Film & Television

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

Back at “max,” other familiar inmates are still suffering the aftereffects of the riot. Locked in solitary confinement (or “the Shu,” an acronym for Security Housing Unit), Gloria (Selenis Levya) is trying to keep Red (Kate Mulgrew) from falling into depression by instructing calisthenics through an air vent. Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Daya (Dascha Polanco), both wrongfully convicted of murder, have become irredeemably toughened. Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) is grappling with her conscience. Crazy Eyes (Emmy-winner Uzo Aduba) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) are unlikely friends. Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) sympathizes with new mother Lorna (Yael Stone), who is following the progress of her preemie via a contraband cell phone. Besties Flaca (Jackie Cruz) and Maritza (Diane Guerrero) have been separated, but will reunite in one of the season’s saddest arcs. Lifers Badison (Amanda Fuller) and Daddy (Vicci Martinez) run their own syndicates. And Alex (Laura Prepon), now Piper’s wife, is trying to keep her nose clean, with little success as a guard forces her to deal heroin for him.

In a nearby facility run by PolyCon, Blanca adjusts to living in ICE detention. Dozens of women live in a single giant room filled with bunk beds. Those guilty of felonies wear red scrubs; the other detainees wear orange. Most are Latina, although there are pockets of women from the Middle East and Africa. They don’t have access to a working phone or lawyers. And, many have been separated from their children. As soon as one woman leaves (deported, more often than not), another fills her place. And, PolyCon makes $150 per night per detainee. It isn’t difficult to decipher Kohan’s position on current events.

A third throughline involves prison management. The season welcomes a new warden, the progressive Tamika (Susan Heyward), who receives a backhanded and racist compliment from PolyCon exec Linda (Beth Dover): “You are so well-spoken without being strident.” Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) is now in charge of the ICE facility. A kinder, gentler Caputo (Nick Sandow) is teaching night school and leading workshops on personal redemption. C.O. Hopper (Hunter Emery) is smuggling drugs into Litchfield for recently released girlfriend Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez). And, in classic Orange fashion, we get a glimpse into the past of C.O. McCullough (Emily Tarver), who served as the only woman in an army unit, with predictable results.

If I haven’t attached adjectives to all the ensemble members mentioned, it’s because I would quickly run out of superlatives. Having faithfully watched every season (and the first five episodes of the current one), I cannot think of a single performance that has been sub-par. From comical oddballs to tragic victims to those who victimize them, the enormously talented actresses (and actors) make us care about people who aren’t just different from us, but in some cases, have committed outrageous crimes. Orange Is the New Black has always been an ensemble piece, and, bucking Hollywood trends, the cast is 80 or 90 percent female. 

With each season released in its entirety on a single day, Orange Is the New Black is credited with teaching television viewers how to binge. More important, Kohan’s remarkable and relevant series has shone a light on current American issues, especially those affecting women, who desperately need our attention. I can’t wait to see how it all ends. But I’m pacing myself.

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