I still don’t know how much credit to give Orange Is The New Black for understanding Piper Chapman’s privilege.
Yes, Jenji Kohan early on talked about how Piper was the “Trojan horse” that allowed them to bring viewers into this story and then reveal it was primarily interested in the marginalized women who make up the majority of the inmates at Litchfield. But I’d argue that outside of last season, where Piper undoubtedly took on a supporting role in the riot, the show has still tended to orient itself around Piper’s perspective, believing that she remains the closest thing to an audience surrogate. This has been particularly true this season, when Taystee’s trial and the racial injustices of the prison system have felt almost tangential, while Piper’s squabbles with Badison and her push for kickball have been central to the “cookies” adjusting to the culture of Max. And while Piper’s privilege has been called out on numerous occasions throughout the season, most notably by Taystee herself, the focus on Piper and Alex’s star-crossed romance and Piper’s quest to make the most of her last months in prison has felt at times like the show still believes Piper to be a beautiful stallion, as opposed to a wooden transport vessel that I’d personally keep parked in the garage for special occasions instead of parading it around on a daily basis.
However, as much as I feel this season had too much Piper and too little Taystee, I have to acknowledge that the finale uses the character’s privilege to great effect. I worried that the show was going to turn her into a tragic victim of the kickball game, so close to early release and then cut down before she could return to the outside world, but the show understands that this wouldn’t be Piper’s fate. It allows Piper to believe that all of this is happening because of effort instead of privilege: much as she has no idea that Alex signed up to work with Carol to get Badison off her case, she doesn’t know that she was only given early release because Hopper needed to get her out of his way (and doesn’t perceive her as a “bad guy” in the same way as he would other inmates). And as she walks out of Litchfield a free woman, she looks out onto the kickball field believing that a thing she organized has brought these women together, blissfully unaware that it was only Maria’s destabilizing team swap plan and Nicky and Alex’s rational argumentation that managed to avoid a bloodbath. If she so chooses, Piper could write a book about how she made Litchfield a better place, where she made great friends and smoothed things over with her nemesis and found her true love—she might write the version of Orange Is The New Black that the first season could have spawned, despite the fact we know that it would be a lie.
That wasn’t the path that the real-life Piper Kerman took, translating her experience being incarcerated into advocacy for prisoners’ rights. And I feel like, no matter how frustrating the character might have been, Piper Chapman would never write that book either. Taylor Schilling has always done a good job at foregrounding Piper’s privilege, but I always find myself returning to the first season, when Larry’s NPR interpretation of Piper’s stories flattened the diverse women that Piper encountered when she first arrived at Litchfield, and Piper’s reaction to it. It makes sense that her character would romanticize her own prison experience as she faces her sudden exit, especially after a tearful prison wedding to her fiancé who still has four years to go, but I have to believe that when she finds out that Taystee was found guilty for Piscatella’s murder, and that Blanca was “released” directly into the hands of ICE (finally paying off the Chekhov’s gun of the investigators’ interest in her file), she will put aside her own privilege and use her voice to do more than document her role as the white savior.
That said, I don’t blame anyone who doesn’t trust Piper, because trust is challenging when it comes to Orange Is The New Black. Many viewers lost their trust in the show when they chose to kill off Poussey, a decision that set into motion an explicit investment in issues of racial justice as they relate to the prison system. I never felt that loss of trust at the time, primarily because I thought the show fully committed to the weight of Poussey’s death when it happened, and that whatever was lost in terms of representation could be regained by investing in the aftermath of that story. Last season, though, this trust was tested: as much as Taystee’s push for justice for Poussey was the emotional center of the riot, and Danielle Brooks emerged as the season’s undeniable highlight, the continued efforts to artificially insert comedy and serve the overly extended ensemble felt at times like a distraction, pulling away from the events that inspired the riot in the first place.
And the biggest problem with the sixth season is that it continued to marginalize Taystee’s story, spending most of its time building out the warring culture of Max just to have Carol and Barb murder each other in a utility closet with no other casualties. I understand that there was a need to refresh the show’s storytelling after the riot, and that the trial was—comparatively—thin in this regard, but the finale continues a streak of barely even trying to tap into the full emotional weight of what Taystee is going through, or its cultural ramifications. The show sticks a bunch of Black Lives Matter extras into the crowd, but bypasses any of the actual evidence of the case. It shows us the closing argument that gets Taystee convicted, but doesn’t show us her own lawyer’s closing argument that tried to set her free. It shows us Caputo’s single-handed quest for justice, but never lets us see the media coverage of the trial, or understand how her reminders about Poussey during the trial or in the news articles about the riot might have echoed in the larger discourse.
It’s tragic when Taystee is found guilty, and Brooks’ performance is deeply powerful in that moment, but the rest of the silent reaction is entirely empty to me. Who are these people? Did the show think adding Ward would make the reaction less anonymous, despite the fact she completely disappeared for half the season? I know the show is overestimating how much we’re invested in Caputo given its rosy view on his relationship with Fig, but I still struggle with the idea that they thought he could serve as the lone meaningful face in that crowd. What about Poussey’s father? Why couldn’t they have let us know more about the people in that courtroom, and made this story an anchor for the season instead of a marginalized post-script of the riot?
The most frustrating thing about Orange Is The New Black is also what makes it so watchable: for as much as it has issues balancing tones and storylines, the performances are so consistently excellent that it becomes easy to be pulled along for the ride despite these concerns. Nick Sandow—who also directed the finale—makes Caputo’s white savior shtick more palatable than it should be, and despite never entirely knowing what to do with Suzanne in Florida outside of comic relief I continue to find Uzo Aduba’s commitment fascinating. I don’t love all of the show’s performances, admittedly, but I can’t really point to a storyline this season where the idea was undersold by its execution. The problem always stems from the idea, and the performances will only rarely let down a promising story. I may not have been fully invested in Carol and Barb’s war, but I thought Henny Russell and MacKenzie Phillips brought as much pathos as they could to their final showdown. I never bought into Luschek and Gloria’s connection, but Selenis Leyda was fierce in her anger locked up in solitary, and my disgust with Luschek is a credit to Matt Peters’ work. I often found myself in my notes remarking how much I appreciated performers like Natasha Lyonne, who did some really great work this season despite the fact Nicky was left mostly to paper over the struggles to make the new characters like Badison and Duerte into a meaningful entry point into the war between blocks.
These performances mean that even when the season’s story balance is out of whack, I still feel the suspense of the kickball game, knowing that the show is not averse to tragedy. When none of that tragedy comes to pass, the kickball game turns into a “happy ending” not unlike the trip to the lake in season three, where a brief moment of calm is felt but uncertainty remains. Just as Piper is leaving Litchfield, Taystee is returning, not to mention PCC’s push into Immigration Detention Centers and Blanca’s transfer directly into the hands of ICE. While the main sources of conflict in Max may be gone, it is still a fundamentally unstable environment for those characters who remain, especially since there’s no incentive for Duerte or Badison to stop the flow of drugs and other contraband that characters like Daya and Alex are wrapped up in. And let’s not forget the dozen or so characters the narrative shuffled off to Cleveland, who they could return to at some point in the future to offer something approaching resolution. And there’s still the injustice done to Taystee, and to Poussey, and the idea that no one is going to be held truly accountable for what happened in the riot. There is still a whole lot of story to explore here, although how much of it can be explored by remaining a show primarily focused on the day-to-day life of the inmates of Litchfield Correctional Facility is a question the writers have to be asking themselves as the show enters the final season of its three-season order.
When she starts parceling out her belongings, Sophia quotes James Baldwin on freedom, arguing that it isn’t something that is given: it is something people take, and “people are as free as they want to be.” Sophia uses this as inspiration for her life outside prison, and it’s a powerful moment when she reunites with her wife Crystal, whose face betrays the complex emotions of Sophia’s return. I had two reactions to this scene. The first was that I couldn’t help but wonder how much more powerful it would have been if Sophia had been a meaningful part of this season, or a consistently meaningful part of the three or so seasons before that, as opposed to being shuffled off to solitary. The second is not the intention of the quotation, I’ll admit, but I couldn’t help but think about the freedom that the writers have in crafting this story. While I suspect that contract/availability issues with Laverne Cox might have forced some of the decisions they made when telling Sophia’s story, the fact is that the show’s format could easily be adjusted to expand its focus. There is no “formula” that forces the show to tell certain stories in certain ways, not in a streaming context. And while the show has pushed into important spaces and told stories that have rarely been seen on television, it’s also filled in the gaps with some missteps, and continually struggled with how to reconcile its stronger dramatic material with a comic tone that seems like it persists less as a balance to tragedy and more as a justification for remaining in the Comedy categories at the SAG Awards.
These are not new issues, but as the show reaches what is likely its conclusion (if not next season then shortly after), I admit my patience with the show wears a bit thin. I don’t think this season was necessarily worse than last year, where the tonal issues were definitely much stronger, but I felt myself becoming frustrated more easily, wondering when the show was going to lose some of these bad habits and shift its focus to its most resonant stories. Outside of Adeola—who the show finally gave a name through dialogue, revealing she’s a former Evolutionary Anthropologist from Lagos who will also “fuck up a bitch when necessary”—none of the newly introduced characters made me want to see more of them, and story threads like Aleida’s relationship with Hopper felt more convenient than meaningful. While the riot got away with some of its restricted storytelling thanks to the tight time frame, this season took place over months but struggled to use the passage of time to its advantage in developing its stories, which still often came across as haphazard. As with Jenji Kohan’s previous show Weeds, you keep waiting for the show to learn from its mistakes and deliver a season that makes full use of its potential, and inevitably have to accept the fact that Kohan and her writing staff see failed experiments and dead-end story developments as an intrinsic part of the show’s formula.
But I still need to see what happens to these characters, and still believe the show’s ability to inspire meaningful outrage at the prison system can be transformed into something truly powerful. And while the show’s engagement with current events completely messes with its timeline, I can’t deny the promise of exploring the issues that are dominating news cycles, and using our relationship with these women as a way into a deeper critique of the current administration. But at the same time, I look at the way this season shortchanged Taystee’s quest for justice, and wonder if the show’s worst instincts will ever fade enough to deliver a season that will be everything the show can be. This season showed that they can change locations and lose a good quarter of the show’s characters and still preserve the show’s DNA: next season will show us if they’ve gained any kind of self-reflection on the limitations of that DNA in the process.
- This show makes a bunch of weird choices, but having Lorna go into labor in the utility closet in the laundromat but then skipping over Blake finding her, and not actually showing what happens after he delivers her to medical, was super strange to me. I realize the ending was already pretty packed, but it felt weird that there wasn’t some return to see if she and the baby are okay, right?
- I didn’t love the use of needle drops in the finale: no individual song was particularly bad or anything, but it just felt a bit overdone, and used too often to punctuate emotions without really doing much else. The show doesn’t use music in this way that often, so to see it pop up multiple times here didn’t really work for me—it was one thing using Moses Sumney’s “Doomed” for Taystee’s verdict, but the other uses of plaintive songs elsewhere in the episode made that less powerful (the episode ends on Weyes Blood’s “Be Free,” which also gave the episode its title).
- While it’s unlikely that Piper would ever be put back into prison because Hopper fabricated her early release, given that PCC is trying to get rid of prisoners like her with less time left on their sentences, I do still wonder who number 26 was, and if Hopper’s decision will ever be discovered.
- Although it’s never made explicit, it did seem as though the existing Litchfield “Camp” would be renovated into an immigrant detention facility, right? That was how I interpreted Linda’s big reveal in front of the prison, but I may have been projecting.
- The hot-and-cold approach to Maria’s murderous streak is still super bizarre to me, but I appreciated her confrontation with McCullough as a way of working through the aftermath of the riot, and the uneasy trust that is necessary between guards and inmates and yet so easily destroyed by things like Fantasy Inmate.
- Frieda gets a moment of self-reflection where she frees Suzanne to play kickball and acknowledges that she doesn’t have friends so much as shields she uses and disposes of: the ones that truly wanted to kill her are now dead, so I’ll be curious to see how that character moves forward as conflicts between blocks cool down (if they do).
- I’m not onboard with Piper and Alex’s love story as much as the show is, but I thought the wedding was really lovely (albeit mostly thanks to Nicky), and Laura Prepon has done a nice job sketching out Alex’s very different view of prison from Piper’s. I’ll be curious how the character functions without that foil, given that a good 90% of her scenes are exclusively with Schilling at this point.
- I still feel like it’s weird Flaca barely ever talked about Maritza, but I appreciated her straight talk with Cindy, and enjoyed the kickball commentary as a way of working through that. Cindy still hasn’t had her reunion with Taystee, of course, but that feels like something next season will be able to reckon with in full.
- Part of me is fine with the fact Pennsatucky didn’t actually get a storyline when she chose to return to prison, but I do feel like Taryn Manning is too good to go unused, so I hope they find a way to explore something else for her outside of the aftermath of the regrettable Coates situation.
- “That’s a shocker for Trekkies”—Zirconia was not necessarily the immediate choice for a character to survive the riot purge and remain part of the ensemble, but I liked her energy even when I didn’t understand her motivations.
- I liked the callback to the opening scenes of the pilot, with Piper in the shower with her shower shoes and smelling soap: a nice way to bring her full circle, even if the show itself has long past the point of being able to go back there.
- I didn’t mind Sandow’s direction overall, but it felt a bit over-obvious: beyond the needle drops, the dramatic zoom on Aleida after she basically writes off Daya in favor of her other children was a bit much.
- I’ll be curious if this is the last we see of Luschek: driving off in the DeLorean he bought with the money from smuggling in cell phones, too chicken to deal with the riot he knows is coming and has done nothing about. Would be a fitting end, I’d say.
- I’m not in charge, but I just want to point out in case anyone is listening that it’s super easy to just have characters that were introduced this season but didn’t work transferred to another prison between seasons. It probably happens all the time! Just a thought.
- I didn’t love the characterization on the new guards, who felt pretty thin at times, but Hellman singing one line of “The Thong Song” over and over again was a pretty good encapsulation of his garbage self.
- Okay, so I need to understand what led to Adeola finally getting an explicit name in this episode. I realize it’s always going to be buried in the credits, but most people won’t see those, and I don’t think you should have to dig through the credits and cross-reference with IMDB where hopefully there’s a photo in order to learn a character’s name. Did they get to the finale and realize “whoops, we never said her name?” Or were they purposefully trolling me? We’ll never know.
- Thanks for joining me on another journey to Litchfield—six seasons is a very long time to write about a television show, and while I felt at times this season that I didn’t have much to say about individual episodes, I’m hopeful that my wrestling with the show has given you something to chew on and been of value to your viewing of the season however you chose to consume it. We’ll be back for at least one more next year—until then, curious to hear your thoughts on the season as a whole.