REVIEW: “Manages to end with the message it started with” – ‘Orange Is the New Black’ (Season 7)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

“in equal parts uplifting and upsetting, but ultimately satisfying, conclusion to one of Netflix’s flagship pieces of original programming.”

If there’s one thing that ‘Orange Is the New Black’ has taught us, it’s that not everybody gets a happy ending.

Throughout the six previous seasons of this iconic, sometimes ground-breaking, sometimes controversial show, we’ve seen characters come and go, get an early release, get sentenced to more time (whether justified or not), and some didn’t even make it out of Lichfield alive.

The seventh and final season of OITNB was always going to be a heart-breaking one. Picking up only weeks after where we left off, we find Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Gloria (Selenis Levya) in the SHU, Daya (Dascha Polanco) ruling the roost down in max, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) in the depths of despair after receiving her guilty verdict last season, and Blanca (Laura Gomez) in an ICE detention centre near camp. Oh, and Piper (Taylor Schilling) is living with her brother, struggling to acclimate to life as a free woman – but she has always been the character here that we care the least about, despite being the protagonist whose memoir the show is based upon.

Tonally, the seventh season is as well balanced as ever in terms of moving between melodrama and levity, but its attempt to show us the bleak prospects of some of the more marginalised inmates alongside the comparably small issues and extremely privileged experience of main character Piper continues to be jarring.

Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black (Sourced)

The show has come under fire in the past for its graphic portrayals of violence against black and brown characters, and there’s more of the same as this season goes along. Though undoubtedly written with good intentions, these scenes often act more as educational ‘tragedy porn’ moments for white viewers on the Bad Racist Thing in the news recently, and should instead be centring those characters as fully rounded people, rather than figureheads for specific kinds of injustice.

Despite this, one of the great things about OITNB is that it has never been afraid to tackle real-world issues head on, even if it doesn’t always get them right. This final season is trying to add a lot more to the list, and whilst it’s often extremely impactful, it does sometimes feel like box-ticking. #MeToo? Check. ICE? Check. Homelessness? Check. But because we’ve grown to love these characters over the past seven years, it broadly works.

Though we lost a big chunk of the cast after the riot of the fifth season, the core group that are left deliver outstanding performances in these last 13 episodes that show it’s not just us who are sad to be saying goodbye – they are too.

Natasha Lyonne (playing former drug addict Nichols) is a standout: her signature wit present and correct, though pushed to its limits as she watches her prison family fall apart at the seams. Polanco is convincing as Daya, a character that started fairly innocent and naive but has morphed into something altogether uglier as the show reaches its end – and it’s great to see Elizabeth Rodriguez have a little more to do this season as her mother Aleida.

Daya and Taystee in Orange is the New Black (Source)

But, as always, Brooks steals the show as Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson. It might be Piper’s name on the memoir, but when it comes to the Netflix adaptation Taystee has always been the emotional core, thanks to Brooks’ powerhouse performance.

It starts slow, for sure, but the final season of ‘Orange is the New Black’ picks up pace to give an equal parts uplifting and upsetting, but ultimately satisfying, conclusion to one of Netflix’s flagship pieces of original programming. Watch the end credits of the very last episode – they’ll have you sobbing – and count the familiar faces that we get to catch up with when the curtains close.

For all the ups and downs over the past seven years, OITNB manages to end with the message it started with. It ends by reminding us that life isn’t fair, the system is broken, and where you came from tends to matter more than the crime you committed – especially when it comes to who gets a happy ending and who doesn’t.

If you’d like to take some real-life action to help support those affected by the criminal justice system in America, the creators of OITNB have set up the Poussey Washington Fund – find out more and donate here.