Maybe it's the steady avalanche of big and buzzy Netflix programming that can leave even the biggest and buzziest of shows lost in a screener drift, or maybe it's just a run of ambitious-but-mixed recent seasons, but the legacy of Orange Is the New Black has become more muddied than it should be. Emmy nominee for both outstanding drama and comedy series and petri dish for an all-time great ensemble cast, Orange sometimes doesn't get the credit it's due as possibly Netflix's signature prestige show.
When done right, final seasons can be major legacy boosters and Jenji Kohan and the Orange Is the New Black team have delivered a final season done right. This closing run of 13 episodes is the most focused season in years, a steady reminder of how smartly political, energetically funny and devastatingly dramatic this show could be. The season won't premiere until July 26 and it won't be an Emmy contender until 2020, but this closing run could fill the entire supporting actress field twice over.
Recent seasons have seen Kohan and her team experimenting with what the Orange framework could allow, with sometimes frustrating results. The fifth season, with its extended nightmarish prison riot, and a follow-up season basically trimming the cast in half may have felt strained and tonally uneven, but they established the stakes and the core relationships that give these final episodes their heft.
Much of the season picks up after Piper's (Taylor Schilling) release, as the series' initial fish-out-of-water inmate discovers the difficulties of reintegrating into the outside world while also remaining faithful to her prison marital vows with Alex (Laura Prepon). For many fans, Piper is far from a favorite character and the lure of more screen time for her brother (Michael Chernus' Cal) and New Age-y sister-in-law (Tracee Chimo's Neri) won't be an incentive. But these scenes are a reminder of Schilling's ease shifting between comedy and drama, and are a pointed commentary on the struggles of mainstreaming post-incarceration even when you come from all of the positions of privilege that protect Piper. The show can't suddenly pretend that Piper's narrative wasn't its point-of-entry story and much of bringing the series full-circle involves acknowledging the person Piper was when the series started and the impact her 18 months at Litchfield had on her.
Orange Is the New Black stopped primarily being Piper's journey very early on and the final season is a ready acknowledgement of the importance of series-long arcs for eternally fragile-yet-hopeful Suzanne (Uzo Aduba), wronged-by-the-system Tasha (Danielle Brooks), guilt-stricken Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), dispossessed Red (Kate Mulgrew), identity in-flux Daya (Dascha Polanco), perennially faithful and horny Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) and more. The series has always had the ability to shift MVPs from episode to episode, an attribute that withstood the diminishing returns of the initially crucial flashback structure, which survives now as a pale imitation of itself. And yes, I'm calling them by their names and not the prison nicknames we latched onto in the early episodes, because if you seriously still call Suzanne "Crazy Eyes," you've missed just about every single point that Orange Is the New Black has spent seven seasons trying to make.
Keeping specifics vague, Brooks and Moore spend much of the season in dueling excellence, fitting given where Cindy and Tasha were last season, with Aduba delivering a series peak moment in the finale and Taryn Manning ably illustrating that Tiffany's evolution may have been the show's masterstroke. There are no wrong choices here and if you want to speak up for Lyonne, Yael Stone, Jackie Cruz or Selenis Leyva as your hero, I won't fight you.
I haven't loved the increased concentration on the guards in recent years — the humanity-to-caricature ratio has never felt exactly right — but the closing season contains a very good arc for Susan Heyward's Ward. And darned if, after all this time, Orange Is the New Black didn't finally find a way to make me care about the relationship between Caputo (Nick Sandow) and Figueroa (Alysia Reiner), a pairing that started in an unimaginable coarse and unappealing place and somehow evolved into something sweet.
For me, if there was a failure to the sixth season, it was that the series lacked a thematic imperative, the sort of jeremiad that anchored earlier seasons. Here, the writers are in fine and outraged fettle, picking over the very essence of the penal system and notions of restorative justice and rehabilitation. The aspirations and failings of prison adult education, professional training and psychiatric treatment are covered with a whiplash rainbow of anger and optimism, a tonal balance made possible by the versatile cast, many of whom also directed episodes (including returning helmers Prepon and Sandow, plus Lyonne, who adds to the potential exhibited in her Russian Doll debut).
There's no such ambivalence to the season's other topical big swing, which involves an ICE detention facility, a storyline that brings in several returning castmembers, introduces memorable characters played by Karina Arroyave and Marie-Lou Nahhas and howls with a sense of moral malfeasance so unfiltered it occasionally overwhelms general plausibility or episodic momentum. It's unrelenting and headline-ripping even if you do the math and know that Orange Is the New Black is set a couple years in the past at this point.
As the show gets toward its closing episodes, Kohan and company display a strong grasp on what these characters have gone through in what was a condensed time period, living and suffering lifetimes over less than two years of story time. The last two episodes, both over an hour and both punctuated by cameos and callbacks, pack an emotional heft — happy and sad, because Orange Is the New Black is introspective enough to understand that not everybody gets a happy ending — the show hasn't approached since the end of the fourth season.
As with any good series finale, you come away appreciating not just the episode or the season, but the opportunity to, as Regina Spektor's opening song goes, "remember all the faces, remember all the voices."
Cast: Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne, Kate Mulgrew, Danielle Brooks, Taryn Manning, Selenis Leyva, Dascha Polanco, Adrienne C. Moore, Yael Stone, Nick Sandow, Jessica Pimentel, Alysia Reiner
Creator: Jenji Kohan
Premieres Friday, July 26, on Netflix.