Sometimes the hype is true. When the first 13 episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” dropped on July 11, 2013, it changed the way Americans watched television and the role of women in the broadcast industry, both onscreen and behind the cameras.
Now that the seventh and final season has dropped, it’s time to look back on the tremendous impact the series has had and take a spoiler-free look at the “Beginning of the End” as episode one of the last season is titled.
When the series launched, Netflix was a fledgling streaming service best known for shipping DVDs to your home in red envelopes. With the critical and popular success of “Orange,” Netflix became a major Hollywood player producing television series and eventually movies that earned nominations and trophies from such prestigious organizations as GLAAD, GALECA, the Golden Globes, the Emmys and more.
The show also helped to popularize the concept of “binge watching.” Fans spent entire weekends watching every episode of the first season and the way we watched television began to change.
“Orange” also broke new ground with its realistic portrayal of life in a women’s prison and its treatment of serious social issues. Over the course of the first six seasons, the show explored mass incarceration and the rise of the private prison industry; the tension between punishment and rehabilitation; staff corruption and guard brutality; prison overcrowding and funding cuts; substance abuse; violence against women; the terrible impact of solitary confinement; white privilege, white supremacy, institutionalized racism and the Black Lives Matter movement; and the #MeToo Movement.
In season seven, series creator Jenji Kohan takes on a new issue: the inhumane brutality of ICE detention centers. The detention center is run by the same corporation that runs the prison, but conditions there are even worse. The detainees have even fewer rights than the prisoners and limited contact with friends and family. As one detainee realizes, “nobody knows where we are.”
“Orange” also made great strides in the employment and representation of women in television. The casting of trans actress Laverne Cox as inmate Sophia Burset was a historic move that made Cox into a star and an important trans spokesperson. The casting of comedian Lea DeLaria as Carrie “Big Boo” Black was a milestone in the representation of butch lesbians, especially when she brandished a dildo on screen.
Overall, the cast included a rich spectrum of women of different races and ethnicities, sexual orientations and gender identities, ages, socio-economic classes and cognitive abilities. The show also explored a wide variety of life-affirming sexual and platonic relationships between women and celebrated the power of female resilience.
In addition, Kohan also emphasized hiring women to write and direct many of the episodes (several of the shows in later season were directed by cast members). The writing throughout the series was first-rate. Kohan and company craftily used flashbacks to fill in character backstories (and to move the action outside of the prison walls). They also effectively used a delicious dark sense of gallows humor to help lighten the heavy material. The direction was smooth and assured, gliding effortlessly between the various characters and plotlines.
Long-term fans of the show will have no trouble gliding into season seven, which picks up where season six ended. Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) has been released on parole but remains in a long-distance relationship with inmate Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). She’s living with her New Age brother Cal (the very funny Michael Chernus) and is having trouble paying for her monitoring devices while working a dead-end job.
With the help of “Pennsatucky” (Taryn Manning), Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (the dazzling Uzo Aduba) tries to reconcile with her old friends Cindy “Black Cindy” Hayes (Adrienne C. Moore) and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks). Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva) and Galina “Red” Reznikov (the magnificent Kate Mulgrew) find themselves working in a different kitchen facility.
There’s also lots of turnover and turmoil with the prison staff and their families.
Finally, fan favorites Diane Guerrero (as Maritza Ramos) and Laura Gómez (as Blanca Flores) return as former inmates who are detained during an ICE raid.
If you didn’t watch the first six seasons (and don’t have time to binge-watch over 80 hours of previous episodes) can you start “Orange Is the New Black” midstream? The answer is a resounding yes. The large cast and overlapping plot lines an be daunting at first but it’s easy to read up on the backstory online.
For fans old and new, the seventh and final season of this ground-breaking series is well worth watching. The show digs deeply into some of the most troubling issues of these turbulent times and asks difficult questions that we all must grapple with.
As Suzanne asks, “Do I deserve to be here?” Or, as Gloria and Red discuss, “How do we get back to who we were before?”