Executive producer Tara Herrmann and the cast drop hints to THR.
[This story contains spoilers from the sixth season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.]
Orange Is the New Black will be breathing in some fresh air when it returns for season seven.
After spending six seasons in the minimum — and now maximum — security prisons of Litchfield Penitentiary, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is returning to life on the outside. The finale of the sixth season of the Jenji Kohan-created drama set Piper free on early release, delivering a major show twist for the main inmate of the Netflix prison dramedy.
With so many lingering questions about how Piper's release — among other cliffhangers — can impact the series, The Hollywood Reporter spoke to a handful of castmembers, along with executive producer Tara Herrmann and writer Brian Chamberlayne, about what to expect when OITNB returns in 2019.
OITNB plans to follow Piper's post-prison journey on the outside, potentially syncing back up with some of Piper Kerman's story, which inspired the creation of the show. "[Jenji] wanted to be able to tell stories about post-prison. It wasn’t just a season-six end, it was partially about getting into the arc of where Piper goes. It’s about what is significant about the criminal justice system and what is significant about Piper’s story and journey, so there’s plenty to be told," Brian Chamberlayne, who wrote the finale episode, told THR of the point of the surprise.
Executive producer Tara Herrmann told THR that Piper is "the grounding force of the show," and while Taylor Schilling has opened up about "getting ready to say goodbye" to the role, she anticipates that Piper's re-entry will play out in pointed contrast to the roads ahead for the other non-white, less-privileged inmates of the series. "Both Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and Blanca (Laura Gomez) have treacherous, devastating roads ahead of them, whereas Piper, given her privilege, has a comparatively easy transition back," said Schilling of the finale's other cliffhangers. As for Piper's potential path to activism if she does follow in Kerman's footsteps, Herrmann summed up: "In my mind, it feels like our Piper has sort of been an Alice in Wonderland, and now she’s somersaulting out of that world. I do think it will take time for her to sort of get her bearings."
The relationship at the center of the show will now be playing out with a set of bars between them. Before Piper's release, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) threw her fiancee a prison wedding, making a statement to each other before being physically separated. Though Alex is still facing four years on her sentence, Schilling is confident that Piper is going to try her best to honor her vows. "I think there comes a point in life to either commit to partnership or to not. Either one is totally valid, but it seems to me that Piper decided to commit to a life lived in tandem with Alex and to just work through the stuff with another human," Schilling told THR.
Prepon agreed that the wedding was a moment "about their union and their love," but acknowledges that life in Litchfield will now look different for Alex, who ripped up her graduate school application and made some drug-related commitments in season six. "I think in the back of her mind, [Alex] knows she's going to have to do some things to survive that aren't going to lend itself to taking classes," Prepon told THR. "And it's unfortunate. Alex is really smart, but it's just one of those realistic things where, especially now with Piper gone, she's going to have to survive."
Taystee Jefferson was betrayed by Cindy (Adrienne Moore) and identified as the inmate who pulled the trigger on corrections officer Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke) during the riot. Despite backing from the ACLU and Black Lives Matter, the jury convicts Taystee for the second-degree murder and sentences her to life in prison. Piscatella was actually killed by an officer in the riot, and Taystee's unjust fate plays out parallel to Piper's good fortune. Chamberlayne told THR that Brooks "really does that character justice," adding, "You want to tell the story that’s true to the world we live in. We talk about this a lot in the writers room — you don’t have a choice but to get a little heartbreaking at times."
In Brooks' mind, Taystee's "headspace is not knowing if life is worth living" when she is brought back to Litchfield in shackles. "That’s just my outlook — I don’t know what’s going to happen. But she’s just gone through so many things at this point that I think she’s really battling: What is hope and what is faith and why do we have it when life just doesn’t throw us any love?" the actress told THR.
Instead of getting out on early release along with Piper, Blanca Flores and a separate group of inmates are split into a new line when exiting Litchfield. As Piper’s group exits the prison grounds, Blanca is instead greeted by ICE agents and a new set of handcuffs. As a devastated Blanca readies to board a bus, Linda Ferguson (Beth Dover) reveals the for-profit prison’s newest venture: immigration detention centers.
Gomez, who left the Dominican Republic and came to the U.S. in 2001, is working with the writers on the personal storyline for season seven. “It seems very obvious that we have walked into another territory with that last moment. I have a sense that we might keep walking in that direction," the actress told THR of her and Blanca's future on OITNB. Herrmann told THR that Blanca's transfer opens an opportunity to tackle more immigration-related storylines, especially since the show threw out its own timeline so it could play out in 2018. "Things change every day, every minute, in terms of what’s going on with the policies," she said. "So we hope to tell some of those stories in the next season."
Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco) became the show's new window into the opioid crisis when she developed an addiction to heroin. Daya, who is now facing life in prison for a murder that only viewers know she didn't commit, turned to drugs to ease the physical pain she was experiencing from the abusive guards. The season ends with her own mother Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) giving up on her, and the actress who plays her similarly sees the future as grim.
"I believe in Daya. I want to say that I believe that she has a chance and I am so hopeful for her, but I don’t believe in the system — I know that she is set up to fail," Polanco, who believes Daya is also experiencing postpartum depression from giving up her daughter, told THR. Still, the actress fantasizes that if the truth were to come out, perhaps Daya could get clean and mend the key relationship in her life. "I know she loves her daughter dearly and that was the hardest thing for her to do," she said. "Hopefully the truth comes out and there is a weight lifted from her shoulders, because then she has some kind of hope that she won’t get life in prison." One other confrontation that could help? Closure between Daya and Bennett (Matt McGorry). "That would be great to see him come back and gives some sort of explanation about why he left. I don’t think she would receive him greatly, but it might give her some self-worth. It would be epic to have one scene where he comes back to visit and it goes off between them," said Polanco.
Suzanne Warren, aka Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), actually holds the key to both Taystee and Daya's freedom. Thanks to Suzanne and Cindy hiding in the pool-bunker after the Litchfield explosion, they both know that the police covered up Piscatella's death by blaming an inmate. Cindy had her chance to come clean, and instead she went along with the cover-up to save herself from added time. Suzanne was also in the infirmary when Kukudio (Emily Althaus) confessed to killing Humphrey (Michael Torpey) by blowing air bubbles into his IV bag and inducing the stroke that killed him — a fact that is unknown to Daya, who initially shot him and surrendered for his murder.
"I hope to God somebody will tell the truth. Maybe that will be the hope. Maybe somebody will come out in season seven and say, 'Hey, this is actually what happened.' Someone who actually has the power to change some things. But it doesn’t look likely that that would be the outcome," said Brooks of the possibility. Suzanne, however, spent much of the season focusing on her own well-being after being denied her medication and experiencing the hallucinations that kicked off the season. "A prison is not equipped in most cases, in my opinion, to deal with mental health issues with any sort of specificity or full range of experience," Aduba tells THR of Suzanne's storyline. "Imprisoning people who are battling mental illness is like treating a foot when you broke your arm; you’re not treating the right thing. I think that’s where we are with the system. It breeds naturally a conversation of: Is every person who is going to trial, being convicted and sentenced to prison being sent to the right place? And do they really stand a chance of rehabilitation if what they’re doing is paying for their crime?"
Questions still swirl around more of the characters of season six. Will Lorna Morello's (Yael Stone) baby survive? And has OITNB seen the last of Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) after her early release? The sixth season provided glimpses of how Lolly Whitehall (Lori Petty) and a retired Sam Healy (Michael Harney) are faring, but a handful of inmates were still missing-in-action by the season's end.
Viewers briefly saw that some inmates from the other bus from the fifth season finale — Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), Ouija (Rosal Colon) and Helen Van Maele (Francesca Curran) — were sent off to a prison facility in Ohio. But the following never appeared: Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and Alison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen); Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn); Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman); Leanne Taylor (Emma Myles) and Angie Rice (Julie Lake); Kasey Sankey (Kelly Karbacz) and Brandy Epps (Asia Kate Dillon); Chang (Lori Tan Chinn), who escaped last season; and, most obvious of all, Maritza Ramos (Danielle Guerrero).
Herrmann and Chamberlayne explained why it was time to refocus on a core group of characters. "The first season is Piper being a fish-out-of-water in the prison," said Chamberlayne. "We get to know all these characters around her, so it’s only fitting that when we’re coming to the end of her story in prison that we see those same characters that we met in season one in this new location where they’re all fish-out-of-water." Whether or not some of the characters will return depends on what comes out of the writers room for season seven. "It has to be organic for us," said Herrmann. "We never want to suddenly be in a world that we haven’t set up. But we love those characters and miss them as storytellers for sure, so we hope to always see them."
OITNB was renewed for a seventh season when the show received a three-season pickup ahead of season four. Last year, Kohan didn't rule out that the seventh season could be the last when speaking to The New York Times. Though both Schilling and Prepon opened up to THR about preparing for the end of the show, if seven is the end, the majority of the main castmembers are not prepared to hang up their jumpsuits as they await news from Netflix.
When asked if Piper's release sets up the show's endgame, Herrmann said OITNB is Jenji's show and that they follow her lead, but she also said the end is always a conversation in the writers room. "The question of 'Is this the end or is this not the end?' is always looming, but truly, we chapter these characters and find where we want to tell these stories as a group," said Herrmann. "So as much as we want to be able to plan for the end — or the end in two seasons or the end in five seasons — we also want to just tell great stories now so no story is ever left behind. The truth of the matter is the show could go on forever and ever. We so enjoy having this show as a place to not only talk about what’s going on in the current climate, but for us as a room, it’s been such a therapeutic place for us to come and share and grow as artists and people. So, it’s an ongoing debate."
As next season follows Piper (and Aleida) outside of prison, the storylines in Max will also be continuing, and Herrmann shed light on how the series will continue to balance comedy with drama. "The organic progression of the series is that we started in camp and it was a little lighter," she said of the nickname given to Litchfield's minimum security facility. "We’ve all started going back and watching old episodes, and it felt like the things they were dealing with were almost like childhood problems; the way you might look back on your childhood and say, 'I stressed over that?' We will always find within the episodes those moments of comedy, but I’m excited that the series has gone here. I'm glad that we are taking a more serious look at the prison system in general."