The following review is spoiler-free.
Orange is the New Black was never going to get a happy ending.
At some point or another, the series Orange is the new Black had to accept that not everyone could be saved from its notoriously punishing setting. No matter how many seasons they were given, certain characters would always have to face their lifelong sentences and unjust convictions. Some wrongs from prior seasons could never be righted. Some perpetrators would go unpunished. Some inner demons would continue to haunt.
To let up on those realities would undermine the series’ Emmy-winning credibility and risk turning a great story into flimsy fan service. Simply put, if OITNB wanted to stick the landing on its six-year run, that meant leaving people behind.
It’s a frustrating limitation of art imitating the more brutal aspects of life, and could have made for a bleak conclusion. But in her seventh and final OITNB installment, creator Jenji Kohan delivers a goodbye so hopeful and moving it’s easy to forget you’re watching a long-running sendup of the broken U.S. Justice System.
Honest yet optimistic, OITNB Season 7 plays more like a swan song, a tearful farewell to the survivors, victims, and villains of a deeply felt fictional world.
Season 7 is a return to the form that captivated so many viewers. Finding its way back from a divisive Season 5 and an underwhelming Season 6, the series’ last episodes deliver poignant reflections as well as high-stakes drama, the kinds that made the show a hit in the first place.
Character arcs are completed spectacularly, with virtually no surviving Litchfield woman escaping a brief cameo. Storylines are wrapped up tidily, and their shared histories appreciated for the emotional Rubik’s cube that they are.
Those lost to previous seasons are honored by dialogue — with talk of Poussey’s death, thoughts on the world-shaking riot, acknowledgments of those inmates transferred to Ohio, and reflections on those forgotten as early as Season 2. Plus, the infamous chicken makes a comeback and Red sets up that eggplant joke one last time.
But it’s not all nostalgia. Always tapped into modern discourse, OITNB delivers two new characters this season, each with timely and satisfying arcs. Their narratives take place within an ICE detainment facility, Litchfield’s latest expansion and the perfect setting to examine xenophobia and bias against immigrants. There’s more here than a single season of television can handle, but OITNB uses plenty of its remaining runway to make a worthy point.
Notably, the #MeToo movement is also explored in a guard-centric subplot. It isn’t delivered as cleanly as the ICE storyline, but its inclusion is worthwhile all the same.
Old characters, too, are given new ghosts. Maintaining its fondness for the flashback, Orange is the new black Season 7 continues to explore the histories of its inhabitants through present-day developments. We learn more about Piper, Alex, Red, Lorna, Tiffany, Taystee, Maria, Gloria, Aleida, Cindy, and Officer McCullough this season.
Mercifully, we do not waste time unearthing the pasts of former antagonists like Pornstache, Officer Bennett, and Officer Piscatella — instead prioritizing only what serves the story, its heroes, and its fanbase best. As always, the women of Litchfield come first for Season 7.
That being said, parts of the finale are executed poorly. With more plot lines than some series see in an entire run, Orange is the new Black struggles to settle a number of cared-about but secondary stories. One in particular delivers an explosive final act, but whether that was truly a fitting bookend or a brick seems up for debate.
Still, it’s a successful last chapter. While it might have been nice to see everyone escape in a prison break, we felt that catharsis in the finale of Season 4. Yes, it could have been good to see the guards punished for their actions one more time, but we watched that nightmare unfold in Season 5.
Instead, Season 7 offers something new, a blend of harsh reality and warmth that is at once more honest and more heartfelt than anything that came before.
This show has been not only a triumph of storytelling, but also a game-changing staple in Hollywood’s move towards inclusivity. Its framework provided an unprecedented platform for inmate narratives, as well as launched the acting, writing, and producing careers of numerous women of color. Through its meandering narratives, OITNB explored and began important conversations about police brutality, white feminism, tokenism, sexual assault, and mental health.
Arguably, the most satisfying result of the series’ time at Netflix is the change it has inspired in its audience. Long gone are the days of viewers mimicking “Crazy Eyes,” fetishizing the series’ LGBTQ sex scenes, and otherwise missing its prescient points.
We have learned and continue to learn from this show. In that way, it seems fitting that this final season represents a journey rather than a destination.
As you head into your Season 7 watch, brace yourself for major losses. Some will be harder to take than others, but in our six years with this unforgettable story and these incredible women, we have come to see why those hard-to-swallow realities are the most important. You may struggle to accept what you are seeing at first, but give it time and have faith.
After all, sometimes a bittersweet conclusion is better than a happy ending — and everything is different the second time around.
Orange is the New Black, the complete series, is now streaming on Netflix.