Film & Television

‘OITNB’ Final Season Doesn’t Shy Away From Heartbreaking Current Events

I live in the Boston area, so the detention centers at the southern border feel far away. However, ten days ago a friend of a friend posted a warning on Facebook. “ICE agents spotted on Orange Line. Be careful today.” This warning was shared hundreds of times and quickly appeared on other social media platforms as well. 

The rumor has since been reported as false, but it made me think about a Haitian family I met when I mentored their son several years ago at a community college (which happens to be on the Orange Line). He wanted to pursue a career in advertising, but had to miss a commercial shoot I invited him to because his single mother had a doctor’s appointment. She spoke only Creole and needed him to translate for her. I imagined them, along with his younger siblings, in handcuffs, being loaded into an ICE van. And, our country’s immigration crisis was suddenly much closer. 

ICE agents (and handcuffs and detention centers) are impossible to avoid in the seventh and final season of Netflix’s award-winning series Orange Is the New Black. Creator Jenji Kohan has never shied away from disturbing current events, from “Black Lives Matter” and prison privatization to the mass incarceration of people of color, and now to ICE raids and images of undocumented mothers being separated from their children.

Orange Is the New Black is based on the best-selling memoir of Piper Kerman, a rather unlikely felon. Kerman is white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed. She graduated from Smith College. She also helped launder money for her then-girlfriend, who was selling heroin for a Nigerian drug trafficker. Five years later, despite putting her criminal ways behind her, she was indicted and pleaded guilty. Six years after that, she served a little over a year at a minimum-security prison in Connecticut. 

Kerman’s book is a fairly typical “duck out of water” story. Although she did indeed spend time incarcerated, she focused more on how she, a privileged white woman, adapted to her unexpected situation rather than issues that would support prison reform. Since then, to her credit, the author has become an active advocate, serving on the Women’s Prison Association board of directors and testifying before Senate judicial committees. In 2014, she received the Justice Trailblazer Award from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Kohan used Kerman’s book as a launch pad for her series. Several years after transporting a suitcase full of cash, Piper Chapman (blonde, blue-eyed Taylor Schilling) begins her time at Litchfield Correctional Facility. Adjusting to life behind bars is depicted as sometimes funny, always challenging. In the first couple of seasons, Piper was fairly naïve. But she became savvier as time went on, eventually gaining a reputation as one of Litchfield’s baddest badasses, with her motto scratched onto her forearm: “Trust no bitch.”

Despite the initial focus on Piper, Kohan soon broadened her lens and dramatized the backstories of Litchfield’s other inmates. Some of the women were there because of greed or acts of violence, but most were driven by poverty, addiction, or because they took the fall for a man. Many were single mothers, whose children were left behind in precarious situations and likely to make the same mistakes as their missing parent. In most cases, the system failed these women and many of their sentences were disproportionate to their crimes. Litchfield’s guards, especially after management of the prison transfers to for-profit PolyCon, tend to be brutal, damaged individuals who abuse their power in myriad and sometimes shocking ways. One guard played a sadistic game of “Gun to your head, would you rather?” with an inmate, forcing her to choose between eating a live baby mouse or ten dead flies.

The show’s entire fifth season took place during a three-day prison riot after a beloved inmate was killed. (“I can’t breathe,” she gasped over and over while an under-trained guard pinned her to the floor in a choke hold, echoing the real-life death of Eric Garner.) When the riot was finally suppressed, multiple guards were dead and the inmates were moved to Litchfield’s maximum-security facility down the hill, where the sixth season took place. In its finale, Piper and another prisoner, Blanca (Laura Gómez), were released. But, while Piper walked away, free to try and build her new life. Blanca, whose bewildered boyfriend was waiting outside with flowers, was passed into the custody of ICE. And, with that, Kohan set up her new villains for the final season.

Season Seven opens with a glimpse into Piper’s post-prison routine. She’s working as a waitress, but can’t work lucrative dinner shifts or at an establishment that serves alcohol. She’s not in jail anymore, but has to live with her brother, his eccentric wife, and their “nappy free” baby in a tiny apartment. She is back in the outside world, but has to report to her parole officer (Alysia Joy Powell). She must pee in a cup on a regular basis, but has to pay for the drug tests herself. Life after Litchfield is a series of buts

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