When it premiered in 2013, Orange Is The New Black was Netflix's first real attempt at a prestige-TV series launch; in fact, it came so early in the expansion of platforms on which TV series could exist that the phrase "prestige TV" didn't really exist at the time. Its creator, Jenji Kohan, was coming off her long-running Showtime series Weeds, a reliable award nominee in its early years. And the show was unique in many respects: its cast was almost entirely female; its cast was largely nonwhite; a significant number of its characters were queer (some situationally, which the show explored); and, in that it was set among the inmates of a federal prison, there was nothing about its setting that one would call "aspirational."
Though it's racked up accolades through its run, like any show that lasts longer than three or four years, it sometimes let its viewers down. For example, while I love a dark comedy, wringing gags from the injustices of prison life sometimes made the writing feel glib. Though the fifth season -- during all of which the inmates were rioting in protest of the manslaughter, by a guard, of one of their sisters (Samira Wiley's Poussey Washington) -- provided an intermittently compelling exploration of power dynamics, it was a big swing that ultimately didn't quite justify its extra-claustrophobic confines. Kohan has described the show's ostensible protagonist Piper (Taylor Schilling) as the white "trojan horse" who allowed her to get the show made so that she could use it to tell stories of incarcerated women of color, but that doesn't change the fact that Piper has stayed on the show, whining and boring many of us to death.
Now we've arrived at the premiere of the show's seventh and final season -- which is, for extremely depressing reasons, probably its best. If you've checked out for the past few years, here's a spoiler-free case for why you should return to see how it ends.
ICE becomes part of the story. Netflix made screeners available to critics with a detailed list of spoilers it does not want us to mention in our reviews. But if you saw the Season 6 finale, you know that Polycon -- as the show's monstrous private prison contractor MCC has rebranded itself -- is diversifying by getting into the immigration detention business. This new venture affects a variety of characters; I trust it's not a spoiler to say that no one has a great time with the cruel deprivations inherent in this system, because we are all aware of current events. The show's setting has, over the years, evolved to dramatize the conditions under which incarcerated people live, or subsist; it's revolting that this lens has had to widen in order to include immigrant detainees -- people being held on what is, at worst, a civil offense, and often trying to make entirely legal asylum claims. Without giving specifics: these scenes are effective in their incomprehensible horror.
It's reckoning with what "justice" can or should mean. Though Max has not been a place where self-improvement is encouraged, a number of new educational programs are inaugurated this season. One of these, taught by erstwhile MCC stooge Caputo (Nick Sandow), is Restorative Justice, where he guides his students through the process of acknowledging the ways they've wronged their victims, and making sincere amends -- a remarkably moving exercise even when they have to stand in for eachother's absent victims. Another program allows women to care for chickens; the theory being that "taking responsibility for creatures other than yourself empowers you," and while I can't describe the many ways we see this borne out, it's nice to leave us feeling as though some of these characters can dare to hope for better days, someday.
It makes Piper sympathetic. In the waning moments of the Season 6 finale, we saw Piper's release -- a bittersweet moment as she had to say goodbye to Alex (Laura Prepon), to whom she'd just been "prison-married," and contemplate what she was going to do with her new life on the outside. Now we see the many limitations on her freedom while she's on parole: she can't work evening restaurant shifts because she has a curfew; she must not only submit to regular drug-testing but pay for all her monitoring costs; she can't babysit her niece in exchange for room and board because she needs formal paperwork to prove her employment. As we know, Piper is very privileged relative to other new parolees (including some we may or may not see in Season 7), and still, her struggles feel real. Inside, she was a rich white girl; as an ex-con, she is subject to other kinds of prejudices and owns them with grace. I've never liked her more.
Bottom line: it's a pity the show is ending just as its focus has sharpened so dramatically, with contemporary events giving its subject matter so much urgency, and forcing us all to think about what we owe to each other. The season is devastating in the best way. Don't miss it.
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.