The final season of a beloved streaming comedy with a massive cast has arrived. You know what that means! It’s time to sit back, relax, enjoy our last few hours with these beloved characters… and gasp in horror at the devastating human wreckage wrought by our country’s prison industrial complex.
Orange Is the New Black has always done the “dark” portion of its “dark comedy” labelling proud. Even with a cast of colourful characters, their vibrant relationships with one another, and the triumphs they sometimes enjoy, Orange Is The New Black has depicted the brutal realities of imprisonment for seven years now. Every season has been accompanied by despair. That despair, however, has never felt more acute than it does in season seven, the show’s final go-around.
Much of that despair all comes down to time. Incarceration is called “doing time” for a reason. Being sent to jail isn’t so much about isolating the human body and brain from other human bodies and brains, it’s about the taking away of one’s time. The usual Regina Spektor theme song says as much every year with “you’ve got timeeeeeee.” It’s just never felt more apt as it does in season seven.
As revealed by the trailer, season seven opens with Piper out of prison and adjusting to her new civilian life. She reveals early on that she spent 18 months in the big house. And that just sounds… impossible. The show has run for seven years but it feels like 20. It’s produced close to 100 hours of content but they feel like 100,000.
Orange Is The New Black comes from a completely different era of television altogether, where the success of “streaming” wasn’t even a given. In fact, its success helped pave the way for the sturdy streaming-friendly world that came after it. Given how much the show helped changed the TV paradigm, it’s shocking to see just how little has changed for the characters still within the machine in this final season.
Save for the show’s extended prison riot fifth season and arguably the sibling rivalry sixth season, Orange Is The New Black largely eschews unified season storylines. That remains the case in season seven. The show simply catches up with the characters we know and love and tracks how they choose to spend their time in the land without time.
Taystee is acclimating to the reality that she will spend eternity in prison for something she didn’t do. Cindy is dealing with the fact that she is due for release undeservedly. Alex must confront having a wife out in the real world while she remains behind bars. Daya sells drugs. Nikki helps people. Suzanne does Suzanne things. And so on and so forth. Where once the machinations of these characters held some charm and said something about the triumph of the human spirit, now it all just feels so brutally hopeless.
The level of hopelessness on display is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably the correct creative decision for the show to have made. Time weighs heavily on the characters of Orange Is The New Black and it would have felt dishonest not to depict the final hopeless version of that in the show’s last season.
That’s not to say there isn’t humour to be found in season 7, because there is. That’s also not to say that some characters don’t experience some personal triumphs, because they do. It’s just that the overall sense of hopelessness is so complete that those personal triumphs don’t seem to matter.
As if time, itself, weren’t a compelling villain enough, Orange Is The New Black season seven introduces another to really go for the spiritual killing blow. Yes, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is a major factor in the season. The introduction of this 17-year-old government organisation was teased in season six and now the revolting flower blooms in season seven. Good drama relies on the escalations of stakes. ICE isn’t an escalation of stakes so much as it is a bloody hammer smashing those stakes to pieces in front of the viewers eyes to teach them the lesson that nothing really matters anyway.
“You don’t get a phone call. You don’t get a lawyer,” one ICE detainee tells another.
“What? This is America.”
“Not in here.”
Any hope that the passing of time can’t be bothered to extinguish in season seven, ICE picks up the torch and does it anyway.
Just as the inmates of Litchfield have done their time, so has Orange Is The New Black, itself. Seven seasons is a long time to be producing episodes in the streaming era – particularly episodes as dense as OITNB’s full-hour affairs, 13 times a year. Jenji Kohan and the rest of the writers and producers would have been forgiven for making this final go-around a true going away party.
Instead they make the right creative (and moral) choice to depict the grim reality of the world that exists alongside Orange Is The New Black. More importantly they make all the time spent with these characters count. Time has ravaged them and the unspoken implication of season 7 is that time will continue to be served long after the final credits roll.