Sunday, October 06, 2019

TV review: ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK season 7 (Netflix)

this review contains spoilers for the final season of OITNB. I've left it quite long after the show dropped before posting this review, in the hope that fans of the show have caught up by now!

The final season of OITNB had a lot of loose plot strands to tie up, including Taystee being given a life sentence for a murder she didn't commit; how Piper acclimatises to life on the outside, whilst her wife Alex is still incarcerated; and Daya being the prison's chief drug pusher, whilst her mother supplies the drugs and her boyfriend, the Head Guard, sneaks them in.

This is a lot to juggle as it is, but OITNB's scope has never been anything less than ambitious, and in keeping with topical issues, the prison has freed up space to house detainees who are on the precipice of being deported. Two of said detainees include Maritza and Blanca, inmates who had been released in previous seasons.

Meanwhile, with regards to the management, Fig gets fired from her job as Warden by Linda Ferguson, a character who somehow manages to make Fig look human. Her vacancy goes to the idealistic 26-year-old prison guard Tamika. Her male peers, seething with jealousy and entitlement at a job they feel they deserved, go out of their way to make running Litchfield hard for her, which is a crying shame because she's actually damn good at her job.

Final seasons of TV shows are tricky terrains to navigate at the best of times. 2019 has already seen Game of Thrones fans up in arms at the final season, where the show's writers tossed all character development out of the window, and seemingly made things up as they went along, with complete disregard for logic or consistency. However, for OITNB, it was even more difficult to finish everything, because of the sheer scope of the characters and plot strands. 

Giving one character a satisfying ending whilst ignoring others would do the characters an injustice, but there simply isn't enough time to resolve everything. Some characters get a short shrift, particularly Boo, Watson and all the others who got carted off to another prison when the show's writers they had more characters than they knew what to do with.

But the ones who do feature in season 7, do so poignantly. Taystee's story arc is one of the most heartbreaking; having been fingered for the death of Piscatella (the sadistic prison guard who's episodes pushed the limits of the BBFC 15 for this show), she is teased with the prospect of salvation in the final season, as there appears to be a chance for her to clear her name.

Yet, ultimately, her efforts fall short. A poor woman of colour taking the blame for the crimes of others feels all too topical in today's climate, and it is impressive that the show doesn't shy away from the harsh realities of life, as satisfying as it would have been to give Taystee the happy ending that she so richly deserves.

Another character who life and the system has dealt a raw hand is Pennsatucky. Like Taystee, she is teased with redemption, as she starts studying for her GED, and, realising she has dyslexia, this strengthens her resolve (a flashback episode shows her cruel father taunting her for getting her letters jumbled up). But, in a damning indictment of the lack of care in the prison system, Luschek's idleness means she does not get the permitted extra time for her GED exam. In thinking she has failed, Tiffany ODs. Shortly after, it transpires that, despite not getting the extra time, she actually passed. This reveal makes for one of the most devastating scenes in television history; I sobbed.

In its final season, OITNB does right by its characters, whilst refusing to sugar-coat things. Life is unfair; the dice are loaded against poor people, people of colour, and thus, it is fitting (unfair as it is), that the show closes on Piper having her happy ending, while other characters languish in prison, or worse.

But the show also recognises the innate goodness of people, and that everyone is capable of growth.

Fig, a character who I had despised for previous seasons, gets her heroine's moment. Season 7 had shown her and Caputo's attempts to conceive, but, due to their mature ages, needing some help from science in the form of IVF treatment. Having found out one of the detainees who was pregnant as a result of rape, desperate for an abortion but being refused one, Fig is disgusted with the callousness of prison bureaucracy.

Fig demonstrates selflessness that moved me to tears, when she lies to her doctor to procure an abortion pill for the pregnant captive. This act of sacrifice demonstrates OITNB's writers' impressive ability to not pigeonhole characters into 'good' or 'evil', but recognise there are plenty of shades of grey in between.

What marks OITNB out from other TV shows is that it always keeps it real, and sometimes, that means depicting the injustice of life, which doesn't always make for fun viewing. OITNB has depicted the cruelty and harshness of prison life, in its final season in a compelling, moving, and masterful manner.



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