3:00pm PT by Candice Frederick
How 'Orange Is the New Black' Explores What Freedom Looks Like in Prison Society
[This story contains major spoilers from the entire sixth season, including the finale, of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.]
At first glance, many wouldn't think that Orange Is the New Black — the Netflix dramedy that explores the lives of women in prison — would have a lot to say about freedom. These characters have been forcefully removed from society, dragged into cages with people they otherwise would probably never want to be alone with, and even beaten by their guards into submission.
But throughout its first five seasons, OITNB has tried to present a sense of community among the women at Litchfield Penitentiary that allows them to preserve a glimmer of their identities in an environment designed to dehumanize them. Still, to the average viewer, they may only truly be free once they are released and allowed to re-enter society. Season six, which launched July 27, challenges that notion.
The series has now reached a point when traditional freedom has finally become a viable option for some of its inmates, but with that comes an internal conflict that makes them question whether there is any hope for freedom once they've been contained in — and even grown accustomed to — a broken system for so long.
Piper (Taylor Schilling) finds out that she's going to be released from jail early and is instantly plagued with the fact that she will no longer be able to see her fiancee, Alex (Laura Prepon), every day. Even more frightening, she won't be able to protect her from the schemes and violence that have plagued their shared experience behind bars. Piper has also convinced the guards to allow them to have a softball team in order to build a friendly, nonthreatening environment that also permits them to be outside in the yard. That has delivered a sense of anticipation for the next day, creating an activity to look forward to, a victory Piper has been able to achieve. So, what does it mean to leave this behind and face the outside world again — one that ate her whole and threw her in a cell? For Piper, it presents a legitimate feeling of displacement that promises no real sense of improvement. Because without love, friendship or a potential for accomplishment, freedom is mere lip service.
The same goes for Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), who finds freedom by way of escaping with her correctional officer/lover Charlie (James McMenamin). They're on the run and just barely getting by on a small stash of cash — but they have one another. Still, because her face is splashed all over the news, she has to change her hair, go by a different name and pretend to be a man — just to walk around in the "free" world. She's constantly looking over her shoulder because while she doesn't know when, she knows it's inevitable that she will be recaptured. Ultimately, when she turns herself in, it's not driven by a desire to retain the life that she's familiar with (something that Piper struggles with). Rather, it is an overwhelming feeling of defeat that compels her to return to the system that she realizes will soon find and capture her anyway. Freedom has no real significance if you can't even have your identity and you live in a constant state of fear. There's no progression and there's certainly no fulfillment.
That's proved in Aleida's (Elizabeth Rodriguez) story, too. Until last season, she was doing everything she could to survive prison and biding her time before her release. When she is released, she sees a chance to get a job, regain custody of her four young children and possibly clench some semblance of the American dream. But as viewers see this season, she gets out and almost immediately finds herself doing the same thing that sent her to jail in the first place — dealing drugs. Because of her record, she can't obtain or hold a job and doesn't have the financial stability to get her kids back. Like Pennsatucky, Aleida is trapped living a life where at any moment she can be caught. Aleida is motivated by the fundamental desire for family and love, two things that are synonymous with freedom, and she is unable to claim it. She may no longer be behind bars, but she must still struggle and hustle to achieve basic rights.
Still, Blanca (Laura Gomez), an immigrant prisoner, remains hopeful that her release will give her an opportunity to turn her life around. Ahead of her release, viewers see her excitedly talking with her boyfriend Diablo (Miguel Izaguirre) through the glass window at the prison. They're madly in love and just weeks away from spending the rest of their lives together. But when she finally steps outside in her own clothes, she doesn't get to fall into the arms of Diablo. Instead, Blanca is greeted by ICE agents and a bus as the rebranded MCC, PolyCon, reveals its new immigration detention centers. Blanca doesn't even get to reclaim the modest life she once had, which was filled with struggle but gave her a sense of happiness. With her future seemingly decided for her, she will soon be forced back to the country from which she fled and a life she tried to leave behind. She's given no choice and her opinion on it is inconsequential.
Unlike the aforementioned women, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) has to seek freedom from within the prison walls. Still reeling from Poussey's (Samira Wiley) slaying at the hands of an officer and the riot that followed her death, Taystee is fingered as the culprit in his death and has to bargain for a limited amount of freedom within the system. This is particularly gutting as OITNB viewers have become invested in Taystee as she navigated the throes of prison life as a compassionate young woman reckoning with the terrible decision from her past that put her there. Now, she's facing a life sentence in a maximum-security facility. And there is no one she can count on to give her even a little leniency. Freedom in every sense has become a mere pipe dream for the woman with no family outside of Litchfield.
After spending time at Litchfield, each of these characters have had to adjust their ideals of freedom. Even more profoundly, they've been forced to surmise whether their prison sentence is the closest thing to freedom that they'll ever experience again. It's dreadful to ponder, but it has become the very thought on which these inmates subsist.
Season six of Orange Is the New Black is now streaming on Netflix. Bookmark THR.com/OITNB for more show coverage.