SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the final season of “Orange is the New Black,” streaming now on Netflix.
When Netflix first debuted “Orange is the New Black” in 2013, it introduced audiences to the harsh realities of life within even a minimum security prison. Originally classified as a comedy, the show shone a spotlight on the big and often bright personalities of the women incarcerated at the fictional Litchfield prison, some of whom were there due to broken systems but more of whom did some very bad things and were serving their time. As the seasons went on, the show leaned more into the drama (and was reclassified as such), featuring stories revolving on drug smuggling, violence at the hands of guards, and even a season-long prison riot which resulted in moving to a maximum security setting for many of the key players. All the while, the audience was falling in love with and relating to the women. So when the writing and producing staff sat down to plan their final season, they knew they wanted to infuse some characters’ end points with lighter, more upbeat fare but never shy away from the cold, hard fact that many of them would never be leaving prison.
“We didn’t want to give too much false hope,” executive producer Tara Herrmann tells Variety, “but we definitely wanted to leave audiences in a place where they can find themselves imagining where they are in the future, whether it’s a week or a month.”
The very end of the series quick-cuts to all of the key players who moved through the seven seasons of the show, from those who are still in the central prison in the story, such as Gloria (Selenis Leyva) and Flaca (Jackie Cruz), to those who were moved to other locations, including Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Brook (Kimiko Glenn), and even the guards on the outside like Pornstache (Pablo Schrieber). While if they had more time in the season, Herrmann admits they may have dug a little deeper with where some people ended up, she feels the punctuating the series with a “kiss” of them still provided an equally emotional ending.
Much of the seventh and final season focused on Piper (Taylor Schilling) readjusting to life on the outside after she was released at in the sixth season finale. “Of course there is a version where this privileged white girl gets out of prison and does fine, skates by with the help that she’s got, but not only does that not interest us as storytellers, but it doesn’t do as much as a call to action to viewers in the end,” Herrmann says.
So although Piper had help some help from her family — crashing at her brother’s place and getting a job in her father’s office — she still struggled with finding her footing when it came to having to play by her probation officer’s rules, face losing new friends once they learned about her criminal past, and navigating her marriage to Alex (Laura Prepon), who was still serving her sentence.
Inspired by the real-life Piper Kerman, whose memoir about her own time in prison inspired the show at its outset, Herrmann shares that they wanted to be cognizant to make sure “Piper at some point decided to put her nose down and do some real work” to show she had grown and maybe would be OK. But, she’d have to get out of her own way first for that to be really true, something her ex Larry (Jason Biggs) ended up being the one to point out to her.
“We wanted it to come full circle and make sure we checked in with these characters,” Herrmann says of seeing Larry again. Their interaction was crucial to Piper being able to truly try to start fresh because he told her to “stop trying to be special and just try and live a life that is ultimately satisfying for you,” she explains.
In the end, Alex gets transferred to a different facility and Piper moves so she can still have visitation with her wife. While the show ends with them together, Herrmann admits “it’s happy” in “given her circumstances at that moment in time,” but “given her track record with Alex, I don’t know” if it will stay that way.
That is only one of the characters whose futures are left pretty widely open to interpretation, though. Black Cyndee (Adrienne Moore) was also released from prison but had a harder time reconnecting with her family after her daughter learned her true maternity. Cyndee was able to score a job and was trying to win back her mother and daughter’s trust, but she was homeless. After getting redirected to immigration when she thought she was getting out of jail at the end of Season 6, Blanca (Laura Gomez) ended up leaving America at the end of Season 7 so she could be with her boyfriend. “Sure she ends up with Diablo, but they’re in Honduras, so while it’s happy, it’s also rather depressing,” Herrmann says.
After killing her prison girlfriend by accidental overdose, Daya (Dascha Polanco) slid even deeper down the rabbit hole of her newly-minted bad reputation. She brought her little sister into the drug business, which enraged her mother Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez). And after Aleida was re-arrested for vandalizing a car she thought belonged to the adult man dating her teenage daughter, she ended up right back in prison alongside Daya, which concluded in mother literally strangling daughter over her part in the family’s demise. That part of the story is the one that Herrmann feels “the most up for interpretation,” she admits. “When we all read Jenji’s final script, usually we’re pretty detail-oriented in our outlines, but we all read it differently.”
After being given a life sentence for her misrepresented part in the riot, Taystee at first slid into a depression, going so far as to try to commit suicide in her jail cell. But soon found renewed purpose in resuming her position as assistant to the warden and in tutoring Doggett (Taryn Manning).
“Her storyline was inspired by a real inmate at San Quentin that Jenji heard speak. He was depressed but then found a need within prison that wasn’t being served, which was teaching financial literacy, and then really turned his game around,” Herrmann shares. “Obviously that is not where we wanted to see Taystee when we first met her in the pilot, but given everything that went down, it’s the best case scenario for her real circumstances.”
Some viewers may be inclined to hope that eventually Taystee could see a reduced sentence, if the truth about her position in the riot came to light in front of the right people, but at the end of the season, she was still serving her sentence — albeit in a healthier state mentally and more productive way physically: teaching a number of inmates how to handle life after release. This was a way for the show to instill the message of finding “meaning in your life even being under the worst circumstances,” Herrmann says.
Other beloved characters had much darker and more definitive fates, though. Red (Kate Mulgrew) was diagnosed with a form of dementia, putting Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) in the position of caretaker; Lorna (Yael Stone) slipped into her own state of mental illness after being able to process her baby’s death and subsequent separation from her husband; Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) finally learned she didn’t truly deserve to be where she was but had to continue on there anyway; and Doggett ended up fatally relapsing after thinking she failed her GED.
“We took that character on such a journey,” Herrmann says of Doggett. “I’m so proud of that and the way Taryn played it so real. I had so much hope for her, but we talked about — especially when you are stuck in a system faced with past trauma — how it’s hard to come back.”
Although Suzanne raised the question of whether Doggett killed herself on purpose, Herrmann says they didn’t approach her story that way. “I think she was just sober for so long and she took a big dose of a drug that her little body was not ready for. But it’s so hard to say because, did she realize what was going to happen?”
And for the general prison populace, the loss of new, forward-thinking warden Tameka Ward (Susan Heyward) implies that conditions within the facility will decline. After all, she was the one who pushed for more education programs and the SHU.
“Piper Kerman really encouraged us, especially going into the final season, to not soften the guards in the viewers’ eyes too much. There were concerns even about Caputo coming around to the other side because it’s sadly not a realistic story. To keep Tameka there I think you might think these girls would be better off than they really are,” Herrmann says. “And again, we didn’t want to give too much false hope. There is still a lot of work to be done.”
The television industry itself may also have a lot of work on its hands with the loss of “Orange is the New Black,” a series that Herrmann acknowledges “started such a movement in terms of who people are comfortable seeing on their screens.” While other series have certainly followed, she believes there is still “room to fill that hole specifically.”