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Orange Is the New Black’s final season finds hope in a hopeless place

Season 7 is the most focused the show has been in years.

Danielle Brooks stars in Orange Is the New Black.
Taystee tries to find a purpose in the final season of Orange Is the New Black.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

This article contains spoilers for the complete final season of Orange Is the New Black. Read at your own risk!

Midway through the series finale of Orange Is the New Black, Tamika (Susan Hayward), an old friend of Taystee’s who became a prison guard at the very prison where Taystee was incarcerated, has lost her job as warden of Litchfield Maximum Security Prison, a job she mostly got because of the optics of hiring a black woman to run Litchfield but a job she proved terrific at. Tamika doesn’t deserve to lose her job. The “evidence” that leads to her firing is anything but. But the prison needs a scapegoat, and she will make a convenient one.

In frustration, as she packs up her things, she says she’s relieved. She’s relieved because no matter what good she and others try to do, “The system will always be what it is, and there’s not a damn thing I can do.”

Taystee (Danielle Brooks), who mostly stays silent as Tamika fumes, should understand this better than anyone. She landed back in Litchfield in season two, after being released late in the first season, because of the cycles of poverty that made turning to a life dealing drugs easier than maintaining any other. And in season six, she saw her sentence turned into a life sentence when she was convicted of a murder she didn’t commit. She avoided the death penalty only narrowly, and even in season seven, evidence that might overturn her murder conviction fails to make an impact with her lawyer, because of its specious nature. (It comes to light thanks to the perpetually unreliable Suzanne, played by Uzo Aduba.)

Taystee, more than anyone else in the cast, might understand what Tamika is talking about. But she’s also working to help others not fall into the same cycles that she did, starting up a new organization to provide micro-funds to women just out of prison, called the Poussey Washington Fund, in memory of her friend and fellow inmate, who died while in prison in season four. (This fund honoring a fictional character now exists in real life). She is trying to change some things where she can, around the edges.

This scene, which comes smack dab in the middle of the last episode of Orange Is the New Black to ever be made, speaks to the show’s overarching thematic concerns as anything else. The systems of oppression are massive and impossible to dismantle. But you can change them. Around the edges.

The final season of Orange is more focused, but its scope is still massive

Taylor Schilling stars in Orange Is the New Black.
Piper faces an uncertain life on the outside.

The biggest problem Orange has experienced after that first magnificent season that so gripped viewers’ attention is ambition creep. With every season, the world of the show got bigger and bigger, as more and more characters we were expected to care about were introduced. And the show, by and large, insisted on making sure we understood and empathized with the motivations of everybody in its world. Even the people who did genuinely despicable things might get a flashback to put their actions in context.

It was, for me, a thrilling approach to making television, one that reminded me of my beloved Deadwood for its willingness to pursue a wide swath of humanity, wherever it might lead.

Similarly, Orange had a distinct willingness to do scenes filled with dozens of members of the show’s ensemble, in the foreground and the background, sometimes even situated on different height levels from each other. That form of visual storytelling mimicked Deadwood’s predilection for playing around with the idea of humanity as one, massive ecosystem. We’re all tiny creatures living within that system beetling away at our endeavors, oblivious to the winds we kick up as we take flight on our little wings that make hurricanes on other shores.

But the longer the show ran, the harder it became to contend with the idea that it wanted us to have empathy for 99.9999 percent of its characters. The sole exceptions have been a couple of brutish male authority figures, whose characterization mostly boiled down to “bad news.”

It’s potentially fascinating, for instance, that the final season forces viewers to think about how former warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) sexually harassed a subordinate in earlier seasons — in a manner he found playful and she (it’s revealed) did not. But in a show with 19 regular characters in its opening credits and several dozen more who need their stories tied up, Caputo reckoning with his behavior — and with whether the woman’s rejection of him played into his later decision to fire her — ends up having too little room to breathe. The show occasionally seems to argue that there are two sides to every story, and maybe we should just hear Caputo out. (It doesn’t help that he appears throughout the season, while she is in one scene.)

But at least Caputo finally does have a reckoning of sorts with his behavior. In other places, the show’s sprawl leads to the unfortunate sense that some of its characters are only their crimes, something that was never true in earlier seasons. This is particularly true within a lengthy storyline set in an ICE detention center built in Litchfield minimum security (the prison from the show’s first five seasons), which tries like hell to humanize as many of the undocumented immigrants living there (the vast majority of whom are new characters this season). But the show ultimately reduces them to the traumas they were fleeing, instead of giving them wholly rounded personalities.

Yet these complaints are also, in a way, praise. No TV show on Earth would attempt to expand its premise in its final season to also take on the immigration crisis, and even if Orange was stretched to the breaking point already, its insistence on making us see these women as human beings first and anything else second is the kind of admirable ambition I respond to in TV.

It’s also part and parcel of a season that suggests that things are hopeless, except when they aren’t. Yes, the show traces the lives of three former Litchfield inmates who have been released, with only the white woman (Taylor Schilling’s Piper Chapman) moving toward a stable life. (The others wind up homeless and in ICE detention, respectively.) But it also shows the way that the women of Litchfield swing into action precisely when somebody somewhere — often someone in another building entirely — needs help.

This sense of coming together perversely helps excuse some of the show’s excess. Am I still invested in the ins and outs of Piper’s relationship with Alex (Laura Prepon), her prison wife who remains incarcerated? Not especially, but the relationship is still important in helping build the season’s larger tapestry. You never know when something that Piper does in this corner of the show will ripple out to affect a character in that corner, and so on.

The first step toward change is compassion. And the first step toward compassion is empathy. This might seem helplessly corny or even naive as a way to combat the towering systems of inequality that drive the world, but Orange Is the New Black so earnestly believes in its philosophies that it’s not hard to hope change might come. Around the edges.

These moments of a community becoming something more than the sum of its parts are the ones that move me most, and the ones that mark this final season as the best since the show’s (exemplary) fourth. Orange Is the New Black might be big and overcrowded and a little too fond of obvious metaphors for its own good, but hey, so is humanity. Systems are built to crush us, but we can still take care of each other. And out of those tiny moments of solidarity, we might come to build something new.

Orange Is the New Black is streaming in its entirety on Netflix.

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