'Orange Is the New Black' Star Dascha Polanco Reveals Series Finale Fate

The final season of the Netflix prison dramedy ended on a cliffhanger for the character of Daya Diaz.
Courtesy of Netflix
Dascha Polanco in '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 had the immense task of wrapping up multiple character storylines before signing off after seven seasons. And while Jenji Kohan's Netflix prison dramedy accomplished that feat in its final run, one main character's ending was purposefully left up in the air.

Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco), who is better known as Daya within the confines of Litchfield Penitentiary, ended her story similar to how it began. In the first episode of the series, viewers are introduced to Daya's incarcerated mother when Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) slaps her daughter across the face. Aleida, viewers come to realize, has made many mistakes as a mother. But her disappointment in her daughter showing up at Litchfield is what drives Aleida to lash out in anger.

In the series finale, Aleida once again sees red, and this time her rage response is driven by an inherent need to protect her other daughters. Throughout OITNB's run, Aleida and Daya have represented the plights that incarcerated mothers and daughters face and how the generational cycle can continue without proper care on the inside or adequate support on the outside. After getting released two seasons ago, Aleida ends up back at Litchfield when she violates her parole; her story of recidivism playing out as a parallel to the more privileged leading inmate of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling).

In the final moments of the series, the mother of five finds out that Daya is attempting to pull another one of Aleida's daughters into their cycle and takes matters into her own hands. Confronted with the woman her daughter has become, Aleida strangles Daya. The image viewers are left with is one of Aleida on top of Daya with her hands around her neck as Daya struggles to breathe through an injured windpipe.

"How perfectly poetic and tragic," Rodriguez tells The Hollywood Reporter of the final scene, which she says bookended her entire OITNB experience. After filming Aleida's introductory slap on the first day of filming, Aleida and Daya's final moment was one of the last to shoot. "You hope that it's not definitive, because there's already so much tragedy. Aleida's flashback shows how pain can make you get to a point of rage but here, she could also be thinking, 'Daya can't live this way, I have to do this to her.'"

Polanco, however, says she got a definitive note from the writers about Daya's fate.

"They made it very clear to me that I don’t die," she tells THR. "I thought that she did. But the writers told me, 'She doesn’t die, but she gets knocked out really good.' And I realized it was going to be left as that question."

Below, in a chat with THR, Polanco reflects on Daya's heartbreaking evolution ("Her story is the product of a cycle"), shares what she would have liked to see for her character's ending and challenges Hollywood to continue to follow in OITNB's footsteps.

The majority of the cast had no idea how big their parts — or the show — would become when signing on for OITNB in 2012. How did the role of Daya exceed your expectations?

The description for Daya was basically just a Hispanic girl in prison. I remember that my audition scene was with my mom and she was telling me, "You need to stay away from hamburgers." I worked so many jobs at the time and was in nursing school. Everything went season by season; I didn’t even know if I was going to be a part of the second. But the response from the audience all over the world was very surprising. This was my first experience on a show with a platform like Netflix. Other people came from network television, but I had nothing to compare. Orange reached the masses and our audience was all over. Seven years later, it’s still mind-boggling that I can walk around somewhere like France and hear someone calling my name. And from a business perspective, Orange taught me what I want as a woman moving forward in this industry.

Daya entered the show as someone who was sweet and sensitive; an artist and loner trying to navigate prison with her mother. Her relationship with C.O. Bennett (Matt McGorry) was a fan-favorite romance; then everything changed when they got pregnant and schemed to have Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) take the fall. On a larger scale, the storyline explored the culture of sexual abuse between guards and inmates. At the time, were your nervous about the response?

At first I was also like, "This is a love story. This is so cute." Then, after stepping out of it, you realize we are in a prison and this is not allowed. This is abuse of power. But we can't pretend that it doesn’t happen. I met a woman who had a relationship with a guard while she was incarcerated. She remembers that he fell so in love with her that he would still write her when he wasn’t there and outside, when she was released, they stayed in touch. He fell in love with her. You hear those stories. You see the dynamics in there and the dynamics of women who fall in love with each other. They build relationships to survive and that’s what Daya’s story shows: Her hoping to survive within her limits and within the circumstances she was dealt.

Matt McGorry was written out because he booked another job. Were there ever plans to bring him back in any capacity for closure?

The response was, "How could he leave you?” People were so mad about it and they’re still mad about it! But I stayed in my Daya lane. I would never inquire. I was very careful at the time. I try to be as professional as I can and not ruffle any feathers. It was my first opportunity so I cared for it with such delicacy because I didn’t want it to leave my hands. 

All of those early traumas led to Daya picking up the gun and setting off the riot for season five. She grants Pornstache's mother custody of her daughter and turns herself in before viewers see her again in Max. What did you know about how dark things would turn for her in these final two seasons?

I had no idea if I was going to come back or not [after season five]. I didn’t even know what to say for interviews. I was waiting and waiting to get that call saying, “You’re back. Don’t worry.” I did not know that was going to be the last thing you would see of Daya for the season. I was waiting for reassurance, but when you have such a large cast, there’s a lot going on and it’s more about how everything is going to move. I think their concentration was on the bigger picture.

Jenji Kohan and executive producer Tara Herrmann called the series regulars to tell you season seven would be the end and, for the first time, they filled you in on your season's arc. How did you react to the show coming to an end?

We got the call before we went back for season seven. This season we started a little bit later in August, so it ran into February. But when we found out, everybody was getting the calls around the same time. The reaction was: "Wait, is this call to tell me that I’m done or that the show’s going to continue?" Every season I was like, "Is this the last?" Because they weren’t so affirmative when it came to how long this show would go. I do think it could have gone 10 seasons. There’s so much that we need to cover that could have kept us going. We could have gone for at least three more years, but we are ending strong.

Daya is facing life in prison. She developed a dependence on drugs to get by, but she takes things up a notch this season when she takes over Litchfield's drug trade. First, she (accidentally) killed girlfriend Daddy (Vicci Martinez) and in the end, she sets up her own mother and puts her siblings in jeopardy. When you see how far she has fallen in Litchfield, have you reconciled with how Daya’s story ends?

Oh, Daya. I’m going to miss her. I wanted her to have a moment of closure with Bennett. I wanted her to inquire about her daughter. I wanted more of Pornstache. Though we do see him [at the end] with Daya's baby, I wanted to see Daya actually inquire about her daughter. I would have loved to see that interaction. Her curiosity as a mother, her artistry — that all became obsolete. That’s what happens when you have no hope.

Viewers never actually see a dead Daya. What were your conversations like with Kohan and the writers about leaving it up in the air?

They made it very clear to me that I don’t die. I thought that she did. But the writers told me, "She doesn’t die, but she gets knocked out really well." And I realized it was going to be left as that question. I acted that out really well, huh? (Laughs.)

Yes! 

Because I said, "Wait a minute! Does she die?" That was explained to me.

What was it like to film that final scene with Elizabeth Rodriguez?

The entire last episode was super emotional. Everyone was in their feelings and reliving moments: "Remember when we were here?” After she knocks me out, I would start crying or getting emotional. Not for the scene itself, but for the last couple of days they had everyone come in and we took a "last seven seasons” group picture.

Daya was broken by the system. But to hear that she doesn't die in the end, do you see a path of redemption for her? And what do you want people to take away from her story?

Daya is really a diamond in the rough. Although she’s not [finished], she learned how to love and how to fail and how to succeed to the best of her circumstances, and I respect her for that. I know that she’ll come back stronger than she ever thought she would. And learn some Spanish, maybe! 

Her story is the product of a cycle that we, as a community, need to intervene in. If we really had a true justice system where it’s set up for incarcerated individuals to succeed, we would see less of this type of evolution. You have a woman who is pregnant, incarcerated, shackled to the bed, can’t even nurse her child. Abuse of power is involved, [the cycle] of mothers and daughters and there are mental health issues that need to be addressed, as well as postpartum. There are a lot of things to address in there to help an individual evolve, educate themselves and get the support they need in order to not fall into this again.

The system is broken and it’s very obvious when we see all these stories. A lot of them end up there because there is no assistance and no support. They’re the forgotten ones. Now, because of this show, we see more people involved in prison reform and having a more open mind. People who have had no experience with the judicial system or have been privileged and who hear this story and think, “It could have been different for me” and “What’s going on?” We see more of that now and that’s a beautiful thing. I got to play the role of a character where everybody agrees she shouldn’t be there. Yes, she will serve her time. But, how are we going to assist and help her during that period?

OITNB cracked open a door for representation on TV. As you turn to your next projects (Russian Doll, When They See Us, In the Heights), are you finding that it's easier to get the roles you want?

A lot of the roles that I have auditioned for are not necessarily lead roles — and I’m auditioning for them. It’s hard out here. Even now. You would think that being a part of such a huge show that you would have roles left and right. We’re all out here, all of us. Some of us have booked huge things and have their next show down the line and some of us are still auditioning. We need diversity behind the scenes. Change has to go across the board. We’re seeing something beautiful with Ava [DuVernay] and the black community, we're getting more opportunities there. But it’s like one particular ethnicity or race at a time. What we saw growing up was that if you’re Latin, you can only play Mexican. Orange did the job of displaying different ethnicities within the Latin community, but we need more. We have a lot of years to catch up and there’s a lot of work to be done.

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

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.