Orange is the New Black debuted its final season last week and the TV Team took some time to reflect on its legacy including, of course, its unprecedented inclusion of queer characters.
Today, the only two TV Team members who still participate in the annual OITNB Holiday Binge Ritual Weekend — Carmen and Riese — are here to talk about what they witnessed and how it all wrapped up.
Riese: Well, we had our last Orange is the New Black weekend binge ceremony! How do you feel?
Carmen: To be honest, I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel when I started this season. I had a lot of butterflies when the theme music started on the first episode. (Side Note: Am I the only one who has a bit of Stockholm Syndrome for “You’ve Got Time”? I remember really hating it in the early years, but this time when the familiar notes first hit, I couldn’t help but tear up! ANYWAY! Enough about me!) There are few shows that I have loved with the ferocity that I loved Orange is the New Black, and there are exactly zero shows that have broken my heart the way this show did. So when it came to the final season, I was trying to prepare myself for anything.
I have to admit right away: By the time we hit the final montage, I was barely holding it together. When they got to the scenes where we caught up with Big Boo, Yoga, and Norma? My heart was caught in my throat. When the camera panned to Janae running outside with Alison keeping time and Soso walking just ahead of them? I jumped up and down in my bed like some kind of tween! I fist pumped the air! Then I openly sobbed. I felt so settled to know that they were OK, out there in the world. Their lives had continued. The last time we saw them, it was in the midst of trauma. This was healing.
Riese: I was wondering when we’d see them again and wow my heart skipped a beat when Soso and Watson popped up, like seeing old friends! Who I wish we’d still had on the show instead of all those new white characters in Max!
Carmen: The last season was far from perfect, and I didn’t love how they wrapped up every character, but the final minutes really impacted me, and it left a real impact on how I reflect back on the rest of the season.
Riese: For sure. Also, I dare you to watch the 19-minute “Orange Forever” featurette Netflix casually suggested I experience and try not to cry. I don’t know there’s ever been another show where there were this many characters I cared for so deeply — or a show besides The L Word with this many queer women characters. But I was also really moved by the actors talking about how they’d been struggling to get cast for so many years when this job came along — I’m sad we lived in a world where Uzo Aduba and Selenis Leyva and Jessica Pimentel weren’t getting jobs.
Carmen: Well Netflix clearly doesn’t love me, because they didn’t suggest that featurette! I agree though, by far the strength of Orange is the New Black has been the depth of its cast. Hopefully, that will be their legacy. I mean, they won the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Ensemble in a Comedy Series for three years in a row for a reason. Do you remember when Viola Davis became the first black woman to win a Best Actress in a Drama Emmy? She said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” That’s what I think of when I think about this cast. There are so many supremely talented women of color actors who just need someone to give them a shot.
Carmen: I’m curious, where would you rank the final season, compared to OITNB’s previous outings? Obviously, nothing for me will be as painful as Seasons Four and Five, when the show really lost itself to what amounted to torture porn and, in my opinion, betrayed its queer and people of color viewers. I was pretty surprised that Season Six found its way back to firmer ground. For me, the final season lands somewhere in the middle.
Riese: I think so, too, and I’m not sure where I’d rank it. — I think they effectively accomplished what Season One also did pretty well too, which was expose the cracks and earthquakes and deadly canyons of the system without subjecting us to a hopeless parade of women getting beaten down literally and figuratively over and over and over again with minimal hope on the horizon. This season approached old themes and some new ones too: the difficulty building a new post-release life on parole or with a felony conviction, the impact of solitary confinement on the human body/soul, how one copes with the death sentence of a life sentence and, of course, the inhumane horrors of ICE and Trump’s current immigration policies. The interpersonal relationships definitely had a “winding down” feeling to them that was inherently less edge-of-your-seat compelling than rising conflict, and a lot of the flashbacks felt inconsequential. But I rarely felt subjected to torture porn in the way I have felt in previous seasons — although honestly showing us Karla stranded in the desert at the end of that episode was a big WTF moment? Like… why??
Carmen: I absolutely, positively hated what they did with Karla! I think her story was heartbreaking enough, they could have left it with her goodbye phone call with her sons.
Riese: Yeah they sure could have!
Carmen: I appreciated following Karla’s arc and the personal face it gave to child separation, even though I always knew going in that it was going to end with her losing her case. I had no need to see her crossing back across the desert, especially if they were going to leave her stranded and injured! What is the point of leaving her like that, alone and facing certain death?
Riese: I was also surprised that they weighed down this season with two inmate deaths — and killing Daddy in the first episode? How are you gonna go and kill another masculine-of-center lesbian of color after how mad we got the first time? What the hell, show?
Carmen: I AM STILL PISSED!! And not just because of my well-documented Daddy Thirst from last summer! I cannot believe that this is how they chose to open their final season, by proving that they had learned nothing from their most defining mistake!
Riese: Yes I would like to also hold space for my Daddy Thirst.
Carmen: I understand the overarching storytelling choice to remove the “new” characters and focus on the core cast in the final season, but why didn’t they just transfer Daddy to another prison like they did Badison? Or give her early release? Their options were endless.
Riese: I would also like to hold space for how relieved I was that they got Badison out of the show. When she swaggered up to the plate in the first episode and opened her mouth and words began coming out of her mouth I was like Oh for fuck’s sake.
Carmen: I was so happy to see her go! And, I mean, obviously I didn’t have the same emotional connection to Daddy’s death as Poussey’s, that goes without saying. Thankfully the writers decided to kill her off-camera, unlike some of their other more gruesome choices in past years. Ultimately, by mid-season my mind wasn’t focused on Daddy anymore at all. But still, it was shortsighted and incredibly disappointing.
Riese: Is… Daya dead? I can’t tell what we were supposed to think there. LezWatchTV added her to their death database.
Carmen: No. I didn’t read her final scene as being her dying at all! First of all, I refuse to live in a world where Aleiada would kill her own daughter – even Daya. That goes against everything we’ve learned about her character. This is a woman who landed back in prison because she was protecting her daughter from a predator! Aleida screws up royally, but there’s one thing we learned from her flashback, it’s that she never wanted to repeat the same mistakes of her own mother. She never wanted to actively harm her kids.
Second, the guard was running right towards them! In a crowded, open room full of people! It takes longer than that to choke someone. I read Daya and Aleida’s final scene as confirmation that their relationship will continue on as toxic and violent as it has been. It’s a depressing full circle from the first episode of the show, when Aleida slaps Daya on her first day inside.
Riese: I appreciate this perspective because I was shocked to see it listed as a death! Speaking of death! Tiffany’s overdose. So. Total body count for this show: Tricia, Poussey, Maureen, Vee, Rosa, Barb, Carol, Daddy, Doggett and two guards. Not out of line for a show about prison but still. Damn.
Carmen: Karla’s scene and Tiffany Dogget’s overdose were two of the most glaring missteps of the season for me. I feel so conflicted about Doggett’s overdose! It caught me completely by surprise. I didn’t necessarily believe throughout the season that Taystee was going to die by suicide, but the graduation episode was the closest I came. She convinced Tamika to bring in Storky’s – which she had told Daya earlier in the season was her final meal of choice. Her lawyer told her that her case had no future because Suzanne wasn’t a reliable witness and Cindy was nowhere to be found. She said goodbye to everybody. It was already the end of the season, so I was sincerely worried.
And at the last minute – it was Doggett instead.
Riese: Because I am a fool who never learns from her mistakes but also an idiot with a lot of trust issues, I was both completely terrified and completely confident they wouldn’t kill Taystee.
Carmen: I don’t know if I believe that Doggett overdosed intentionally, but maybe she did. To be honest, I think Orange is the New Black failed Tiffany Doggett. She was a joke because of her rural poverty, then she was raped and fell in love with her rapist. When it looked like she was finally going to have agency and a happy ending, it was snatched from her hands. Then she died. Doggett was never my favorite character, but this felt terribly unfair.
Riese: I thought a lot about that Shawshank Redemption line about how you “gotta give em hope” this season. Although the new warden was eventually fired, I enjoyed the refreshing break for several episodes where programs were taking place that gave inmates something constructive to do besides just destroy each other out of restlessness. I think sometimes television does have an obligation to deliver a narrative that models how things could potentially get better instead of doubling down on the most dramatic narratives possible wherein everything gets incredibly worse. Like how Glee eventually made the choice to turn the high school football players into Kurt’s defenders rather than his attackers, as per the general coming out trope, which I think had a genuine impact on culture. I know this is a totally different scenario with different stakes, but you know what I mean?
Carmen: I think I do, yes. It’s like in our Orange is the New Black roundtable last week, Drew wrote “it would be disingenuous to end on an entirely happy note. We can’t pretend like prisons have been abolished, we can’t even pretend like prison abolition is even in the near future of this country” – so then, what does hope look like in this situation?
I think that, despite the odds, Orange is the New Black ended by finding that balance. For some of the women, a “happy ending” was finding peace with the help of their chosen families on the inside. For Nicky, it was growing up after losing Red and Lorna, and deciding to become a kitchen mom to a family of her own. Flaca decides to honor Martiza by helping more immigrant women. Gloria is released and reunited with her kids and grandchild. For Cindy, it was fighting back against recidivism and homelessness. Even Lorna and Red are there to comfort each other in their own way. Then of course there’s Piper and Alex. I’ve never been a fan of their relationship – but the final shot on Alex’s smile? It got me.
Riese: Yeah it was cute! Again, I know it’s a different situation but I oddly found myself relating to Piper for the first time ever on just one specific circumstance, which is the disorientating nature and logistical nightmare of designing your life around visiting your girlfriend during visitation hours at the not-conveniently-located facility where your girlfriend lives! (From when my then-girlfriend was institutionalized.) We’ve seen a lot of visitation scenes throughout, but it’s usually not twentysomething girlfriends who we follow out to the bus stop afterwards. It was always so disorienting to walk out of that locked, controlled environment to the train stop, surrounded by everyday people doing everyday things. Or when Alex got her hands on a cell phone! Every now and then my then-girlfriend was able to score a phone and it was like Christmas. So that kinda hit me in the gut.
Carmen: A lot of queer women were first drawn into Orange because of Piper and Alex’s relationship, but to keep it real – I always kind of hated them. Part of that was because I always hated Piper, I’m sure, but their relationship was toxic from the start in a way I couldn’t root for. Which is why I was so surprised by how moved I was with their prison wedding in Season Six! Season Seven continued that trend. I was so touched by watching them try to navigate (and mess up! and try again!) finding a new, healthier terrain for their relationship now that Piper was on the outside.
Carmen: Were you surprised that the show didn’t end with Piper writing the book? Orange is the New Black is based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, so I always thought Piper Chapman getting out and writing about her experience was a forgone conclusion.
Riese: I sure was! I thought that’s exactly what would happen next. But I think at this point Kerman and Chapman’s similarities have vanished into the ether. Kerman is a better and more socially conscious person than Chapman, you know? Realistically it wouldn’t be consistent for her to suddenly start caring deeply for anybody besides herself. Once she’s gone, the only inmate she still even thinks about is Alex.
Speaking of questioning the system though — I really wanted Suzanne’s interrogation of her fundamental trust of the criminal justice system to go somewhere further than it did. I was really hopeful about it.
Carmen: Yeah, I was struck by how meditative and thoughtful this season was! Between Suzzane’s personal interrogation of the faults of the criminal justice system, Caputo’s Restorative Justice classes, Tamika starting an education program, and the (admittedly heavy handed) analogy of the chicken coops, there were a lot of productive avenues to explore about how we think about prison reform. I’m glad Orange is the New Black got those conversations started, but given the slower pace of this season, and the fact that it was their absolute last opportunity – I agree that they could have dug deeper.
In particular, Suzanne’s scene with her mother, when she asks “Do I deserve to be in here?” just broke my heart. It was such a pitch perfect breakdown and distillation of all the ways we often mistakenly associate guilt with punishment. I think the intention was for Suzanne’s exploration to continue through her treatment of the chickens. Lolly (welcome back, Lori Petty!) points out to Suzanne that she’s essentially creating a chicken SHU and that it’s cruel and unusual punishment. Suzanne eventually learns the point, and I loved the scene when she and Taystee let the chickens back out into the fresh air, but I think the connective storyline was a bit muddled. Which is too bad.
Riese: Let’s talk about ICE and the detention center, which I thought they put into the main narrative in a really effective way, bringing us back to familiar characters through unexpected routes while introducing a limited number of new narratives. On the lightest note possible, they also gave Nicky a new love interest, Shani! It was sweet, revealing a softer side of Nicky and giving her some lightness amid a lot of loss. The top v top thing was funny until I realized where it was probably leading, but I felt that development was handled delicately and tenderly, both within the story and between the two women. It was a hard season for Nicky, but she also grew a lot.
Carmen: I definitely didn’t realize where we were going with Shani’s plot until we got there. I completely bought into the top verses top narrative and didn’t question it. I think it’s great that OITNB told the story of a Muslim queer woman before they took their final bow. Though it’s very important to note that not all Muslim women, and not all women from Africa, are required to go through genital mutilation. I wouldn’t want anyone watching the show to walk away thinking that! Still, I agree with you, it was handled so sweetly and delicately. I was touched by Nicky’s tenderness and care for Shani, we haven’t seen her show that side of herself with any other lover except Lorna. I also appreciated that we got to see Shani’s life in Egypt – that she lived in a city, that she had an Instagram account, and a girlfriend. It’s vital and further helps break down the one-dimensional stereotypes that we often receive about Muslim women from television.
Riese: Agreed. And I cried when Maritza and Flaca reunited!
Carmen: I was so thankful to not only see Maritza back, but to have her back with Flaca! I’ll never forget their Season Five goodbye outside of the prison buses when they realized they were going to be separated. There’s something about the way that characters from Orange is the New Black have felt so lived in over the years that even now, having not seen or heard from Maritza since 2017, it felt like being reunited with family. That familiarity was used effectively with the ICE storylines. It hurt to be brought back with Martiza, only to lose her again so suddenly. But that was the entire point – and I think they did it well.
Carmen: I also think it was intentional that Martiza thought she was born in the United States; Diane Guerrero is a DREAM Act activist and was born in the United States, but grew up here alone after the rest of her family was deported. The truth is that if Orange is the New Black was going to be serious about discussing the prison industrial complex and mass incarceration, then we were going to have to talk about ICE and the privatization of detention centers. Without it, we were never going to get a complete picture – they’re connected arms of the same beast.
I think a lot of people will assume that this storyline was brought on by the recent media focus on deplorable and inhumane conditions of the detention centers at our borders, but actually Jenji Kohan first made this storyline decision in 2017. Having the storyline finally come to fruition in 2019 meant that no matter how awful Orange is the New Black depicted life for these immigrant women, we already know that the reality is unspeakably worse.
Riese: I mean when shit is so bad that Fig actually feels moved to take a risk to offer help to a pregnant woman in the center and when prisoners down the hill have more access to resources than you do… it’s just despicable. And that facility was pretty decent compared to what we know about the situation at many detention centers / concentration camps now.
Carmen: To be frank, I find it really hard to talk about immigration centers and ICE. Mostly because it’s near impossible for me to do so without crying. What’s happening right now is a crisis. I’m thankful that Orange is the New Black took precious time out of its final season to focus on it. Ultimately, I think they did so smartly and effectively – by once again putting the stories and humanity of women of color at the center of their narrative.
Riese: I really feel like they left us in this story they’d barely started to tell, putting it on us to keep up with it in the real world. It’s a story that I think is arguably the United States’ most pressing humanitarian issue / crisis right now.
Carmen: I’m also SUPREMELY GRATEFUL for Blanca’s happy ending. I rarely root for straight couples – but Blanca and Diablo? Turns out that they are my Orange is the New Black OTP.
Riese: No, I agree.
Carmen: I hope they are happy in the Dominican Republic, eating moro de habichuelas and having lots of great kinky sex.
Riese: I would love that for them! So, we both wanted exoneration for Taystee this season, and we… didn’t get it. I was gonna have to light my television on fire if she killed herself, but thankfully she did not.
Carmen: 100% I was going light my TV on fire and then I was going to riot. I was prepared.
Riese: I like where she ended up, though — throughout the series it’s been suggested that Taystee is a deft, patient and talented teacher and it’s good to see her in a position where she can put those skills to use, while working towards a broader goal with her microloans initiative.
Carmen: I completely agree! When Orange is the New Black first introduced “The Poussey Washington Memorial Fund” via their cast’s Twitter and Social Media accounts the night the new season dropped, I rolled my eyes.
Riese: Yeah, same.
Carmen: I appreciated the fund’s dedication to support criminal justice and immigration justice organizations that help disenfranchised women like those we’ve spent the last seven years getting to know, but I also couldn’t shake the way that it felt like a cheap ploy. The introduction of the Poussey Washington Fund from within the show, that Taystee is naming her microloans initiative after her lost best friend, worked a lot better for me.
Earlier we talked about how disappointing it was to see Orange is the New Black start their season by killing off another masculine-of-center lesbian of color – which is still emphatically true – but, this ending felt right. It felt right that if Taystee wasn’t going to be exonerated (which is still my preferred ending), that she was going to be able to do such good in this world.
It felt right that a show that caused such harm with the murder of Poussey Washington ended its legacy by saying her name.