Warning: "Orange Is the New Black" series finale spoilers ahead.
It would have been easier for “Orange Is the New Black” to end two seasons ago; clearer to focus only on the injustice its inmates experienced; and simpler to avoid the daring portrayal of a prison riot.
It also would have been a mistake.
The final season of one of Netflix’s flagship originals is now steaming, and it proves series creator Jenji Kohan didn’t take us to Litchfield six years ago solely for the sensationalized look at life inside a New York prison. She had much more to say, and used the opportunity of a final run to drive home seeds planted in the early, beloved seasons.
That’s become gravely apparent following the finale, which managed to balance the drama with critical commentary on criminal justice reform, sexual harassment, immigration and more in an effort to incite real change.
"Every year … we talk about our goals, about issues we want to write about, about stories we want to tell," Kohan told The New York Times ahead of the season’s premiere. "It’s a call to awareness, a call to empathy and a call to feel injustice and want to do something about it."
In 13 episodes, “Orange” squeezed in one last opportunity to expose its viewers — 105 million between 2013 and 2019, according to the streaming service — to discussions of sexism, consent, suicide, racism and drug abuse. It got political with the first inclusion of an ICE detention center, and timely with a #MeToo plotline.
Somehow, it managed to not bury its beloved characters in its myriad messages.
Some got the silver-lining goodbyes we’ve long hoped for them — like leads Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon), who wed in prison and patched up old wounds; Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), who followed in the footsteps of her guardian Red (Kate Mulgrew), as the kitchen’s new head chef; and Taystee (Danielle Brooks), who ended up fighting for her life instead of taking it. Others — like a deceased Doggett (Taryn Manning), a deported Maritza (Diane Guerrero), and a dementia-ridden Red — were dealt painful farewells.
“Orange’s” goodbye reinforced a hard-to-face truth: Some people change (Ruiz, Nicky), but most never do (Daya, Luschek).
The endings several characters are dealt are unfair at best. "Orange" brought back Maritza after writing her out of the series in season 5 only to send her back to prison and deport her. Taystee was teased by the hope of overturning her wrongful conviction for the death of a guard, and crushed with a denial once again. Doggett spent the season bettering herself by studying for her GED test, only to overdose on drugs. A once powerful Red is crippled by dementia.
But a dose of reality is entirely what makes “Orange” great. When you return to its core, it’s clear it has consistently pushed against the easy way out.
When it came into the streaming scene — limited in terms of original content in 2013 — it was a pioneer. With a cast almost entirely comprised of women, it was years ahead of the industry’s Time’s Up push for inclusion. It offered a nuanced portrayal of queer women, with some viewers claiming the series helped them accept their own sexuality. And by casting actress Laverne Cox in a major role, it led to the first trans person ever nominated for an Emmy, in 2014.
In all, “Orange” has found a way to tell stories that we needed to hear, through its casting or its script — no matter how painful the on-screen results.
In season 3, Doggett was repeatedly raped by a guard while the camera locked in on her face, forcing the viewer to look into the eyes of a victim of sexual abuse. Season 4 delivered the crushing death of Poussey (Samira Wiley), at the hands of a guard, and the swastika branding on Piper’s arm. Season 5’s drama led to the crashing of the gavel with a corrupt justice system finding Taystee guilty of a crime she didn’t commit.
Admittedly, the road to the season 7 finale was bumpy. Along the way, “Orange” fell victim to the mid-series slump (in seasons 5 and 6), outgrew its lead (Piper’s privilege became dull amid characters experiencing injustice) and backed itself into a plot corner (by way of the riot).
Though Netflix does not make its total viewership numbers available, criticism from fans and critics suggested the series may have lost a chunk of its loyal bingers after its fourth season.
In its fifth season riot — an experimental run that unfolded in real-time — the series managed to literally blow up its chances at a long-term future. It was deemed somewhat of a failed experiment by several critics and totaled the series’ lowest Rotten Tomatoes rating in all (70%, compared to a consistent mid-90s percentage seasons 1-4).
The season that advanced little put power in the hands of its inmates. They fought against unfair treatment following Poussey’s death, but ended up murdering a guard and clouding their message. Ultimately, they failed to incite change and destroyed any opportunity for a return to the unruly world they once knew.
When “Orange” returned with its sixth season, it split up its oversized cast, dropping several characters from its storyline as it was forced to move to a new maximum-security prison. The change led to critics calling for its cancellation — encouraging Netflix to end it while it can, rather than get bogged down with new characters it can’t commit to.
Instead, the series trekked onward and introduced, in its penultimate season, a new group of inmates who monopolized screen time with drama that predated much of its primary cast.
Perhaps admitting the mistake, the writers managed to suck up our screen time with these newbies — like Carol (Henny Russell) and Barb (Mackenzie Phillips) — and kill them off mere episodes later. Those newcomers who did survive into the final season were either axed (Vicci Martinez’s Daddy) or shipped off (Amanda Fuller’s Badison) within the first few episodes.
Shedding its excess, the series was able to shift back to a compelling plotline and free up space to tackle topical conversations, just in time to say an impactful goodbye.
In a triumphant end, Kohan gave her characters the chance to inspire change in the actual criminal justice system in a way the riot never did within its fictional walls. To solidify its legacy, "Orange" introduced the Poussey Washington Fund, benefiting eight preexisting nonprofits backing criminal justice reform, protecting immigrants’ rights and fighting to end mass incarceration.
“Orange” stuck around through the bad times, and we’re glad it did.