The seventh and final season of Orange is the New Black began streaming on Netflix in July. Normally, I binge watch the show and finish within a week of the release date. This season I’m not sure if I wanted to savor the last bit of a show I love, or if the show messed me up each episode I watched, but I could not binge the farewell season of OITNB. Season seven is easily one of the best (maybe the best) seasons of OITNB and not just because the cast remains topnotch.
Some background for folks who don’t watch OITNB (I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but you’ve had a good amount of time to watch, fam). The show begins with a white woman, Piper Chapman, going to prison for trafficking drugs. Throughout each season, stories unfold about the various women Piper interacts with in Litchfield Penitentiary, and the show becomes less about Piper and more about these women and their lives. Many of these women are women of color, which was major when the show debuted because not many other shows had that much diversity. The show addressed the various issues women of color face when it comes to the criminal justice system of this country (there are more issues than the show has time to address). Not only does the show dive into the issues as they relate to race, but also ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and mental health, sometimes even examining the intersection of various identities. There were definitely seasons that left something to be desired from the stories told, or even the broad story of the prison, but this season wraps up most major storylines in a way that feels like a good ending to an impressive show (basically, you’ll feel some sense of closure). I can’t say there’s a happy or sad ending, but it is an action-oriented ending.
Writers for season seven of OITNB did not shy away from heavy issues, especially current issues of immigration. Much of season seven goes between the inmates at Litchfield and the women being detained by ICE down the hill from Litchfield. This story-line deviates from time frame from when Piper went to prison in season one (all seven seasons supposedly take place in an 18 month window of time), but the importance of the story outweighs the desire for a more accurate timeline. ICE and the treatment of immigrants, brown people, and undocumented people is big news right now, so naturally digging into the experiences of women of color in that space made sense of a show like OITNB. The ending of season six implies that an ICE detention center would have some role in the following season. Given how real life events played out in the year between the seasons, it’s not surprising that much of the season was dedicated to telling stories of people in ICE facilities. The stories of the women detained were probably the hardest to digest because it shows just how ugly humans can be to one another.
Don’t get me wrong, throughout OITNB there’s always the thought in the back of your mind about how, to an extent, this show is reality. People of color face marginalization all the time, whether or not it involves the justice system. Mental health issues transcend everything from the color of your skin to the money in your wallet. People who have been incarcerated struggle to get on their feet when released from prison, and it often results in them going right back. None of this information was new when the show presented it, and it will probably remain true long after the show. Yet somehow watching the final season deal with the complexities of immigration, me too, suicide, education, programming within prisons, and the ripples caused by our actions was unsettling.
In 13 episodes, OITNB takes you on an adventure through the lives of a few women being detained by ICE, the live of a woman wrongly accused, the live of women trying to go back to normal life after incarceration, the lives of women trying to get their education while in prison, a variety of mental health struggles for some women, and the lives of a family being destroyed by drugs. Some light story-lines for your summer binge. As serious as the show is, each episode is not an hour of doom and gloom (there is a lot of that, but read the news, it’s mostly doom and gloom too). Fortunately, the show has lightheartedness with appropriately timed jokes and glimpses of hope in that changes can be made to the system and society with time and people working to make the change (hint, be a person trying to help fix the broken system). Throughout the season, characters do small things to help in various ways: calling families of ICE detainees, directing one another to resources for mental health issues, tutoring inmates trying to earn GEDs, and so on. These small acts of kindness somehow elevate the show, especially through all the pressure points of the season.
By the end of the series, you know the majority of the characters. Because of the storytelling, you understand their motivations as well as how the system may have screwed them over. You feel sympathy and empathy for many, but you feel nothing for others. You watch how a series of small decisions can lead down a dark path. You see love in a variety of forms and how prison fosters unlikely relationships. And somewhat importantly, when you watch Orange is the New Black you get to watch a woman led show full of people from all walks of life.
A show about prison isn’t groundbreaking. A show about a WASPy woman isn’t special. A show that highlights the experiences of people of color is groundbreaking, especially when those people are being represented by people of color. A show that shares how messy the intersection of identities can be is special. Orange is the New Black proved that representation matters with the production team, in stories told, and in who portrays those stories in the content we consume. Perhaps what is most bittersweet about OITNB ending is that it laid the foundation for other shows to share the stories and experiences of non-white people with diverse casts.