7:52am PT by Jackie Strause
'Orange Is the New Black' Stars on Lasting Impact of the Trauma of Prison
[This story contains major spoilers from the final season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.]
After a final season that explored the neurodiversity paradigm, Orange Is the New Black left two of its main inmates suffering irreparable cognitive damage after trauma in the series finale.
"They’re abandoned," Yael Stone tells The Hollywood Reporter of the intertwined final image of her and Kate Mulgrew's characters — Lorna and Red, respectively. "They’re out there in the ether holding onto each other as they beam into space."
Mulgrew adds, "Red 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."
Jenji Kohan's Netflix prison dramedy has long exposed how ill-equipped prison is to care for patients with mental health issues. Inside the show's fictional Litchfield Penitentiary, inmates like Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba) and Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty) have put faces to the larger scope of real-life inmates who are discarded in Psych wards or left without proper cognitive care inside America's prison industrial complex.
Aduba won two Emmys for her nuanced portrayal of Suzanne, an inmate who viewers have seen struggle with getting the medication and stability she needs when faced with loss or change. The final season, however, left Suzanne in a place where she was able to cope with her circumstances, even after the death of her roommate Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Taryn Manning) and realizing that her friend Taystee (Danielle Brooks) has been wrongfully convicted.
"[Jenji and executive producer Tara Herrmann] said Suzanne was going to grow up; that she was childlike and was going to go to teenager. There are going to be some things that she gets," Aduba tells THR of her character's final season arc. "She's been walking around believing the system works and that everything happens justly. She learns that it's more complicated than what we think and the idea of making sense of that, what does that look like? She was somewhat more well-rooted by the end of this. This is the first season I felt like Suzanne was in full possession of herself."
Suzanne arrived at her final maturing destination with the help of Pennsatucky. And despite the new warden (Susan Heyward) implementing restorative justice programs and devoting extra care to neurodiverse inmates like Pennsatucky, who suffers from a learning disability, Pennsatucky still became a victim of prison circumstances when she overdosed on fentanyl and died in the penultimate episode. Pennsatucky's death was a shocking blow, given how much the character had evolved. "It’s very hard to escape past trauma and some people make it and a lot of people don’t," Kohan explained of the decision.
But the similarly heartbreaking fates for Lorna and Red, who would go on to join Suzanne in the "Florida" psychiatric ward of the prison, were a slower build.
When Mulgrew got the phone call from Kohan and Herrmann about the final season storyline for her Russian boss of a character, Galina "Red" Reznikov, she had one condition. "I just said, 'Please don’t make it Alzheimer’s.' Because we don’t have enough time to explore and do it justice in the 13 episodes we’re allotted. Let’s make it dementia or PTSD, whatever you want to call it that happens when you're hit too hard, too many times,'" Mulgrew, who wrote about her mother's battle with Alzheimer's in a 2019 memoir, tells THR. "And that’s what happened in the end. I was babbling Russian, cradling Lorna in my arms."
Red receives her diagnosis of early onset dementia toward the end of the season and after the hopeful new warden had already eliminated solitary confinement at Litchfield Max. Citing studies about the detrimental effects of segregating inmates into special housing units (SHU), Warden Tamika Ward (Heyward) shuts down SHU — a place that has formerly housed inmates including Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox) in long stretches of isolation.
Heading into the final season, Red and fellow kitchen boss Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) had each been sent to the SHU and, despite Gloria's attempts to keep her cell neighbor sharp, Red is never the same once she is let out. The final season sees her mind fading from dementia, which was brought on by delirium from solitary confinement.
Mulgrew says she didn't share her family history with the writers, but she wasn't surprised when she heard Red's fate. "If I were Jenji, I would have gone for it too," she says of the "natural, devastating byproduct of aging in prison in this country."
The actress, who does not speak Russian, practiced daily with a language coach so the babbling would come out just as fluidly in the end. "I had to be able to have that so securely in place so I could then embrace dementia," she says. "When you really do flip into that, you’ve actually become that person. When you transcend all of those levels of discipline — when you’re speaking a different language that you really don’t speak in a voice that you don’t really have with a cadence you’ve never heard before — and you’re losing your mind? It’s a hell of a thing."
For Stone, who hails from Australia, the final road for her distinctly voiced inmate also had a close-to-home impact. The penultimate season ended on a cliffhanger for Lorna, who was heavily pregnant and bleeding when rushed to the medical ward in the 2018 finale. During filming, Stone was also pregnant with her first child.
"That was the only time I’ve ever lost control on set after shooting something," Stone, growing emotional, says of the season six finale. "I couldn’t have anticipated how strange that was. I didn’t have any lines. All I had to do was be dragged down the hall and hold my belly and cry. But I have found those lines between real life and acting life difficult; it’s a strange job that we do and sometimes your body doesn’t know the difference. If you’re playing out a lot of trauma again and again, your body doesn’t know that it’s pretend."
Stone, who welcomed her daughter to the world in May 2018, would then return for season seven to play out a devastating road for her character. Lorna, after giving birth prematurely and returning to prison, is told by her husband in a visitation scene that their son died. She suffers a psychiatric break and reverts into a state of denial; a flashback episode, directed by Natasha Lyonne, sheds further light on the delusions Lorna has long suffered from and how they stem from trauma. The flashback revealed how she unintentionally killed a pair of newlyweds.
"Lorna is flawed in all kinds of ways, but I care for her," Stone stays. "And here she was crumbling through my hands. It was terrible. I would need to do a little bit of imagining and it was pretty intense for me to think into a world where she’s lost her baby and she’s not able to grieve properly, and she has no one there for her."
After playing Lorna, Stone says she feels like she has done a "thesis" in self-delusion. "There are some positive stories in 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 says. "She had a flicker, a little moment with Nicky mainly, where things felt real and good. But when you can’t face your truth and know yourself, it’s hard for good things to happen. [Her flashback] was like dropping into a mineshaft of understanding just how deep and scary things had been, and how many layers she had built on top to become that person we met in season one. She had to build a lot of lies and fantasy to present the way she did."
In the end, both women are sent to the cell block nicknamed "Florida" with the older and mentally ill inmates. The owners of Litchfield, which is a private prison, shut down the Psych ward and their solution is to send the elder inmates or those who need extra care to the same cell block to live out the rest of their days. Though Suzanne is also in Florida, she is able to get the care she needs because she has a lifeline in her parents on the outside. Red and Lorna, however, are discarded.
In the final scene, where Red is singing a Russian lullaby to Lorna as she lays in her lap, the two women have found each other, but their futures are dim. "There was such a tenderness and such rest in the unrest. Nothing good was to come, except for this embrace," says Stone about the pair, who have been left by her families on the outside. "To know that Red was a real mother for Lorna, probably like she never had. It was like the mother-daughter relationship both of them have always needed from the beginning that they finally got."
Mulgrew found solace in the subsequent reveal that Red's prison daughter, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), also shifted roles when she put on Red's lipstick and coat and sets out to run the kitchen in Litchfield's immigration detention center. "That’s where Jenji rewarded me, by giving hope to the one I loved. So in the end, Red does get what she wanted most, which was love," says Mulgrew.
Neither actress questioned their sad final arcs, because both women understood the larger stories Kohan and the writers were trying to tell. Piper Kerman, the author and activist whose story inspired the series, is an executive consultant and now advocates for prison reform and better treatment in women’s prisons, including on issues surrounding mental health, solitary confinement and reproductive justice.
"I have had a small amount of involvement in the world of jails and prisons and it’s not a nice life for a lot of people, and it doesn’t go well for a lot of people," Stone says. "It’s really hard on people and on families. It’s also really hard on babies who are born when people are incarcerated and still shackled while giving birth. Even though it’s tragic and horrible and we want nice things to happen, the reality is not often do the really nice things happen."
Mulgrew adds, "Our prison system is so screwed up. It’s privately owned — this is what happens. Jenji is showing what happens. What needs to change is exactly what Piper Kerman has been screaming about for years. The entire thing needs to be gutted, re-thought and completely re-governed. And men’s prisons are 75 percent worse. Incarceration in this society is diabolical. We have no idea what to do."
The series finale of OITNB ends with the hopeful warden who implemented change being pushed out. In her place sits an abusive corrections officer who cares only about the drug-smuggling business he runs in the prison and who will, presumably, un-do any good Warden Ward had accomplished in her small amount of time at the helm.
But after a series of nostalgic returns and an end credits celebration from the final cast, OITNB also reveals its big give-back with the Poussey Washington Fund in the series finale's title card. The criminal justice reform initiative, born out of Taystee's final season storyline, will make an impact by supporting women who are affected by the prison industrial complex after the show ends.
"That happened because we spent seven years telling the stories of people who do not have a voice and who are made up mostly of the most disenfranchised in our society," says Aduba of the intent behind the fund. "To end it in such a way that highlights and gives back to that very community is the most powerful thing Orange could have done, and is really reflective of what television and the platform of television can be."
Stone adds, "When we incarcerate people we do a disservice to ourselves and I think we showed that in our show. There is enormous resource in the people we lock away and when we lock them away, we lock their families away and it’s an enormous disservice to our community. All we have to do is look at the recidivism rates and the story is clear. I wish that I could get in there and change the system and I could reinvent it all. But I think the conversation about the criminal justice system really did get a big shot in the arm from our show. And people started talking about it in a different way."
And when it comes to the characters who are left behind, Aduba hopes that Suzanne can be remembered for helping to change society's approach to mental illness. "The conversation of mental health is one that people don't like to talk about and is one that I hope comes out of the closet, and is more openly discussed and isn’t something that's a joke but a real discussion that is handled with respect and kindness," she says. "That would be my wish for Suzanne and future Suzanne/Crazy Eyes of the world of television — that there be a rootedness or a love behind it when it's written and I hope that could be true for the world at large."
Bookmark THR.com/OITNB for continuing season seven coverage of OITNB, which is streaming on Netflix.