believe the daughter lies to her mother (which is understandable) or whoever was responsible for inserting the image of a Netflis Original is attacking me personally. (And yes, I immediately recognized which episode and went to verify my initial reaction, I’m nothing if not thorough).
  • I’m not mad at Adeola becoming a bigger part of Daya’s storyline, but I really feel like Ruiz’s perspective in this story is completely floating in space. What are her motivations? What does she want? Why did it feel like all of her dialogue was written for Gloria and then they remembered she was in solitary, and they were like “Maybe Ruiz instead?”
  • Between the guards staring at Linda’s boobs and the “booty shaking contest,” this was a particularly lecherous episode, and I don’t know if the episode ever connected the dots between the critique of misogyny and the conscious deployment of the male gaze to make it anything but a little gross.

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