'Orange is the New Black season 6': Closure, new beginnings in Litchfield Penitentiary
** WARNING: Minor spoilers follow **
MANILA, Philippines — I’m going to start this review of Orange is New Black’s 6th season with the finale. In “Be Free”, Piper learns that she had been granted an early release. On the day of her release, she and Alex finally get their prison wedding.
It’s a heartwarming enough scene that comes complete with Nicky as officiant and Morello as teary-eyed witness. Heck, even Black Cindy and Flacca join in on the celebration.
But the timing of that scene brings up a bunch of problems. The wedding happens in the same episode that Taystee, falsely accused of the murder of Captain Piscatella, gets handed a life sentence. The two events are played for contrast, but the effect does a disservice to Taystee’s story, and, by extension, the story of Poussey. After the gut-wrenching events of seasons 4 and 5, dedicating more time in the finale to Taystee would have been more satisfying.
Orange is the New Black has always been about juggling different characters, storylines, and backstories. And it usually does that pretty well — the high point for me being Season 2, which told the story of Taystee, and used it as an effective way to build the character of Vee, the season’s formidable new antagonist.
But that was 4 years ago. After 6 seasons, one highly-publicized prison riot, and multiple deaths, season 6 would have been more effective had it anchored itself on Taystee’s trial, instead of, say, Piper’s obsession with not feeling bad about herself.
Into the unknown
Season 6 also shows the aftermath of the Litchfield riot. Some of the inmates (Maritza, Watson) have been shipped off to different correctional facilities, while others (Big Boo) receive limited screen time.
The remaining core characters, including Red, Nicky, Suzanne, Cindy, Gloria, Daya, and Frieda, have been moved to the maximum security section of Litchfield. Crumbling under intense pressure from the federal investigation into the riot and death of Piscatella, most of the women exonerate themselves by pointing to Red as the riot’s mastermind.
Frieda also implicates Taystee in Piscatella’s death. Cindy, sadly, also unintentionally implicates Taystee when she mentions grabbing the gun from her.
It’s heartbreaking to see the inmates turn on Red and Taystee.
At the heart of it all, Orange is the New Black is about finding one’s family. It’s a strange irony that some of these inmates, who often come from dysfunctional family backgrounds, find their tribe behind bars. The relationships between these people have always been complicated, but years of shared trauma affirmed that all of them are on the same team… until the investigation rips them apart.
One by one, the inmates — most of whom don’t receive any additional time — move from Ad Seg and into general population. Red and Taystee also move into gen pop, but Red gets an additional ten years, and Taystee agonizes over whether to make a plea bargain, or fight the case and face a potential life sentence. Daya also gets a life sentence (for the death of CO Humphrey last season).
The former minimum security inmates need to adjust to life in max, and they do so by integrating into the established power structures. The two primary cell blocks — C-Block and D-Block — are each controlled by Carol and Barb, two sisters with a decades-long feud. The sibling rivalry translated into war between the two blocks, which jockey for control over the influx of drugs and other contraband into the prison.
Daya, unsurprisingly, is the most suggestible among the newcomers. Facing repeated physical abuse from the guards, Daya easily falls for Daddy, Barb’s second in command, who promises her protection and a steady supply of OxyContin. Red, on the other hand, still reeling from the betrayal of her girls, endears herself to Carol.
None of the girls in both cell blocks even know what exactly started the war between them — nobody, except Freida, who was Carol’s enforcer in the 80s. During a kickball game between Carol’s and Barb’s blocks, Carol and her crew attempted to kill her sister and take control of her drug business. But during the scuffle, Carol’s enforcer was nowhere to be found. It turns out, Frieda ratted out her boss for a chance to stay in the minimum security camp.
Frieda was one of the more interesting characters last season. This season, her survival instincts are still in full effect (although she did try to kill herself in Ad Seg). Knowing that getting moved to gen pop would be a death sentence for her, she feigns enfeeblement and gets assigned to B-Block, aka “Florida” which is reserved for elderly and infirm inmates.
From this seemingly safe space, she and Suzanne attempt to find out which of the older inmates was hired by either Carol or Barb to kill her. Suzanne used to be one of the most compelling characters in the show, but aside from giving some surprisingly lucid insights into the current prison conditions, she’s pretty much relegated to being Frieda's pet detective on most episodes.
Piper finds photos of that kickball game (pre-rumble) in the library, and decides that a kickball game is just what the women of C- and D-Block need. She starts a petition to get the guards to allow them to hold the game in an outdoor field. Carol and Barb give their girls the go-ahead to sign up only because a brawl between the two cell blocks would be a perfect distraction when the sisters go and kill Frieda.
Piper seems oblivious to the tensions fomenting around her — in fact, this obliviousness seems to be one of her defining traits. It’s something the show isn’t ashamed of using, along with her privilege, to highlight the conditions of the less-fortunate inmates.
In one of the greatest scenes in the entire series thus far, Piper walks into the prison salon hoping to have bubblegum that Badison, Carol’s boorish lieutenant, stuck onto her hair. Taystee is in the seat right next to her, hoping to get a haircut that would look non-threatening to the jury. Piper asks Taystee why everyone in prison seems to hate her.
Taystee replies by saying people resent the privilege Piper represents… and that she would gladly accept getting hated on the inside, if it meant a better life on the outside. Which is exactly what Piper has.
Piper will still be around next season. Whether she becomes an advocate for prisoners’ rights or simply settles into her role as a long-distance lover for Alex remains to be seen. But it’s good to finally have closure when it comes to Piper-the-Inmate. Hopefully, her presence outside of Litchfield Penitentiary would give the stories within those walls more space to shine. — Rappler.com