Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers from the final season of Orange is the New Black.
Over seven seasons of Orange Is the New Black, Litchfield prison has been home to many memorable characters. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) was our entry point into this world, as Jenji Kohan turned her into a “Trojan horse” in order to tell stories about the disenfranchised and underrepresented. In a role that was originally set for two episodes, Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) became one of the defining faces of Netflix groundbreaking dramedy.
The final season marked a return to form for the series, with an arc that reinforces how cruel the judicial system is, coupled with the notion that even in the darkest moments, purpose can be found. Despite her introduction as a ball of energy in the bleak prison environs, Taystee has been more than just lighthearted relief; each season has peeled the layers back further to reveal trauma beneath her wide smile. Danielle Brooks has brought a remarkable authenticity to her performance as the show's narrative took Taystee into a fight that few could have anticipated.
The murder of her best friend, Poussey (Samira Wiley) at the end of Season 4 was a huge turning point for both Taystee and the series. It led to the season-long riot in season 5, followed by the subsequent move to a maximum-security facility. Taystee was implicated and then charged with the death of CO Piscetella (Brad William Henke), a crime she did not commit but was found guilty of at the end of the penultimate season. Before her sentence, she insinuated to Caputo (Nick Sandow) that a guilty verdict would signal the end. A promise she almost makes good on in the final season with a failed suicide attempt.
Tragedy and comedy are equally woven into OITNB’s DNA, leading (among other things) to confusion and resets at the Emmys. Beloved characters like Taystee, Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) use humor as armor. But Poussey’s death stripped Litchfield of whatever semblance of hope and innocence that was left, leading to the riots. Taystee tried to use this moment to demand real change, including a reinstatement of education programs. Unfortunately, it led to another miscarriage of justice, for which she paid the biggest price.
Despite being on the receiving end of one blow after another from childhood to the present day, Taystee has somehow always found a way to pick herself back up. In season 7, post-guilty verdict, it's as if a light has been snuffed out. She's a ball of blank rage, pounding Badison’s (Amanda Fuller) face as a substitute for Cindy, the judge, and what her life has been reduced to. The Taystee-centric flashback last season revealed her past friendship with Tamika Ward (Susan Heyward), so when the new Litchfield Warden tells her, “This is not you,” it's an opinion backed up by years of history. In a world that dehumanizes, the idea of the self is often lost and the exploration of who this character has become is a recurring theme this season. Suzanne acknowledges a change, whereas Caputo tells her, “It’s real good to have you back” when she proposes the micro-loan idea to him. Both can be right; the person she was is no more, but her ability to sell an idea shows a glimmer of what used to be.
Finding purpose is important to freeing Taystee from the prison in her mind. She doesn’t want to sit around waiting to die — she has calculated that she has 20,000 more nights of prison to endure — so she seeks out Daya (Dascha Polanco) to obtain drugs that will end her life. Hope has seemingly been extinguished. She doesn’t rejoice when she finds out what really happened that night, instead, it reinforces her belief that she never stood a chance in court. What is the point in fighting when the game is rigged? She tells Tamika she is exhausted and you can see it in every fiber of her being. But this mid-season pep talk is exactly what she needs. It doesn’t magically fix everything, but hope is reignited. At first, it's just embers, but as she's given new tasks, including tutoring students studying for the GED exam, the flame within grows.
“Stay up.” These are two words of positive encouragement from Poussey in a flashback in the penultimate episode. Back then, Taystee’s BFF was calling her from prison reminding her good things are coming. In the present, she is not only serving a life sentence, but she is also about to be confronted with another dead body, so the notion of “staying up” seems impossible. Tamika tells Taystee “Tomorrow will be better.” Again, platitudes like this sound pretty hollow given her current circumstances, but OITNB puts its money where its mouth is.
Taystee was freed from prison during Season 1 but broke her parole after struggling to adjust to life post-Litchfield. She hasn't been in control of her own future since; however, she uses her bad experience to advocate for others in an attempt to break the cycle. In another life with other opportunities, Taystee would be a CEO, as she's always been gifted with the ability to sell something, from drugs to the mock job fair she won in Season 2. Micro-loans for newly released inmates so they don’t re-offend as soon as they're free is a really smart proposal, one that Taystee makes happen.
In a final grace note, the fund on the show, the Poussey Washington Fund, has been replicated in the real world. It's an initiative supporting existing non-profits, showing OITNB is serious about leaving its mark not only on the TV landscape but as a way to enact actual change.
Accolades have been showered upon this cast in the past, including two well-deserved Emmy wins for Uzo Aduba. Somehow, Danielle Brooks has never been nominated, which, considering the range she's shown over the last six years, is a travesty. When Poussey died, guttural cries of anguish made it feel like she was coming apart at the seams. Her reaction to the guilty verdict could not be heard, but sound is not needed to convey the tragedy etched all over her face. Cut to the series finale, as she twirls the bag of heroin around in her fingers, spying a lifeline. An envelope with a note from Tamika reads, “You made this happen. Tomorrow will be better.” The contents are confirmation that all those she tutored passed their GED. A mix of tears and laughter turns into a sob; the perfect encapsulation of this show, character, and Brooks’ nuanced and Emmy-worthy performance.
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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.