When Orange Is the New Black debuted in the summer of 2013, it was only Netflix’s third original series, but it became an instant standard-bearer for how streaming could revolutionize television. The recent cancellations of One Day at a Time and Tuca and Bertie—two critically acclaimed, bracingly contemporary shows—have put a dent in Netflix’s hype about itself as a different kind of network, one that prizes creative freedom above all. (One Day at a Time, at least, will resume its run on Pop TV.) But OITNB was indeed revolutionary, if far from unassailable, in its first season, when it used the Trojan horse of an upper-middle-class white blonde entering prison as a starting point to telling the stories of the types of women who seldom get to be the center of the narrative: women of color, immigrant women, queer women, poor women, older women, women with addictions, women with mental illness, women with intellectual disabilities, and so on. Though female protagonists have flourished on TV, recent shows celebrated for their depictions of women’s lives—Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer, Fleabag, Big Little Lies—have seldom showcased diversity among women. With its seventh and final season, OITNB leaves the air a pioneer that hardly any other series has caught up to—and with some of its best episodes in years.
Orange Is the New Black has always been resolute in its ambitions. Season 4, its last truly great season, explored how Litchfield Penitentiary’s privatization made its inmates’ lives even more intolerable by treating them as commodities from which to extract profit. Season 5, the show’s low point, was nonetheless an admirable gambit: immersion within a 72-hour prison riot. Season 6 delineated the differences between minimum and maximum security by transferring several characters to the latter. The current season is no less striving, tackling the humiliations of immigration detention, the challenges of parole, the despair of life sentences, the near-impossibility of reform, the benefits of restorative justice, and, oh why not, a model of post-#MeToo redemption.* It isn’t OITNB until the density of themes and characters makes the show start to feel slightly claustrophobic.
Season 6 ended with Piper (Taylor Schilling) released from prison, but viewers who’ve been waiting since the beginning for the show to cast its Trojan horse aside will be disappointed. In fact, the show spends more time with Piper than it has since the first season, as Piper adjusts to life after incarceration and a long-distance relationship with her wife, Alex (Laura Prepon), who remains behind bars. Though Piper struggles to stay sober and steadily employed, the parallel release of another inmate who doesn’t have a sibling with a unused bedroom or a father who can readily give her an office job underscores Piper’s relatively fantastical luck. Our protagonist is, as ever, relatably annoying. But the scenes of her at an outdoor retreat or a fancy gala give the prison—a setting we’ve grown accustomed to over seven seasons—a jarring new counterpoint. And even Litchfield, where corrupt correctional officers constantly weigh which laws they’re willing and unwilling to break, feels like a haven of law and order compared to the ICE detention center, where the guards can act with complete and terrifying impunity.
After shearing off much of the tertiary cast, Season 7 smartly focuses on the core characters, to give them the sendoffs that their backstories have primed us for. The life sentences that Taystee (series standout Danielle Brooks) and Daya (Dascha Polanco) received for their purported roles in the prison riot send them on wildly disparate trajectories, though both involve enabling the flow of drugs into Litchfield. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) watches the two most important people in her life—her surrogate mom Red (Kate Mulgrew) and her ex-girlfriend Lorna (Yael Stone)—fall apart without adequate medical care. Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Maria (Jessica Pimentel), and former warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) are confronted with new ways of thinking about their pasts. (Caputo’s reckoning with his sexual harassment of an ex-employee feels a bit like the show grappling with its own earlier miscalculations.) But the two most wrenching moments belong to the ICE storylines, in which freed convict Maritza (Diane Guerrero) gets caught up in a demonstrably worse system than prison, and a new character, Karla (Karina Arroyave), exemplifies some of the most unjust plights of our current border horrors.
OITNB’s writers deftly handle many of the character developments alongside the nauseating realities of mass incarceration. But the efforts to leaven the tone as things get worse for the inmates feel even more grating than in previous seasons. The show’s humor is key to its appeal, but in the weaker midseason episodes, it can feel like spoonfuls of sugar to make the pedantic bitterness go down. Worse, the writers tend to write the same kinds of jokes and give the same points of references to a huge swath of the characters, no matter their background or level of assimilation. I guess it’s supposed to be winkingly ironic, or maybe even progressive, that immigrant characters coded as poor or working-class reference “open-plan architecture” and “mixed-media sculpture,” but for me it only underscored the lack of diversity in the show’s writers’ room. Another new character—perhaps OITNB’s first of Middle Eastern descent—becomes such an assemblage of Orientalist tropes that it completely torpedoes her otherwise moving storyline.
So far ahead, and yet not forward enough—that’s the way Orange Is the New Black came in, and the way it leaves. (If that seems nitpicky, blame the sky-high standards the show set for itself.) And yet for all its faults, it’s difficult to think of another show that stares so unblinkingly at the most egregious excesses of American capitalism and bureaucracy and injustice, and does so while rarely losing sight of the humanity of the people, especially the women, involved. That it managed to do all this while becoming Netflix’s most popular original series suggests that audiences are ready for something new in their entertainment choices. Orange Is the New Black arrived one of a kind. Hopefully it won’t stay that way for long.
Correction, July 29, 2019: This article originally misstated that two characters were given the death penalty. They were sentenced to life in prison.