The system is broken. It’s always been broken, and it will continue to be broken for the foreseeable future. That’s the message I took away from the final season of Orange is the New Black: There is no hope for the system. It is irretrievably f**ked. The prison system will continue to ruin the lives of some of its inmates and end the lives of others. Some of those who successfully come out of the other end of the prison experience may be more understanding and empathetic people, but they’re no better off (save for Judy King, perhaps). If there’s anything I’ve learned from seven seasons of Orange is the New Black, it’s that rehabilitation is a hopeless pipe dream, that the prison system will never offer anything more than the ability to remove someone from society and potentially make a profit off of them.
And yet, that is not the lasting impression that Orange is the New Black will leave with me, nor the one that left me wracked with those big uncontrollable Six Feet Under finale sobs. Instead, I was left in awe of the characters from Orange is the New Black who saw prison for what it was — a hopeless hellscape — and still managed to tap into their pre-prison humanity and infect others with their kindness.
Mostly, I hurt for Taystee, and yet couldn’t help but admire her perseverance: Saddled with a life sentence based on a wrongful conviction, Taystee somehow found a way forward through improving the lives of others. Amid all the unfairness and the injustice, Taystee was like Cindy Lou Who, inviting the Grinch over for Christmas dinner even though he stole all her sh*t. I don’t know how it’s possible to be a person as big-hearted as Tasha Jefferson. She will likely spend the rest of her life behind bars, helping others pass their GED exams and using her outside connections to help her fellow inmates better their lives on the outside through the Poussey Washington Fund, even though she has no hope of ever receiving any of that help for herself. The world does not deserve her.
Conversely, Pennsatucky took an easier way out, and there’s part of me that respects that, too. She spent the final season trying to pass the GED exam in spite of her dyslexia, but when Luschek dropped the ball and failed to secure Pennsatucky her much-needed extra time, she bent to the arbitrary unfairness of prison. She gave up. After months of sobriety, Pennsatucky overdosed on heroin and died before learning that, even without the extra time, Pennsatucky passed her GED exam. Gut-punch. RIP Tiffany Doggett.
Pennsatucky’s death is not all in vain, however. Passing the GED is part of what inspires Taystee to continue living. It also helps along Suzanne’s journey — she grew so much in that final season, coming to terms with the fact that the “system” is what is broken, not her. Knowing that she was unfairly imprisoned doesn’t bring her any closer to her release, but it helps her to reshape her own identity. She no longer thinks of herself as a bad person who belongs in prison, but as as a good person with some mental disabilities who needs treatment and help, not incarceration.
Daya and Aleida, meanwhile, represent the other side of the spectrum: How prison can rot a person’s soul from the inside out. There was so much hope, kindness and love in Daya’s early seasons, but prison broke her. She became a victim of prison circumstance — caught up in the emotions of the riot, she shot a guard, plead to a life sentence, gave up, turned to drugs, joined a prison gang, took over the prison gang, and finally ended up in a turf war with her own mother, Aleida, who may or may not have killed Daya in attempting to stop her from spreading her infection to her little sister. Aleida was not a good person, either — she really never was. She sold drugs to her own daughter and she manipulated people, but at least there was enough mother left in her to want to stop the cycle from repeating itself.
Gloria got out. She nearly added five years onto her sentence when she was caught using a smuggled phone to aid ICE detainees, but Luschek finally — finally — did something worthwhile with his life and took the blame for the phone, even though it cost him a job he had no business working. Gloria gets to go home and be with her children. Maria, meanwhile, still has that to look forward to, and she, too, has decided to become a “good person,” a rare success story in Litchfield’s rehabilitation attempts.
Nicky, fittingly, replaces Red as the prison mother, with Flaca as her second in command. Nicky found love in an asylee but lost her to deportation and a likely death sentence (the asylee’s own father was willing to allow her to be executed for being a lesbian). It makes so much sense that Nicky would take on that position, but only after having learned the hardest lesson of all: “There is strength in admitting you can’t fix everyone.” For Nicky, that meant giving up on Lorna, who simply could not accept the death of her baby. Lorna created another fiction in which her baby was still alive on the outside being taken care of by her husband, who had divorced her because Lorna wouldn’t let him grieve. Red’s fate, meanwhile, was another heartbreaker: Dementia. Forced to live out the rest of her sentence in “Florida” with the older prisoners, slowly forgetting her past as she faded into oblivion. For now, however, she can still help provide comfort for Lorna as Lorna mentally retreats.
Blanca got a rare happy-ish ending, as well. She managed to navigate the court system well enough to avoid deportation, only to give up her green card to be with Diablo after he got deported. It’s a sweet love story, but they, too, are casualties of America’s immigration system. I’d like to think that Blanca and Diablo can find a lifetime of happiness in the murder capital of the world, but I’m not that naïve. (Her friend, meanwhile, got the worst possible outcome: She was deported, then broke her ankle trying to get back into the United States to be with her kids, and she was left — most likely to die — in the desert).
Cindy, meanwhile, found a job in a nursing home where she’s beloved, determined now to be there for her daughter, as her mother was there for her. Her financial circumstances are not improved, but she does find some personal growth not because of prison, but because of the friends she made on the inside.
I like what the series did with Piper (and it was much better than the ending they originally had in mind). On the outside, Piper was basically faced with two choices: Putting prison behind her and returning to her life of privilege, or the harder choice: “Go do what new Piper would do,” which is apparently to ride it out with Alex while going to law school.
Finally, Joe Caputo. Joe got MeToo’d, and though he has evolved considerably since sexually harassing a female guard and firing her a few seasons back, it’s hard not to say he didn’t deserve it. The good news for Caputo, even though he lost both of his jobs, is that he reckoned with his own mistakes. It took him a while to get there, but he finally recognized what he did was wrong. He’s a white middle-aged man, so he’s going to be just fine, and while we usually say that with disgust, I hope it’s true for Joe, who listened and genuinely learned from his mistakes. He and Fig are going to be great parents, and in each other, found their better selves.
It was a bittersweet ending for the series, but ultimately, I think it was the right one, one that illustrated how irretrievably broken the system is, but how some people managed to cope and survive in the face of so much injustice.
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