'Orange Is the New Black' Stars Unpack All the Series Finale Endings (and Surprises)

The executive producers and main ensemble speak to The Hollywood Reporter about the characters' fates in the final season of the Netflix prison dramedy.
Courtesy of Netflix
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) in the final season of 'Orange Is the New Black'

[This story contains major spoilers from the final season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.]

Orange Is the New Black went into its seventh and final season with ambitious ground to cover.

In the season six finale, Jenji Kohan's prison dramedy had released starring inmate Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), sent Dominican inmate Blanca Flores (Laura Gómez) into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody and returned wrongfully convicted Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) to the maximum security facility at Litchfield Penitentiary. All three cliffhangers — as specific as they may be — ended up paving three diverging paths for OITNB to follow in order to deliver the final season's range of (hopeful to devastating to corrupt) endings for all of the characters who have touched the show's prison industrial complex. 

"Empathy is hopefully a legacy," creator Jenji Kohan tells The Hollywood Reporter of the overall message. "We hope the cultural impact is empathy and recognition of the humanity of the other, of people who aren’t familiar to you; of broadening opinions and feelings and opening up empathy."

Keeping that in mind, THR spoke with the sprawling main cast of the groundbreaking series in order to dive into how their respective stories ended.

Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon)

Remaining central to the show all the way through is Piper and her relationship with Alex. The pair got married before Piper's early release only to be separated while Alex serves out the remainder of a four-year sentence. In a bid to survive the long distance, both women agreed to an open marriage and explored other sexual relationships — Piper with new friend Zelda (Alicia Witt) and Alex in a more treacherous liaison with corrections officer Artesian McCullough (Emily Tarver) — before eventually finding their way back to one another. When a scorned McCullough initiates Alex's transfer to a maximum security facility in Ohio (opening the door for the nostalgic return of many characters; more on that below), Piper follows Alex to Ohio for a fresh start. Before the screen fades to orange for one final time, Piper, now taking law classes, working at Starbucks and living a "clean" life (in a full-circle pilot reference), visits with Alex in Ohio for a happy and committed reunion.

"We were happy that it ended with them being together," Prepon tells THR. "Because we do a lot of things that are realistic, a lot of times it’s not a happy ending. I wasn’t sure if they were going to go the ultra-realistic route and keep them apart, or if they were going to give that to the fans and to have Alex and Piper be together, and luckily they did. It was the right thing to do." Jason Biggs, who returned for a pivotal scene as Larry Bloom (who is expecting a baby with Polly, played by Maria Dizzia), adds to THR: "It felt good and happy and positive and like the way to end it. When I left after season two, I didn’t have much closure. So to be able to come back and have this final moment with Taylor was wonderful."

Piper Kerman, whose book Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison inspired the series and who continues to serve as an executive consultant on the show, points out that her true story has diverged wildly from the Piper Chapman viewers have been following for seven seasons. But the happy ending for OITNB's Piper and Alex is a "tribute to all of the prison families who fight to stay connected to their loved ones who are behind bars," Kerman tells THR of the core relationship, which was groundbreaking in its authentic same-sex portrayal when the show launched in 2013. "That's something you will see in every single prison visiting room in this country — some version of love, whether it's romantic or friendship or family. Those lifelines to the outside world are essential." (Kerman and the real Larry Smith also made a cameo in the visitation scene.)

Cindy "Black Cindy" Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore)

By tracking Piper's return to society, OITNB was able to highlight the parallels of recidivism and reentry when juxtaposing Piper's inherent privilege against the plights of other released inmates like Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and, later in the season, Cindy. Piper faces many challenges as she tries to meet the demands of her parole officer, secure a job as a felon and reassimilate to the life she once knew. In the end, her re-entry struggles pale in comparison to Aleida, who finds herself back in Max for breaking her parole, and Cindy, who ends up temporarily homeless.

Kohan and executive producer Tara Herrmann told THR that Moore had the biggest impact on her final season arc and swayed the bosses to give Cindy a happier ending. After betraying best friend Taystee during her trial, Cindy finds herself ostracized while serving out the rest of her days in prison. She gets released early in exchange for her cooperation, but her homecoming is cut short when her biological daughter receives a letter from Taystee informing her that Cindy is actually her mother. Cindy, at first, reacts to the secret being out by leaving her mother's house and living on the streets. Ultimately, she decides to find a path back to her family and takes steps toward a reconciliation.

"As the person who has sat with her for seven years and who knows her in and out, there was always this desire to do better," Moore tells THR of her Cindy argument. "She has made mistakes, but she wants to make the right choices. I was happy they listened to that. The recidivism rate is very high in our prison system. Part of that reason is that a lot of times a person comes out of prison but the mindset about them doesn’t change. For Cindy, despite what other people think or say, she decided she was going to root for herself; do what she had to do to atone and move forward." The season, however, still ended without any progress for the former friends, to which Moore adds: "Cindy has definitely asked for forgiveness. It’s really the question of whether or not Taystee will forgive her."

Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks)

The biggest parallel on OITNB has always been the one between Piper and Taystee. Now facing a life sentence for a murder she didn't commit, Taystee spends most of the season debating whether or not to kill herself, and narrowly escapes one attempt after putting a rope around her neck in her prison cell. Ultimately, it's the tragic fate of another inmate, Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning), and the memory of the best friend she lost, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley, making a cameo), that pushes her back towards the light. Taystee's story ends without justice — her appeal was denied — but she finds a reason to live in giving back with the Poussey Washington Fund, an initiative that the OITNB team decided to bring to life after writing Taystee's storyline. 

"We wanted to give that story to Taystee and let that be her legacy," says Herrmann of turning the idea for a financial literacy course into a real criminal justice reform fund. "We didn’t create exactly the version we did in the show where it’s micro-loans for recently released inmates, but the organization helps eight really great charities who are already doing good work." (More info here.)

Brooks tells THR she found out about the real-life fund, which Taystee created with the help of former celebrity inmate Judy King (Blair Brown), when filming. Brooks' call to Judy King was also the final scene filmed of OITNB. "When they told me about Taystee's arc, they said there was something else happening. But it didn’t register that it was real until I started shooting and was asking for more information," says Brooks, who also sings her new OITNB-inspired song "Seasons" over the end credits (the version in the finale was sung by Brooks on the final day of filming). "I feel very grateful and happy that I get to announce [the fund], in a way, through the storytelling. I hope that people view the final Taystee scene as a renewal of what she’s coming into now and how she’s accepting this thing that she can’t change in a positive way and making it work for her."

Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning)

Elsewhere in Max, that aforementioned lack of a lifeline or any support is what ends up sending two characters down hopeless paths and one is Pennsatucky. In perhaps the biggest evolution of all of OITNB's characters, the former villain had turned her life around by the final season. Spending most of her time with Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba) in the preferred cell block nicknamed "Florida," the redeemed Pennsatucky was focusing on earning a GED education with Taystee as her tutor and helping those around her, like Suzanne. But when Daya runs out the GED teacher, Pennsatucky, who only newly realized she has suffered from a learning disability her whole life, has no support during her test and is unable to finish. In a moment of utter frustration, she overdoses on fentanyl. Taystee, who is the one to find her lifeless body, later finds out that Pennsatucky actually passed the exam.

"Sometimes, as much as we want to grow, it’s very hard to escape past trauma and some people make it and a lot of people don’t," says Kohan of Pennsatucky's fate. Herrmann adds, "And a lot of people especially in prison."

Manning admits to THR that the ending made her "bummed" because of Pennsatucky's growth, but ultimately she accepted her fate for the larger impact it will have in illuminating the opioid crisis. "It was an accident, for sure," says the actress of her character's intentions. "What was on purpose was self-sabotage, as we all do where we just throw caution to the wind and say, 'Fuck it.' She just was so hurt inside." After she dies, viewers see her spirit return for a final sendoff.

Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba)

Suzanne spent most of last season struggling with the reality of her current situation. She witnessed the C.E.R.T. officers killing C.O. Piscatella (Brad William Henke), but let Cindy convince her to keep quiet about it and let Taystee go down for the murder as a result. The inmate, who has mental health issues, finds a friend in "Florida" roommate Pennsatucky, who helps her to trick Taystee and Cindy into a reconciliation, Parent Trap-style. When that doesn't work, Suzanne journals the truth and sends it to Taystee, offering the latter a sliver of hope in her case for an appeal, though it quickly gets shot down.

Ultimately, Suzanne ends up suffering more loss when Pennsatucky overdoses and by the time Cindy is released, she still hasn't succeeded in reuniting the former friends. But, for the first time, Suzanne is prepared to accept the circumstances. In the end, she might have failed to prepare her chickens for life outside the coop, but she is back by Taystee's side and helping her friend teach her new class.

"She's been walking around believing the system works and that everything happens justly. We have watched her lose people so many different ways — whether that's love, maternal figures, friendships — this is the first season where I felt like Suzanne was in full possession of herself. And I was happy to see that," Aduba tells THR of her childlike character growing up in ways. "When she was no longer seeking outside of herself for love or validation, she had it for herself. And to have lost yet another friend, it's heartbreaking. But she has a rootedness about her. She was somewhat more well-rooted by the end of this."

Dayanara "Daya" Diaz (Dascha Polanco)

Daya is also left with no lifeline to the outside world after being abandoned by C.O. Bennett (Matt McGorry), giving up her daughter to the household of biological father George "Pornstache" Mendez (Pablo Schreiber) and turning herself in for a life sentence for shooting (but, unknown to her, not killing) a guard and inciting the prison-wide riot. When Daya links up with prison supplier Daddy (Vicci Martinez) — who Daya accidentally kills to start off the final season — and develops a drug dependence, even her mother Aleida, who is helping to sell the drugs, gives up on her. When Aleida is returned to prison after breaking her parole, the tumultuous mother-daughter pair once again find themselves at odds when Aleida discovers that Daya has recruited little Eva in the family business. In a bid to save her other children from following their same path, Aleida ends their power struggle by strangling her daughter in a cliffhanger attack. 

Though Orange does not explicitly reveal Daya's fate, Polanco tells THR that the writers clued her in on the ultimate outcome. Still, Polanco says she wished Daya was shown inquiring about her daughter in the end, when viewers are treated to a glimpse of Pornstache caring for her baby. "Her artistry, her curiosity as a mother. That all became obsolete. That’s what happens when you have no hope," she says.

Schreiber, meanwhile, tells THR of his series finale return: "The Pornstache of season one would not be the one you'd want to leave your baby with, that's for sure. He was a particularly awful, horrendous guy that we showed a certain side of, and then had a chance to flip that on its head a little bit. I thought that the amount we used it was just right."

Blanca Flores (Laura Gómez)

Blanca's cliffhanger transfer provided OITNB with the opportunity to expand Litchfield's world and go inside ICE detention centers for a powerful final season arc. After first exploring the injustices of prison privatization when Litchfield was bought by owners MCC-turned-PolyCon, the final season's ICE facility illuminated the injustices of a for-profit detention center as it swallowed many old and new characters in its orbit (and even saw the return of Lori Tan Chinn's Chang, who was a fugitive after the riot). 

The final season fleshed out the romance between Blanca, who is Dominican, and Diablo (Miguel Izaguirre), who is Honduran. Both immigrated to the U.S. and were documented when Blanca went to prison, but Blanca's charge for the riot and Diablo's pending green card renewal resulted in Blanca having to fight for her permanent resident status and Diablo getting deported after a visit to Blanca at the ICE facility. Ultimately, Blanca is able to reopen her criminal case and gets the riot conviction overturned. She gets both her freedom and her green card back, and still she decides to leave America to be with Diablo in Honduras. 

Gómez, who had input on Blanca's final arc, tells THR: "You can’t get more real than when she sacrifices everything to go with him to this country. He says, 'What are you doing here?' And she says, 'Where else would I be?' She is the most unlikely character to have such a beautiful love story."

Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero)

Litchfield's ICE facility also pulled back in fan-favorite Maritza. The inmate, who had been missing since the finale of the season five riot separation, is returned to Litchfield when she's caught up in an ICE raid. Maritza had gotten out of prison during the time that passed, but she soon discovers that her mother lied to her about being born in America. When she finds out that she was actually born in Colombia, she still opts to help the detainees around her and shares a number for a free lawyer, catching the eye of the ICE agents. In the fifth episode of the final season, she is deported back to Colombia and, in a special effect, vanishes on an outbound plane never to return. 

"I was hoping Orange would talk about immigration and ICE facilities. I saw the seeds planted with Blanca and all I could do was say, 'Please tell this story and I hope that I’m a part of it.' And they called," Guerrero tells THR of returning to tell Maritza's story, which differs from her own (Guerrero's parents were deported to Colombia when she was 14). "They said, “We’ve done our research. It doesn’t look like your personal story.' I was so grateful for that because there are so many different 'immigration stores' that one could have. It’s not just the one."

Guerrero hopes the "vanishing" effect will help illustrate to viewers how people are treated when they are deported. "That sentiment that you vanish is true. It’s as if you’ve never existed. Maritza is on that plane to an uncertain life," she says of the well-researched story, which also provided for a Flaritza reunion when some of the Litchfield inmates were appointed to run the detention center kitchen. "I really wanted [Jackie Cruz's Marisol "Flaca" Gonzales] and I to do something different. I was excited for us to be together in a moment where it was really serious and we had to help each other in order to survive. Our characters needed some of that redemption."

Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva)

Gloria was another character viewers learned a lot more about in the final season. A flashback revealed the mother of two boys had left two daughters in Puerto Rico when she first came to New York in hopes of making a better life for her family. By the time she was settled, her older daughters decided not to join her. That new information, coupled with Gloria's predicament in the detention center kitchen, further drove home OITNB's overall message of the range of challenges incarcerated mothers face.

Gloria was inching towards her release, but she still risked her date to help the detainees, including Blanca and Maritza. When an illegal cellphone is discovered by the guards, Gloria makes the choice to name herself, instead of seeking revenge on Maria Ruiz (Jessica Pimentel) and giving another mother, enemy or not, more added time. Ultimately, C.O. Luschek (Matt Peters) takes ownership of the cellphone and Gloria is released. While she is enjoying a reunion with her children, including one of her daughters and her granddaughter, Flaca is seen continuing the good they started by helping detainees. 

"In the early days, Gloria says, 'I have four kids.' She says it in a 'don’t mess with me, I’ve seen it all' way. There’s a very brief moment where she’s talking about her daughters and I thought, 'I want to know what happened there,'" Leyva tells THR of waiting to find out more of Gloria's history all series long. "I’ve had closure. I was really hoping that they wouldn’t leave it in limbo. This is the type of ending Gloria deserves and I'm happy they gave it to her. This is someone who has sacrificed so much." She adds: "When they told me Gloria was going to take over the kitchen because Red was falling apart, I also remember thinking, 'What a sad ending for Kate Mulgrew’s character.'"

Galina "Red" Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew)

The once vibrant Red had been put through the wringer during both the riot and the trip to Max. Emerging as a formidable foe for Piscatella, she was targeted and scalped by the abusive guard. And when they all got shipped down to Max, she was named as an instigator and given added time. But it's when she lunged at Frieda Berlin (Dale Soules) and risked the chance to see her family that everything would change. She was put into SHU and the time spent in that cell would result in irreparable damage. After struggling most of season six, Red is diagnosed with early-onset dementia, driving home the detrimental effects of solitary confinement.

"To see Red brought down by circumstances is one thing. But to see her brought down by the betrayal of others. And just missing by inches what she could have been and what she could have had. Missing by a sliver of time," Mulgrew reflects to THR about Red's fate. "It was the single, strongest, bravest and best soul and they took her down. And I knew that they would. Because that’s what happens to people in prison."

Mulgrew had one request to Kohan and Herrmann when they told her about Red's arc: "I just said to Jenji, 'Please don’t make it Alzheimer’s,' which is my direct experience with my mother. Because we don’t have enough time to explore and do it justice in the 13 episodes that were allotted. Let's make it dementia or PTSD, whatever happens when you’re hit too hard, too many times. And that’s what happened in the end. I was babbling Russian, cradling Lorna in my arms."

Lorna Morello (Yael Stone) 

Lorna also had a devastating road in season six. The inmate who often suffers from self-delusion reverted to old behavior upon discovering that her prematurely born baby, Sterling, had died. Instead of leaning into her grief, Lorna remains in denial about her son's death, prompting husband Vinny (John Magaro) to ask for a divorce. She tells her inmates stories about her baby and launches an Instagram account with stock photos. A flashback, however, revealed that Lorna had accidentally killed a pair of newlyweds and her response to the incident helped explain her real-time behavior, which saw her floating further from reality without any lifeboat.

In the end, not even Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) can save her, and Lorna is shipped off to Florida where she is last seen sucking her thumb while Red sings her a Russian lullaby. "They’re abandoned. They’re out there in the ether holding onto each other as they beam into space. It’s the end and it’s very sad," Stone tells THR of the pair.

"We want nice things to happen, but that's not the reality," she continues of Lorna shining a light on how women can be discarded while incarcerated. "There are some positive stories this season but Lorna’s isn’t one of them. And, in some ways, Lorna was very unlikely to be one of them because she was never able to be honest with herself in a long-term way. She had a little flicker, a little moment with Nicky mainly, where things felt real and good. But when you can’t face your truth and know yourself at all, it’s hard for good things to happen."

Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne)

Nicky experienced continuous loss this season, as she was forced to grapple with Red's diagnosis, let go of Lorna and mourn the most meaningful romance she's ever had when Egyptian Shani (Marie-Lou Nahhas), whom Nicky met while working in the kitchen detention center, is abruptly deported. In the end, however, its Nicky who ends up comforting Red, marking another shifting of roles among the touching trio of Nicky, Red and Lorna.

"Lorna was just devastating. I remember that first scene Kate and I did together in the bathroom where Nicky is dope sick and Red is holding her and I was just weeping. And it was real; we were actually weeping," Lyonne tells THR of early seasons behind the scenes. "And then to do those scenes with Kate at the end where she's at the doctor's office and Kate and I were weeping again, everything was backed each time by the truth of the story we'd taken. It had gotten so beyond method in a way that I'm assuming is the great upshot of doing a series for seven years, where can just automatically drop in because you have all that legwork of back story and the why of it all."

The image viewers are left with is Nicky indeed growing up, as she puts on Red's lipstick, hat and coat and takes over the detention center kitchen. "Nicky really did have those growing pains," says Lyonne, who was again seen weeping in the ending credits. "She kept trying to go back to drugs as an answer. I think it was a very honest journey for her that, at a certain point, she became the parent and the dynamic between Red and Nicky flipped."

Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) and Natalie "Fig" Figueroa (Alysia Reiner)

After the events of the riot, former warden Caputo was sidelined and spent most of season six fighting for Taystee during her trial. Now, Caputo is teaching a restorative justice class and hoping to procreate with his live-in girlfriend, Fig, who has taken over his old job. But PolyCon's Linda Ferguson (Beth Dover) replaces Fig with one of Caputo's students, Tamika Ward (Susan Heyward). Tamika ends up implementing a handful of prison reform programs under Caputo's influence, including the GED program and chicken farm therapy, and closes the SHU, eliminating solitary confinement at Litchfield. But when the chickens are eventually used to smuggle drugs (an ironic first season callback), Tamika is blamed and fired, and replaced with the abusive, drug-smuggling corrections officer Hellman (Greg Vrotsos) to illustrate Fig's constant point that anyone who wants to do good at Litchfield ultimately gets spit out.

The final season put both Caputo and Fig on redemptive journeys: Caputo is hit with a #MeToo claim from former guard Susan Fischer (Lauren Lapkus), forcing him to reconcile his past offensive behavior; and Fig subverts her own "ICE queen" reputation when faced with the horrors of the new facility she has been appointed to run. Reiner says her character's turning point was when she helped a Guatamalan detainee (Melinna Bobadilla), who was raped while traveling to America, induce an abortion. In the end, Fig and Caputo pivot and adopt a young girl. "That was not the plan. And that’s a beautiful thing about this show and the journey of Fig: We plan and God laughs. The journey is not always what we anticipate. By the end, she really has become a different woman," Reiner tells THR. Sandow adds: "I had an idea, my instinct was about a baby, because I knew how much that had meant to Caputo from my flashback."

Ultimately, Reiner hopes the show's final note about the corruptive warden cycle hits home. How much of the restorative good that was accomplished this season will be undone by Warden Hellman, an appointee of PolyCon? "What’s happening on our borders is about money and about our current administration supporting certain corporations," she says of a private prison like Litchfield. "Our current administration is deeply supporting corporate finance and the money that goes into the private prison system, which is also the money that goes into these detention centers."

Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox)

Sophia was granted early release, along with Piper, after making a deal with PolyCon's Linda. She was first approached by Caputo and asked to speak out about her mistreatment in solitary confinement to help Taystee's case. But when Linda offered her early release and a significant sum of money for her silence, Sophia took the settlement so she could put her wife and son first. Piper and Sophia have a brief run-in with their parole officer and then reunite at the salon Sophia has opened.

When Cox signed up for what would become a groundbreaking role on television, all she knew was that Sophia was "a transgender woman who was in prison who's a hairstylist," she tells THR. In her first-ever scene, Sophia tells new inmate Piper she should visit the salon so she can fix her highlights, providing for another full-circle moment for both characters on the outside. "Something shifted with Orange Is the New Black around trans representation; representation of women and women of color on television in general," says Cox, who just nabbed her third Emmy nom for the role. "And hopefully we were able to highlight that solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment, and something that no one should have to experience."

The Surprises (and End Credits)

The chickens ended up serving as a metaphor for the entire series, but they weren't the only major callback. Alex's transfer to Ohio Max gave OITNB the opportunity to check in on a slew of former characters who had gone missing from the show since the season five finale. A consequence of the riot was that the Litchfield inmates were sent away on separate buses — the ones who continued on the show were sent down the hill to Max, and the characters who were written off, it was revealed in the series finale, had all been sent to the Max facility in Ohio.

"The change of location [to Max] provided the opportunity [to refocus on a core group of characters]. That first season is Piper being a fish-out-of-water in the prison, so it’s only fitting that when we’re coming to the end of her story in prison that we see the characters in this new location where they’re all fish-out-of-water," executive producer Brian Chamberlayne had explained of the cast trimming for season six. Kohan says the room missed all the characters who didn't return, which is why the series finale welcomed back so many familiar faces for both the finale and end-credits montage (below), which saw the cast filming rolling goodbyes.

The final moments gave viewers glimpses of Red's old kitchen crew and family, including Carrie "Big Boo" Black (Lea DeLaria), Gina Murphy (Abigail Savage), Norma Romano (Annie Golden), Anita DeMarco (Lin Tucci) and Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman). Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) and Alison Abdullah (Amanda Stephen) of the Ghetto Dorm crew were seen on the track, where a changed Kasey Sankey (Kelly Karbacz) was approaching Brook Soso (Kimiko Glenn), who was last seen mourning girlfriend Poussey. Leanne Taylor (Emma Myles) and Angie Rice (Julie Lake), meanwhile, are still pantsing each other. "I didn't have that opportunity [for closure] when they loaded us on the buses. Because who knew what that was going to be?" DeLaria, who had also returned for a season six cameo, tells THR of the collective uncertainty the cast faced at the end of the fifth season. "It was really nice to be able to just say goodbye."

Bookmark THR.com/OITNB for continuing season seven coverage of OITNB, which is streaming on Netflix.