In a year of TV series reaching their much-vaunted conclusions, the acclaimed Netflix show went out with a seventh season filled with drum-banging polemic.
Netflix’s series Orange is the New Black has always been one that wore themes and bigger societal ideas on its sleeve, for better or worse. But creator Jenji Kohan has usually always managed to balance the show’s penchant for preachiness with a focus on character, fleshing out the inmates of Litchfield Federal Penitentiary as a broad ensemble of women from almost every walk of life who are demonstrable people rather than simply ciphers for issues the writers are looking to explore.
This has always been part of the appeal of the series and helped to ensure Orange was a character show first, filled with strong actors who were capable of carrying the drama when it wasn’t always on the page in script or story terms. Season 7, while unquestionably in step with many of the preceding seasons and overall a success in giving Orange Is the New Black a satisfying conclusion, nevertheless parted company with previous years by talking more directly about the injustice of modern America than ever before.
The final season of Orange doubled down on almost every major social issue troubling the United States, and beyond, midway through the Trump Presidency – or toward the end of it, if we’re lucky.
Though it didn’t focus too directly on the situation of core character Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), sentenced unjustly for the murder of a prison guard killed accidentally by a SWAT team at the end of a prison riot in Season 5, Orange heavily leaned into the immigration border crisis between the US and Mexico, particularly looking at human rights violations.
It used the long-standing character of hapless former prison warden Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow) to explore the #MeToo movement. It covered abortion rights, FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), grooming, sexual assault, and corruption. This is all while continuing to deal with social problems and lifestyles that have rippled across the series from day one – mental illness, racial discrimination, drug abuse, and homosexuality. If there was a cause to explore, Orange found a way to delve into it across Season 7, utilising many of its significant ensemble of characters as a means, sometimes—unfortunately—to the detriment of the show at large.
Orange Is the New Black will go down in TV history to a greater degree than you might expect. It was the only the second major Netflix foray into original programming on their nascent, game-changing streaming service back in 2013, and its success with audiences—in parallel with other formative show House of Cards—single-handedly birthed the ‘binge-watching’ psychology of modern television.
If there was a cause to explore, Orange found a way to delve into it.
We binged before Orange, sure, but only if we had a few DVD box-sets to keep us company, and it was too laborious a task to encourage hour after hour of devouring episodes simultaneously. Orange helped the mentality of “go on, just one more” when watching a TV show on a streaming service and without such a mindset, Netflix wouldn’t be where they are today and neither, likely, would the streaming monopoly. If Orange didn’t quite change television, it certainly contributed significantly to its evolution.
There is a sense with this final year that Orange decided it was going for broke, capitalising with one last throw of the dice on its celebrated position in television circles in order to make a statement that went beyond simple TV drama and into the realms of liberal polemic. It has always been a series critical of right-leaning, anti-progressive thinking, but Season 7 became a year where Kohan loudly banged the drum.
Granted, Orange isn’t quite as vociferously on the nose as, say, The Good Fight, which almost every episode calls out Donald Trump by name as a pervasive ‘evil’ lurking in the background of every civil suit or campaign against injustice. Orange doesn’t go for Trump’s personal jugular but without a doubt aims for his political one. Season 7 is a broad critique on a movement which has evolved past mere Republicanism into pure Trumpism, leading to policies that embolden ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) into veering toward troubling waters.
The guest character of Karla Cordova (Karina Arroyave) is purely designed as an (at times unsympathetic) crystallisation of the administration’s treatment of ‘illegal immigrants’. She’s a South American woman, who formerly worked in law, separated from her teenage boys facing deportation and using her knowledge to combat a system which preys on people’s ignorance of their rights. Inevitably, she loses. She loses her children and her status.
Orange even brings back the character of Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero), not seen since she was one of the numerous inmates separated following the disastrous Season 5 riot, to hammer home the deportation point. She gets out of prison but finds herself in an ICE detention facility, and no matter of support from her inmate friends can help her avoid deportation back to her technical country of birth, Colombia.
The last we see of Maritza is her fading into nothingness on a deportation plane – just another ‘ghost’ chewed up by a heartless system. Orange later shows the travesty of young children on the stand, in a so-called ‘juvenile’ court, being asked if they understand what is happening to them. For all the world it looks too outrageous to be real, yet Orange is simply dramatising what Americans and beyond are hearing on news outlets, day by day.
There are two ways to look at this approach. Orange doubtless will be criticised from one angle for being too resolutely liberal-minded, squared from a Democratic position of anti-Trump rhetoric and bias. There is no getting away from the fact it considers these populist practices abhorrent to American values. On the other hand, perhaps Orange is doing precisely what TV drama, and cinema beyond it, should be doing with the platform afforded to it.
The manner in which Kohan’s series confronts this range of issues and underscores how, currently, the broken system will always prevail, is a sobering indictment against American democracy and much of the West trailing in its wake. The series does end with hope that individuals may be able to improve their lives, but not all of the bad guys (such as guard Hellman) face their comeuppance, and ultimately justice is never quite served. There is only forbearance and awareness left.
The defining capper on how Orange Is the New Black becomes, across its final season, a vehicle for fighting injustice is in how it has turned a fictional fund in honour of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), whose accidental death at the hand of excessive guard brutality at the end of Season 4 set in motion much of what takes place in the final three years, into a genuine social action fund online which is advertised at the end of the show.
A quirk of art evolving into a broader message which encourages the audience to continue supporting and fighting these issues beyond the conclusion of the series itself. Few series would be able to pull this off and remain compelling, human drama, but Orange has earned that legacy over the years it helped transform the television landscape.
As we face uncertain, ever-shifting political and social times, one wonders if we will ever quite see the like of Orange Is the New Black again when it comes to the intersection of television drama and the ongoing fight against not just injustice, but our ever declining democracy.