Warning: ‘Orange is the new Black’ season six spoilers ahead.
Last week, when reviewing season six of Orange Is The New Black, I hinted that the series looks like it’s beginning to wrap everything up — which is clearly the right decision. The season featured major changes for mainstay characters (ranging from longer sentences to surprise releases to everything in between), most of which ultimately culminated in the pretty good 90-minute finale.
Although season six was a marked improvement over five, there was still plenty that didn’t work, and largely because of how hard it is to juggle so many characters and storylines. Granted, Orange generally handles this better than any other show would, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s drowning in simply too much. Some storylines don’t get the attention they deserve, while others are pointlessly drawn out.
There was the continued emphasis on the Litchfield guards — an emphasis that too often pulled the focus away from the Litchfield inmates. Orange has often struggled with how exactly to approach the correction officers (starting from the gross way they painted Bennett and Daya as a romantic love affair, mostly ignoring the power dynamics) because it wants to both humanize and demonize them, but has never been able to find the correct balance.
This season further attempts to depict how abusive the prison system can be, with multiple episodes showing the guards violently punishing some of the women for their roles in the riot, especially Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Taystee (Danielle Brooks). There’s also the “Fantasy Inmate” game running throughout the season, in which the Max guards mimic fantasy football by “drafting” inmates. Throughout the “season,” they gain points when their picks are involved in everything from minor prison infractions to suicide. And, of course, the guards can goad them along even if that’s against the rules. (The major result of this game? Gloria (Selenis Leyva) discovered it, tried and failed to expose them — in a pretty great monologue — but just ended up in the SHU.)
Part of why they play the game, one guard explains, is because “when they’re swinging at each other, they’re not looking at us.” This theme — the guards’ fear while working in a prison — is also seen in McCullough’s PTSD plot, which is interesting on paper but never really went anywhere. We see her disproportionately reacting to what she perceives as danger (the kickball popping, for example) and we see her coping strategy: self-harm in the form of burning herself with lit cigarettes. Then there’s the speech she gives CO Ward (Susan Heyward), about how the inmates are “horrible people who have hurt me” but also “regular people who just want to play a game.” It’s fine, but it doesn’t seem wholly necessary — Orange has already explored this dichotomy time and time again. Really, it just serves to push Ward to reevaluate her own words and actions against her former friend, Taystee, and to go attend the trial.
Taystee’s trial is part of the problem with the extra focus spent on guards: It’s easily the best storyline of the series, but it’s completely sidelined, which only highlights how much time was given to lesser arcs. Taystee is facing a murder charge for Piscatella — who was accidentally shot by another CO last season, but they staged a cover-up — because she was seen pointing a gun at him, and because the prison needs to punish someone to help their image. There is so much here to be explored: there’s the cover-up itself; the nameless ACLU and Black Lives Matter supporters who fight for Taystee; what’s happening outside the courtroom (what’s the media coverage like? What do outsiders think?); the actual trial itself (we don’t see testimony from other inmates, nor do we even see Taystee’s lawyer’s final argument; and, most crucially, Taystee’s thoughts as everything is going on.
There are some great moments, like Taystee’s own powerful and affecting testimony (she wants the guard who killed Poussey up there “telling you why he murdered an innocent person, instead of me explaining why I didn’t kill a guilty one”) but they come and go so briefly that it leaves viewers yearning to know more. It’s such a disservice to not give this storyline the attention it deserves — and doubly so considering how much race played a factor in everything. Even when Taystee ultimately gets convicted, in a scene that Brooks acts the hell out of, the story doesn’t linger on Taystee’s reaction (the next time we see her, she’s heading back to prison). It jumps to Caputo confronting the actual killer, continuing the season’s trend of showing Taystee’s trial not through her eyes but largely through Caputo. We see more of his investment in Taystee’s life than her own. At one point, when she’s breaking down about the utter hopelessness of her situation and how Poussey will never get justice, he flips it back to himself. “I quit my job over you,” Caputo tells her, before emphasizing that he’s finally — after Taystee’s plea last season — saying Poussey’s name. It feels more self-congratulatory than anything else. This isn’t supposed to be Caputo’s story; Taystee isn’t supposed to be a bit character.
There are a few perplexing moments in the finale, such as the end of the Carol (Henny Russell) and Barb (Mackenzie Phillips) feud. No one dies on the kickball field (I do love that Orange chose not to end with bloodshed, but with the women actually having fun and experiencing joy similar to season three’s lake finale), but instead the sisters kill each other. Sure, Carol and Barb were fun throughout the season but ultimately, what was really the point of them? And also: What’s really the point of Badison (Amanda Fuller), who mostly serves as an annoying foil to Piper? Sure, it’s a setup for a new leader to rise among the C and D blocks (Badison will certainly try to be one) but it doesn’t feel as urgent or necessary as it should.
But I do credit Orange with successfully setting up season seven — and the hints that it’ll be over soon. For one, Piper (Taylor Schilling) gets a surprise early release (thanks to a guard trying to cover his own ass), and the show does a good job at showing her hesitance to leave behind Alex (Laura Prepon) and the prison life she got used to, as well as her uncertainty about the future. (I also enjoyed the references to writing a memoir, in which Orange came full circle to its source material, and I wonder if that’ll play a role next season.) Sophia (Laverne Cox) also gets an early release as part of a settlement to not testify about her abuse in prison. And then there’s the gut-punch of Blanca (Laura Gómez), a character who started as something of a joke but was slowly and confidently developed into a multi-dimensional woman. She’s excited about her early release — “Out there, I have a chance of starting a life” — but that excitement soon turns to heartbreak. As Piper exits one door to freedom, Blanca (and a few other women of color) exits another — where ICE is waiting to detain her.
Turns out, Polycon is moving “forward” to a “new market brimming with untapped potential: Immigration Detention Centers.” Presumably, one of these centers will exist at Litchfield and season seven will include Blanca’s life there. It’s a timely decision — Orange now exists in the present, so it can react better to the outside world — and, hopefully, it’ll give the proper amount of time to inmates of color there. I welcome this new development but it’s a weird note to end on: It feels like so much of Orange is wrapping up, while Blanca’s story is just beginning.