Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from the final season of Orange is the New Black.
Over the last seven seasons, a number of love stories have flourished within the walls of Litchfield prison. Some ended in tragedy, while others faded over time. But more often than not, Orange Is the New Black's most enduring partnerships have have been platonic . Over the run of the series, Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) have broken up and come back together on a number of occasions. After all, a couple doesn’t have to be romantically entangled to experience obstacles and milestones. And although there's no happy ending for the pair at the end of the series, as they are separated in the cruelest of ways, there is a way for this unconditional love to live on.
At the start of the final season, Red is still in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU), after attempting to kill Frieda (Dale Soules) for her past betrayal. Gloria (Selenis Leyva) is doing everything in her power to ensure it doesn’t completely break her friend’s spirit, but this inhumane form of punishment has a more permanent impact on Red’s mental and neurological health. After Warden Ward (Susan Heyward) permanently closes the SHU, Red is reunited with Nicky, and together with a reconstituted kitchen crew (including Gloria, Flaca, and Lorna), they get to work down at the ICE detention center. The kitchen is where Red always thrived, but it soon becomes clear that regaining her old position of authority isn't going to fix what the SHU broke inside of her. Now she's forgetful, which at best results in terrible-tasting food, and at worst makes Red a danger to herself (she cuts her hand in one instance and accidentally locks herself in the freezer in another).
In trying to get Red help, Nicky risks inciting her wrath, or worse, being shunned by her mother figure. Nicky gently points out the very obvious issue at hand, but there is no sense in reason. Prison is not a place to show any form of weakness or vulnerability, but Nicky uses the knife accident as a way to tell the doctor about the other "mishaps." Red has been a "prison mother" for so long now, but as with all parent/child dynamics, there comes a time in which the roles reverse.
As is often the way with final seasons, Season 7 is layered with callbacks to earlier moments in the series. Notably for Red and Nicky, we're reminded of how they both deal with a traumatic health event. After three years of sobriety, Nicky relapsed in Season 4. It was a point of contention, but instead of kicking Nicky out of the family, Red instead blamed herself, telling her "I failed you" for not noticing the signs. "I am not your fault," Nicky responded and vowed to get clean (which she did). Now Nicky believes she is to blame for not catching Red’s early-onset dementia -- or at least forcing her to go to a doctor -- noting she is on a "disappointing people spree." Neither is actually at fault, but there's nothing quite like a family crisis to make us wish we had superhuman abilities to fix the things that are out of our control.
In both seasons, Kate Mulgrew and Natasha Lyonne make you forget these characters are not mother and daughter by blood. When Red’s doctor asks her who she trusts most to be there for her diagnosis, her answer is Nicky. As the doctor explains how Red’s mental deterioration has accelerated, Mulgrew has never looked smaller or more fragile. This character has always been so formidable, so to see her reduced to this is enough to turn Nicky (and the audience) into a mess of tears.
In the penultimate episode, self-proclaimed "big-mouth junkie," Nicky asks Red how she became such a good prison mother, dealing with all manner of "degenerate knuckleheads." This is the last conversation shared by this pair who have been there since the start of the series, and boy is it a heartbreaker. Essentially Nicky is trying to figure out what she can do about both Red and Lorna (Yael Stone), who is going through a mental breakdown of her own. The family is breaking up, and there's nothing Nicky can do to fix it. "There’s strength in admitting what you can’t do," Red tells her. This is an act of self-preservation, and she must let them go. Red calls her "dochenka," meaning "daughter" in Russian. Red might be slipping away, but at this moment, the connection is preserved. In her final act as a prison mom, she sets Nicky free.
Orange Is the New Black has been a big part of Natasha Lyonne’s real-life comeback story. She has spoken publicly about how close she came to dying in 2005, and how this experience fed into both her performance as Nicky, and served as inspiration for Russian Doll (the Netflix dramedy which Lyonne created, directed, and starred in). Lyonne also got to employ her burgeoning directing talent in the final season of Orange Is the New Black (she will be stepping behind the camera on a number of other shows as well), of which she recently said, "Being trusted with an episode was very… life affirming."
Just as Lyonne has come into a leadership role behind the camera, Nicky ends up realizing a maternal instinct that was there all along. She's really good at helping people, whether it was during the riot when she made sure everyone was getting the right medication, or helping Barb get clean in Season 6. Her transition into prison mom territory comes to its full fruition in the final episode, when we see her in the kitchen (complete with Red’s signature lipstick) helping someone who is on day three of a drug detox. Both Nicky and Red had complex dynamics with their own parents and children, but in prison they found each other. Theirs wasn't a tragic tale of star-crossed lovers, but as the series wrapped, no relationship hit us harder.
People are talking about Orange is the New Black in our forums. Join the conversation.
Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.