The final season of Orange is the New Black is a solid, back to basics run of episodes that puts the focus squarely on the original main characters. Quickly dispensed with are the newbies from last year (Daddy is done away with pretty early and ditto Murphy, thank god), in favor of final flashbacks for Piper, Alex, Gloria, Red, Lorna, Maria, Doggett, Flores and even a last glimpse of the dearly departed Poussey. It’s a touchingly bittersweet season that gives us unambiguous endings for most of the characters, even if they’re not all happy by any means.
The one new innovation this season is an extended ICE storyline, as Blanca Flores is transported to an immigrant detention center, where she’s quickly joined by Maritza (Diane Guerrero) and then a mini-reunion with the Litchfield prisoners as Red and Gloria are brought in to work the kitchen at the center with their own followers. I’ll forgive a little contrivance in that department, since the stories of the immigrants are weaved in seamlessly and the cruelty of ICE and the immigration court madness is so relevant right now and needs to be seen to be believed. There is no exaggeration in the telling of these women’s stories, and it even leads to the first ever sympathetic storyline for Fig, as she’s now placed in a thankless job as an ICE paper pusher.
Meanwhile, Taryn Manning’s Piper is now back on the outside and struggling to rebuild her relationships with her family, meet the demands of her parole officer and figure out how to stay in her marriage to Alex (Laura Prepon), who still has three years left to go on her sentence. Not surprisingly, things get rocky between the two of them pretty fast, as potential other romances spring up and the two of them get one last storyline in their still groundbreaking portrayal as the central same sex couple in a long running series. Back at the prison, CO Tamika Ward is hired by Linda as the new warden, and she’s the first to actually try to improve conditions, by abolishing solitary confinement and instituting new programs for the inmates, like GED classes and restorative justice therapy. This leads to several intriguing self-improvement plots like Doggett finding out she’s dyslexic, Maria facing down the victims of her former reign of terror and Caputo coming back to teach class at the prison while also solidifying his now oddly functional relationship with Fig and dealing with a MeToo inspired story regarding a former CO.
Some other inmates are released this season (Cindy for example, who slowly grew on me over the series and is one of the ones to show most growth as a character), while Danielle Brooks’ Tastee must come back to face life in prison after her devastating conviction last season. Tastee remains much of the heart of the series, as seeing her broken in this manner is new, but her old friend Tamika tries to help her out of her slump to find seek sort of light, while Daya goes down the opposite path from where she started and deals with her life sentence by becoming the reigning drug lord of the prison, much to the consternation of her still crazy mother Aleida. The show finds a way to give everyone their moment in the spotlight, from Suzanne to Nicky and Caputo, with sad ends for some (Dogget, Red and Lorna) and brighter ones for others (Gloria, Blanca, Piper), all with regard to the system that dishes out deserving and undeserving fates in equal measure. Or not so equal, as OITNB has never ignored the class/racial discrimination faced by those who suffer in this system under the so-called hand of the law. Even through its uneven arcs, I found substantive stories to enjoy and grab onto in every one of its seven seasons, and as one of Netflix’s flagship shows, it’s never dropped the ball as far as I’m concerned. Now It goes out on top. Brava, ladies.