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Orange Is The New Black's series finale showcases the delicate balance that made the show great

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Earlier in the season, Pennsatucky was trying to help Suzanne understand what was happening with Taystee, and she laid out her opinion about how prison changes you: either you become better through your experience in prison, or you become a darker version of yourself.

At the time, I didn’t clue in to how troubling this statement was. It seems hopeful at first blush, as someone who was once staunchly against the rehabilitative project of prison now sees the hope that she and others like her could better themselves. My first reaction was that she’s wrong about Taystee being the other side of the coin, but in thinking about it the real issue is that Pennsatucky sees it as a coin at all. If you create a dichotomy wherein either you become better or fall into a dark version of yourself, you start to see a coin flip as irreversible, the universe correcting your path swiftly, and without room for the grey areas of struggle or even failure. You’re either becoming a better person or you’re not, and the lack of an in-between means that once Pennsatucky is convinced she was wrong to try to improve her life there’s no turning back.

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“Here’s Where We Get Off” wastes no time confirming that Pennsatucky took her own life by overdosing on Fentanyl. Her death came swiftly, and without the same foreshadowing the season created for Taystee, and without the ripped-from-the-headlines traumas of the ICE detention storyline. It was a death born out of the same circumstances the show has followed from the beginning: a corrupt environment, in which women living hard lives struggle to access the resources that could help them turn their life around but have easy access to the tools to dig themselves deeper into dark places. Pennsatucky didn’t have to go far to find the drugs she wanted to use to escape her sense of failure after her experience taking the GED. And despite having taken advantage of Ward’s programs, she still understood her value as a flip of the coin, and once she believed she was never going to achieve her goal of improving herself she could only see one path.

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There are multiple layers of tragedy to Tiffany Doggett’s death. There’s the loss of a character that was introduced as a villain, but grew into a shrewd observer of the women around her, a survivor in more ways than one. There’s the fact that if not for Luschek’s incompetence, Tiffany would have gotten her extra time, and could have been celebrating with Storky’s alongside her fellow students. There’s the counterfactual of Taystee getting good news from her lawyer instead of bad, meaning she would have been there to comfort her student at a difficult time instead of being lost in her own dark place. And of course, there’s the realization that Tiffany was wrong: despite the challenge placed in front of her, she had worked hard enough to pass the GED even without her extra time. She dies believing she was a failure, when in truth the failure was the system that made her feel like even the smallest setback confined her to a self-destructive existence.

Screenshot: Netflix
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I talked at a few points over the course of these reviews about what statement Orange Is The New Black wanted to make as it came to a close. Having reviewed a previous Jenji Kohan series finale that jumped eight years in the future, I didn’t entirely know what approach she would take bringing such a complex ensemble into the station, as it were. I had a lot of questions, and it’s been tempting to think of them as “or” questions: is the show a tragedy or a love story? Is it a comedy or a drama? A series finale forces a degree of definitiveness, a final statement that we intuitively read as an answer to questions we’ve had about the show, its characters, and its stories. And in a season fairly light on “plot” in a traditional sense, the resolution I came to anticipate was more about these kinds of bigger theoretical questions about the show than it was about what would “happen” in a traditional sense.

But if I or anyone else expected clarity from the series finale of Orange Is The New Black, it was a delusion. The show has consistently pushed back against being any single thing, at times to its detriment, and that was never going to change at the finish line. Tragedy and love story were always meant to coexist, and while drama largely led the way in the final season it’s not as though the show would abandon comedy entirely. “Here’s Where We Get Off” is indeed our last time spent with the inmates we met at Litchfield, but it leaves the story very much in progress, and without any attempt at uniformity. It’s still impossible to pin Orange Is The New Black down, except to say that it was an amazing vehicle for exploring the complex humanity of these women when it wanted to be—and it definitely wanted to be that show in its final season, and in much of its finale.

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Screenshot: Netflix

If I had to make a definitive statement, though, I would argue that this is a hopeful finale primarily based on the emotional journey of Tasha Jefferson. In a scene that the entire season was building to, Taystee is given her opportunity. After discovering Pennsatucky’s body, she’s convinced that she doesn’t want to keep doing this: she hears Ward’s speech, sure, but when Dixon doesn’t confiscate her drugs, and lets her visit Suzanne to say her goodbyes, Taystee can see it. She knows that Suzanne is working hard at being able to accept the loss of people in her life, a final bit of peace of mind that seems to push her over the edge. And so she goes to her room, shuts the door, and sits on her bunk. And at least personally, I was an emotional wreck before she even got back to her cell, believing—in the wake of Pennsatucky’s death—that the tragedy train could keep rolling. It says something that I was more scared for her life than I was for any character in Game Of Thrones’ last season, but this season has done a tremendous job of reinforcing the knife’s edge of incarceration in a way that makes even war seem safe by comparison. And so I was pleading with Taystee to reconsider, and only took a breath when she finished opening the well-timed GED results. (I mean, I then started getting emotional about Tiffany once I realized she’d actually passed the GED and her death was even more tragic now, so the emotional rollercoaster didn’t stop exactly).

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Everything after this moment is a beautifully rendered bit of life from Danielle Brooks. The season didn’t end up giving Taystee any kind of hope for her case: she is, by all accounts, serving life in prison for a crime she didn’t commit, with no real chance at overturning the injustice done to her. But the Poussey Washington Fund becomes her way of making that life in prison worthwhile, of fighting other forms of injustice from the inside. She hustles her way to Judy King’s ear, and she channels her passion for teaching, and she positions herself to be a force of change in the moments after a corrupt system spits out these women and expects them to figure things out on their own. And even though there are moments—like the missing key that Taystee has to get back from Daya in order to set things right with Tamika—that could have tripped her up, and broader developments that could have theoretically scuttled her plan, with Taystee’s story hope wins. It isn’t the justice she deserves, but it is a force for justice nonetheless, and a fitting end to what evolved into the series’ most meaningful journey.

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That sense of hope extends to the show’s original journey as well. As I mentioned earlier in the season, Piper’s journey is important not just because it was where the show started, but rather because we’ve seen her “entire” journey, from the moment she first became an inmate to the moment early in the finale where she’s finished her parole and is now a “reformed” citizen. Flashbacks gave us glimpses of the other women of Litchfield at each stage of their process, but this season’s extended glimpse of Piper’s life reinforced that one of the unanswered questions is just how much prison came to define Piper Chapman as a person. It’s a question about how a privileged white woman absorbs the experience of becoming an inmate, and returning to her normal life and the people she left behind as she reconciles the life lessons she learned as the show used her as a surrogate for exploring a more diverse range of inmates with the fact that none of those people are part of the life she used to lead.

Perhaps my biggest criticism of Piper’s storyline is how it uses Alex as a stand-in for her experience in prison. Yes, there’s no question that her relationship with Alex represents her strongest ties to her experiences, the albatross of incarceration that she has a chance to shake off to move on with her life. But Piper also made connections with a range of inmates, and had some harrowing confrontations with others, and the final season never got to reckon with that. Perhaps if I were more invested in Piper and Alex’s love story, I would have found this framing less of an issue, but I think it does a disservice to Piper’s larger arc even as I appreciate what the finale does for the character.

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Screenshot: Netflix

While there was some ambiguity when the advice to leave Alex and prison behind came from Sophia, there is much less ambiguity coming from her father and Larry, both of whom despise Alex and see—with Zelda—a much safer path for Piper. And if there was any doubt after Piper’s conversation with her father—with whom she’s on much better terms—it’s erased when Larry starts psychoanalyzing Piper, arguing that she always wanted to be special, and going to prison was the best thing that ever happened to her. It’s sanctimonious bullshit, similar to Larry’s NPR misrepresentation of her prison experience back in the first season, and it works to reframe Piper’s decision to stay connected to Alex as something other than “true love.” It’s a messy decision, in its way, refusing an easier path in order to work to reconcile her prison experience with a new life. It’s a clean slate that hearkens back to the voiceover that opened the pilot, and which the premiere brought us back to. But it’s a clean that neither fetishizes—that would have been the memoir path—nor erases her time in prison: she’s working at Starbucks, driving to visit Alex, and taking legal classes to find her own path to making a difference. We don’t fast-forward so far into her life that we know her exact path to reconciling who she was with her prison experience, but Piper is putting in the work, and that’s a far cry from the woman who came to Litchfield when the series began.

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Those kinds of journeys are a big part of what “Here’s Where We Get Off” wants to leave us with. Alex’s transfer to Ohio means a reunion for the women who got lost in the wake of the riot, and we get little grace notes for each of them. There’s no sense of when any of them are getting out of prison, or what their own lives will hold. It’s a snapshot: Soso perhaps finding new love, Janae still running, Angie and Leanne still invested in pantsing each other. It’s just there as a gift to the fans who wanted to know that they were still themselves, and a similar energy to the goodbyes from all of the actors built into the episode’s end credits. To call Orange Is The New Black a feel-good show would be wildly misrepresentative, but it generated a great deal of goodwill around these women that we rooted for, and it earned a victory lap of sorts to revel in hope as opposed to digging into each of their complicated lives. We know from many of their flashbacks that these women are just as complicated as the ones who remained with the show after the riot, but Kohan chooses to bypass that in favor of a nostalgic check-in. And as much as I can’t help but think about the nuances—we never did get that Yoga Jones flashback!—I can respect the choice to focus on the positive.

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But not everything was quite so hopeful. There is one storyline in the finale that struck me as too hopeful, but mostly because of how quickly it happens off-screen: Blanca’s story was bleak when the season began, but for everything to get resolved in a single line of stilted exposition from a random lawyer felt too convenient, and Blanca’s choice to abandon her residency in the U.S. to be with Diablo too sudden. It’s a reckless decision, presented as a declaration that love is more important than personal safety or opportunity, and I just didn’t buy the motivations behind it. But perhaps it was hopeful because of how bleak a final check-in on Karla became: I didn’t think we’d be returning to her story at all, but the show made sure we knew she was trying to come back to the U.S. to see her children just so that she could get an ankle injury and be left stranded in the desert, likely to die of thirst before the Coyote returns. With Blanca and Karla, linked by the ICE storyline, the finale captures the dichotomy of hope and despair, still central to the show even in a finale that registers as uplifting overall.

It’s a duality that extends to the rest of Litchfield. In some spaces, life in Litchfield goes on not unlike the show depicted throughout its run, whether through Suzanne and Dixon’s musical ode to P-Tuck’s favorite beverage or Frieda’s own personal Groundhog Day in Florida as Red forgets who she is, remembers long enough to rage at her for selling her out, and then forgets again. Nicky, complete with red lipstick, takes over for her prison mother as she runs the ICE kitchen, helping the junkies detox and helping shield Flaca, who continues Gloria’s work helping the detainees. Ruiz reads to her daughter and works to co-parent with New Maria, with the help of the children’s book she mentioned to Gloria and which Gloria found while reconnecting with her family. Litchfield is far from a perfect place, but we leave it in a fairly stable place, with most of the characters settling into roles they’ve chosen for themselves.

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But as optimistic as all of those stories are, there’s also Aleida and Daya, whose final scene is mother strangling daughter, fighting to ensure that her other children’s aren’t caught up in the business that already cost her so much. I kept waiting for them to cut to some final grace note for the two, or at least resolving if Aleida was actually going to kill Daya, but it never came. The lesson in this story is that prison can corrupt a person beyond recognition: Aleida mentions that she hardly recognizes her daughter, and Daya responds with the show’s argument, which is that killing a man changes you in ways that you can’t understand. And there’s something to say about that—especially since she didn’t actually kill him, although she doesn’t know that—but I don’t think the show ever said it well. Daya was a character that got swept up by circumstance, and so it’s fitting that she gets swept away as the show writes off her and her mother as a cautionary tale of prison’s corruptive influence. Whatever paths they took, the Diaz family disconnected themselves from the narratives of hope that existed in Litchfield, a key part of the finale’s insistence that this is not a traditional “happy ending.”

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But underneath all of this is honestly the bleakest possible ending for this show: nothing has changed about the system that failed these women. In fact, despite the fact that Taystee’s loans program seems to be flourishing without any issue, Litchfield is now under the supervision of Warden Hellman, and no amount of chair embarrassment is going to keep him from corrupting the prison even further. What’s to stop drugs from coming in when the warden is the most corrupt, abusive force in the entire prison? How quickly will solitary confinement be reinstituted? The choice to give us that glimpse of Hellman as C.O. is deeply chilling, and reminds us that nothing about Corporate’s approach to running the prison was ever corrected. Profits still win out over people. Linda still has the power to deny any request that could meaningfully change the lives of these women, which would never get through Warden Hellman anyway. Ultimately, the only positive reform that we know for certain is being implemented at Litchfield is being run by inmates, using corporate donations, with no sense that there’s a parallel effort to convince the prison system itself to invest in these programs en masse. Combine it with the perpetual injustice being doled out at the ICE detention facility, and nothing about the world of Orange Is The New Black creates any hope for real, meaningful change that this season and the ones before it have actively pushed us to believe was necessary.

It’s a choice that makes it harder to see the hope in the stories focused on hope, and easier to give into the bleakness of the stories that lean in that direction; in the end, though, we’re meant to live in those liminal spaces, the in-between that Pennsatucky couldn’t imagine as she internalized the forces operating against inmates. It’s why Cindy’s story feels like one of the most important here: it isn’t given as much time as Piper’s, and doesn’t have the same emotional swells as Taystee’s, but Cindy is literally living in the in-between, employed but homeless, jumping from tent city to tent city. And when the story reaches its “resolution,” it isn’t Cindy moving back in with her family to live happily ever. It’s a meeting at a fast food restaurant, with the promise of more meetings, and the truth about Monica’s father, and the start of a mother-daughter relationship they never had. Because when you have that kind of baggage weighing down a family, or a prison system, or society generally, sometimes the best that you can do is start something. It won’t always work; it might even lead to failure, and self-destruction, and tragedy. But nothing comes from nothing, and there’s only hope if there’s something to pin one’s hopes on.

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As Orange Is The New Black comes to an end, it makes a case for hopefulness more than hope itself. The choice to end on a call to action for the real-life Poussey Washington fund asks the audience to connect the dots between these fictional women and the real women struggling in the prison system, who are disproportionately women of color like the show’s cast. And perhaps that’s why the show resisted imagining a world where the corporate prison system was upended, or where the injustice of immigrant detention facilities was brought down by the actions of the brave inmates working to help these women get the legal help they needed. If the show truly has a responsibility to the issues it has engaged with over its run, then resolving any of them within the comforts of a television narrative could give viewers the false impression that it will be as easy in the real world. And while Suzanne failed to prepare the chickens for the world outside of their coop, this final season was built in a way that prepared its audience to go back into our reality harboring both a desire for change and an understanding of the uphill battle that will require.I

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A lot has been written over the past few weeks about how Orange Is The New Black as the definitive Netflix series, and there is no doubt that its existence—the stories it told, how it told them, how we experienced them—was defined by its relationship to the streaming revolution. I have no intention of contradicting those pieces: the project of starting a show as one white woman’s prison experience before turning it into an indepth examination of injustice in—and beyond—the American prison industrial complex was perhaps only really possible within the wild west of Netflix, where neither advertisers nor a rigid brand identity could push back against those choices. But I also don’t want to romanticize the freedoms that made Orange Is The New Black possible, because a lack of oversight also led to tonal inconsistencies that risked undercutting the show’s strongest work, and we could go back and revisit a lot of suspect storytelling choices along the way which I do think could have been rethought within a less anarchistic creative environment.

For this reason, I realized as I came into this finale that the burden of season seven was never to “resolve” what Orange Is the New Black was, as though there was a simple answer to that question. Instead, this finale and the season that preceded it faced the task of showing us that everything about that chaotic journey was worth the moments of dissonance, or the weak supporting characters given too much time, or the garbage one-dimensional villains that the writers believed they could flesh out but never could. And while there are parts of this finale that felt off, and bits of the season that in retrospect could have been trimmed back, the writing this season was the most focused it’s been since at least season three, and in nearly every storyline I look back and think that any of the rough spots were worth reaching this point of, if not unmitigated hope, then a profound but conflicted catharsis.

In “Seasons,” the original song from Danielle Brooks that we hear performed over the end credits (and which she’s released as a single), she memorializes the experience of the series. The recording in the show itself, which seems to have been recorded live at a wrap party, is an emotional journey, Brooks’ voice cracking as she references storylines and characters while pointing to how the end of the show seems to contradict its oft-maligned (but objectively good, screw the haters) theme song. Regina Spektor insists that “You’ve Got Time,” but the truth is time runs out, and the show has to end. But while Orange Is The New Black didn’t shy away from how that time runs out for these inmates—for Pennsatucky, for Poussey—the prevailing feeling as the show ends is that there is still time. It’s the end for this amazing ensemble of actresses, yes, but the stories of struggle and heartbreak and injustice they brought to life carry on: in our imaginations, for one, but also in how we think about the issues they were connected to. I don’t want to overstate the show’s impact, given how many viewers might have failed to engage with the issues at its core or lost interest in the series during the rougher stretches, but I’m hard-pressed to think of a show that felt so deeply relevant to the world we live in as it said its goodbyes.

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And that, ultimately, means that its story will carry on beyond the narrative itself, an accomplishment that makes every up and down of this complicated journey more than worthwhile.

Stray observations

  • Fig and Caputo get a little coda that doesn’t try to do too much: they’re switched to adoption, and throw all their plans out the window when they meet a little girl singing inappropriate rap lyrics. I admire the lack of any attempt at a significant redemption for Caputo, so a quiet exit is fine.
  • Let the record show I watched and sang-along to the theme song for every episode this season, so screw you, “Skip Intro.” (Did even the haters let this version play once it was immediately clear they had made an orchestrated version of “You’ve Got Time” for the occasion? Or were you all heartless and skipped it anyway?)
  • I had forgotten until reading my old review that the legend of “The Chicken” was that it was full of drugs, so Hellman’s quick-thinking—which loses him his drugs, but does get him the job of Warden indirectly—fulfills the prophecy. Still a bit upset Red never got to see the chicken, even in her current mental state.
  • I wonder if there was any point in the script—or the episode—where one of the guards noticed that the vibrator they confiscated during the sweep was the one Daya took from the contraband room, which would have revealed it was compromised and potentially implicated Taystee. Felt like a weird loose end.
  • Speaking of loose ends: I’m curious what everyone’s most nagging loose end is. For me, I still can’t forget about when Caputo looked at Maureen’s file and made a big deal about it. What did the writers intend that to be? If anyone who was on the staff at this point wants to pop into the comments for some reason, it’s honestly tearing me up inside at this point.
  • Ugh, Larry: Just…ugh, Larry. That’s all there is to say. It’s always been all in the name.
  • There’s some comedy in Red and Frieda’s on-and-off feuding, but the situation in Florida really is pretty bleak, especially for Morello, who it just seems is getting no additional help at this point beyond medication.
  • “She had a threesome with a guard?!”—I don’t know how someone managed to flip to the dirty parts that quickly, but I did appreciate the way Judy King’s memoir offered a twist of sorts on the idea of Piper writing a similar book as her inspiration did.
  • Maybe it’s an age thing, but I definitely didn’t know the Mountain Dew jingle, but I chuckled at a clever way of cutting through some of the emotions while retaining the spirit of a memorial. A nice final “big” moment for Uzo Aduba, who never had the huge arc of the major characters but always felt key to the spirit of the piece.
  • It’s technically a bleak cameo, given it’s at the ICE detention facility, but Chang’s return is nonetheless pure comedy, and reminds us of a time when the flashbacks existed to turn one-note characters into two-note characters and then go back to ignoring them.
  • “I’m being a dick, not a vagina”—I’m relieved that Flaca’s “Clitvack” campaign didn’t create any kind of repercussions, but she’s still living dangerously.
  • Did they know it was going to be Netflix synergy when they put the Marie Kondo joke in here, I wonder?
  • So a few people in the comments have pointed out that the show took some shortcuts telling Maritza’s story—surely the federal prison system would have discovered she wasn’t a citizen, and she had a daughter that they retconned out (or forgot) to simplify her situation—but as the finale demonstrates the show wanted to celebrate the show’s ensemble, and so I’ll take the leaps necessary in order to give us another familiar face in the ICE facility. Sometimes breaking logic is productive because it heightens emotion. Most times, though, they’re just trying to attack me personally, and I can’t abide by that.
  • Where do we stand on Ghost Pennsatucky? I’m on the fence, to be honest.
  • The hits from “The Band” of Litchfield Inmates: “Squat and Cough,” “Foot Fungus,” and “Anything Can Be A Dildo (If You’re Brave Enough).” For the record, the closed captioning did not include the parentheses, but I’ve decided it’s a better joke with them, and so I would like to submit a formal correction request with ASCAP.
  • So unlike the coyote who we saw abusing Chaj, it really did seem like the man helping Karla cross the border was decent, and so is there anyone out there who wants to read that scene optimistically? I’m open to it, but it’s a hard sell for me.
  • The choice to include Pornstache in the nostalgia montage is deeply confounding to me and left a really bad taste in my mouth. I have some quibbles with some of the other choices in the finale, but that one nags at me more than any other. It’s not the only reason it’s an A- instead of an A, but it might as well be.
  • For all of the ways in which the show evolved beyond Piper, I do think it was fitting that Taylor Schilling got the final curtain call.
  • And on that subject: I realize that in writing these reviews it was sometimes easy to get caught up in the sheer scale of the ensemble to focus on or single out specific performers, but the credits at the end of the episode—moved from the beginning, likely to avoid spoiling the check-in with the missing inmates—really reinforced the sheer depth of this ensemble. From the women I knew before the show to the women the show introduced to me, they collectively made an unshakeable impact, and I look forward to hopefully seeing them in countless NYC-shot shows for the foreseeable future.
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Think of all the roads / Think of all their crossings

Orange Is The New Black has the distinction of being the first series that I’ve seen through from beginning to end here at The A.V. Club. It started with an email asking if I wanted to review the entire first season in a weekend. Once we watched it, and realized this was more House of Cards than Hemlock Grove, it turned into two episodes a week. Eventually it became an episode a day. Then 13 episodes a day. And now four-to-five episodes a day. It’s been through two editors, three commenting systems, and three different Netflix screener websites. And while a variety of factors—shifts in how we cover Netflix launches, the erosion of the show’s cultural footprint—mean that the comments aren’t the same as they used to be, I think it’s a testament to the show and its viewers that there’s a semblance of a consistent community across the seven seasons, even if it manifests in different ways.

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Accordingly, I want to thank you for being in dialogue with me on this challenging, compelling, and at times temporally infuriating television program. I’m hopeful these reviews have proven a productive resource for you to engage with the show, and if they have I hope you’ll show your appreciation by donating to the real-life Poussey Washington Fund revealed at the end of the finale. I’ve donated $1 for every episode I’ve reviewed here at the site, and while I know not everyone is in a position to contribute, I think our experience discussing the show has if nothing else demonstrated the importance of criminal justice reform to any plan to address social inequality as a whole.

Thank you for reading, and if you have any specific thoughts you want to reach with me with outside of the comments, you can reach me on Twitter or find my email with a quick Google search.

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About the author

Myles McNutt

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