As Orange is the New Black ends, a look back at its 7 seasons of brutally truthful storytelling

Aarushi Agrawal

Aug 07, 2019 12:10:36 IST

“I’ve always loved getting clean. I love baths. I love showers. It’s my happy place. Was my happy place.” The voiceover that opened the first episode of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black (OITNB), showed the protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) showering as a child and an adolescent, then with a woman who we later find out is Alex (Laura Prepon), next with her fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs), and finally by herself in prison as an inmate.

Hooking viewers in right from this electric opening scene, OITNB, on the surface, told Chapman’s story of being convicted for a crime she had committed 10 years ago, her time in prison and later as a free woman. While at prison, different sides of Chapman emerge. By the end of season one, she’s beating Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning). In season three, she’s running a full-fledged illegal prison business selling used underwear; she's betrayed by and then exacts revenge on Stella (Ruby Rose). In season four, she’s attacked, with a swastika branded on her arm, which Red (Kate Mulgrew) later turns into a window.

After this, Chapman starts to calm down. In season five, she proposes to Alex, with whom she is later ‘prison married’. And ultimately, she is chosen for early release by a guard who didn’t want her interfering with his drug smuggling activities, leading to the final season showing her adjusting to life outside the prison as a free woman and how challenging it is – a running theme throughout the last season.

 As Orange is the New Black ends, a look back at its 7 seasons of brutally truthful storytelling

All stills from Orange is the New Black. Photo via Facebook/@OITNB.

While a roller-coaster, Chapman’s story — it soon became apparent to viewers — is just one of the many other turbulent lives around her. Following the release of the first season of OITNB, creator Jenji Kohan, in a 2013 interview, described Chapman as a 'Trojan Horse' through whom she could tell other stories: “You're not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories.”

The show certainly gives voice to minorities underrepresented in mainstream media. The female cast featured all colours, sizes, ages, ethnicities, and sexualities. The diversity goes beyond tokenism, establishing each character in their own right, through telling their individual stories, and highlighting the ultimate humanity of each. It also represents women as distinctly human, being as resilient as they can be full of folly, and as beautiful as they can be vicious.

Photo credit: Facebook @OITNB.

Photo via Facebook/@OITNB.

One of the only minority groups the show doesn’t seem to do justice to is bisexuals. It took the show 89 episodes to finally use the word ‘bisexual’, previously referring to Chapman as straight, lesbian, ex-lesbian and so on. Even if the case be made that Chapman was still figuring things out, it feels like a flailing argument so many seasons on. Other characters like Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) are also never referred to, or never self-identify, as bisexual. OITNB’s lazy acknowledgement of this glaring gap comes in the form of Chapman’s mother calling her bisexual, while her father, later in the same episode, refers to her as a lesbian again. While the show will always serve as a benchmark for its stories and diverse representation, one must keep in mind how blatantly such an 'inclusive' show has ignored bisexuals — also reiterating the need for positive bi-visibility in popular media.

Photo credit: Facebook @OITNB.

Photo via Facebook /@OITNB.

***

That a show about a group of inmates and their lives has such a vast following can be attributed in large part to OITNB’s narrative technique of flashbacks, which round a character, and its writing. The writers intelligently use humour to give stark insight into life at a female prison with certain moments branded into viewers’ memories including Red serving Chapman a bloody tampon sandwich; Judy King’s (whose character is based on Martha Stewart) threesome with Yoga Jones and Luschek; Miss Rosa’s iconic escape and running over Vee; and inmates looking for the ‘magic chicken’ (who also makes an appearance in the last season).

Besides showing the everyday, OITNB also detailed the threats inmates faced inside the prison. It highlighted the power dynamics of the guard-prisoner relationship, including guards forcing inmates to move drugs and contraband, being objectified by them, and in the case of Pennastucky, even raped by the guard Charlie Coates. Another threat it underscored is that of prison gangs, laid out strongly through the season six feud of sisters Carol and Barbara who kill each-other over the argument of who experienced a funny incident at a time when they were both waitresses – a flashback later clarifies that the story belonged to a third waitress with whom the sisters worked.

OITNB also shows inmates’ helplessness in the face of corrupt, systemic oppression at different times; like Sophia (Laverne Cox) being denied hormonal medication; Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) being denied psychiatric support; and most heart-wrenchingly, the accidental death of Poussey (Samira Wiley) in season four, and the lack of justice being granted to her death. With the iconic Hot Cheetos' bonfire, the show expresses the serious, frustrated tone of the rioting inmates who won’t rest until their demands are met. It also highlights the end of the riot and the consequent fate of the inmates, driving home the impossibility of justice for Poussey and other such oppressed inmates.

Perhaps the most resounding aftermath of the riot is the fate of Taystee (Danielle Brooks), who is unfairly sentenced to life in prison – reminding viewers of those failed by the justice system. Fighting through her depression and suicidal feelings, she emerges hopeful again, in all her resilience. Toward the end of the show, she’s seen tutoring other inmates, and has successfully set up The Poussey Washington Fund, which Netflix announced is a real fund and in a video, is explained by the eponymous character:

***

The final seventh season of OITNB references two important real-life issues. One, it brings back Fischer through her talking about Caputo harassing her in season two, writing about it on a social media post, tagged #MeToo. The show takes viewers through this story-line primarily from Caputo’s perspective, highlighting his transition from a clueless perpetrator to someone accepting and owning up to his mistake and growing as a character.

The second, an urgently pressing issue that the last season details, is the effects of the immigration ‘crisis’, by going inside US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention camps and telling the stories of the women there, in a narrative that is ‘depressingly real’. Maritza (Diane Guerrero) who is last seen on an airplane, vanishing, symbolises how the women literally just disappear, being like they never even existed in the country. For Guerrero in particular, it was an especially emotional experience, given her personal history with immigration. Besides telling these stories, in a bid to be helpful, the Freedom for Immigrants’ hotline number the characters discuss is also real.

Set amidst all this, with the last episode, the show ties up stories of most of the characters, some heart-warming and others heart-breaking. We leave the show with credits rolling, each character taking a bow, and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), with tears in her eyes, listing the made-up fan favourites, saying: “We’ve got ‘Squat and Cough’, ‘Foot Fungus’, and of course, our number one most major international hit single ‘Anything Can Be A Dildo If You’re Brave Enough’.”

Updated Date: Aug 07, 2019 12:51:32 IST