Jenji Kohan's "Orange Is the New Black," one of Netflix's earliest and most-acclaimed originals, is finally coming to an end after a string of seasons that critics were lukewarm on. Does the seventh season, premiering on July 26, turn things around and cement the show's place in TV history? Here's what the reviews are saying:
Warning: Spoilers for seasons 1-6 ahead.
It Keeps Up With Its Huge Cast In And Outside Of Prison, With — As Ever — Perhaps Too Much Focus On Piper
We return to Litchfield after a short time jump from the events of the season 6 finale, "Be Free." Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), TV's least-loved protagonist, is adjusting to life on the outside. That means tensely cohabitating with her crunchy brother Cal (Michael Chernus) and sister-in-law Neri (Tracee Chimo Pallero). Amid chatter about zero-biodegradable containers and weekly probation check-ins, Piper isn't doing so well, especially since her wife Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) still has three years left behind bars.
Inside Litchfield, onetime boss Red (Kate Mulgrew) finds herself irreversibly shaken after an extended stint in solitary, while standout Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) stays largely on the margins with cellmate Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning). Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Daya (Dascha Polanca), the show's most dysfunctional mother and daughter pair in a show overflowing with them, find new and inventive ways to make each other (and themselves) miserable. The most compelling storylines still belong to reluctant mother hen Gloria (Selenis Leyva), recovered addict Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), and Taystee (Danielle Brooks), whose tragic arc is arguably the most dynamic and crucial of the entire series, whether or not the series always knows it.
Piper's New Situation Is Interesting, But The Character Still Doesn't Pop Compared To The Ensemble's Standouts
Piper's the one living on the outside, struggling with how to feel connected to her partner. And instead of her early, obnoxious, unending naïveté, Piper's issue is that she now knows things most people in her world do not. Those shifts don't dramatically change the large Piper sections of the season. She's still herself. But they do soften and shift her perspective in some important ways, and because she's now aware of how much she needs to readjust to the world, because she's trying to grapple with her incongruity in a new way, her story doesn't feel as out of place with the rest of the show.
It's rough, and yet her brand of struggles define her privilege. Piper's still got family and connections to fall back upon, and her relatively tame plight won't win her any new supporters, since most of the other characters who leave (or don't leave) Litchfield have it worse.
The intentions are good, but it's often hard to care about this character who is, generally, far more boring than everyone who surrounds her.
Meanwhile, Danielle Brooks And Others Portraying Characters In Litchfield Are Given Some A+ Material
One of the best [story arcs] belongs to Taystee, played once again by the unbelievably talented Danielle Brooks; after season six doomed Taystee to an unjust life sentence, she spends much of season seven in despair, wondering how to go on living.
Keeping specifics vague, Brooks and [Adrienne C.] Moore spend much of the season in dueling excellence, fitting given where Cindy and Tasha were last season, with Aduba delivering a series peak moment in the finale and Taryn Manning ably illustrating that Tiffany's evolution may have been the show's masterstroke.
The Season Can Also Hit Hard When It Explores The Horrors Of ICE Detention Centers…
The closest the season gets to recapturing its former magic is in its exploration of immigration issues, which was teased last season when Blanca (Laura Gómez) was taken by ICE and again in the reveal that Polycon would be expanding into the business of running detention centers. The storylines in this new arena have a sense of urgency and political relevance that is reminiscent of "Orange's" early seasons.
It's tough to dive into the details without spoiling which characters get caught in ICE facilities and what happens to them by the end. But the story doesn't feel like the show has suddenly turned to immigration as a way to exploit the drama of current events. It feels inevitable, and awful.
… But As A Plot Introduced At The End Of The Last Season, The ICE Storyline Is Crunched For Screen Time
"Orange Is The New Black" takes this loaded detour seriously. The endless ways in which the United States' immigration "system" can morph to screw anyone out of a decent outcome, both legal and illegal, are shown in appropriately horrifying detail, and to say that happy endings are "few and far between" would be vastly overstating the case. But even though this aspect of the season was teased in the season 6 finale, it's hard to shake the feeling that the show really needed to introduce it far earlier in order to give it enough room.
I can say that it does become clear that if "Orange" wanted to fully dive into the very real horrors and complexities that are currently happening in our real world, the writers definitely needed longer than 13 episodes (and especially 13 episodes that already have a million characters within a billion plots). The series hasn't completely bungled the storyline but it feels a bit unfocused and it doesn't have enough room to breathe.
There's A Plot That Hinges On Whether Or Not You Feel One Of The Early Bad Guys Deserves A Redemption Arc
Caputo (Nick Sandow) and Fig (Alysia Reiner) are trying to achieve the closest thing to domestic bliss that they know how, gritting their teeth through the private prison system's horrifying demands of them. This only gets more complicated when Caputo's former coworker (Lauren Lapkus) shares her discomfort with how he treated her while he was her boss. It's a potentially rich twist, especially because Caputo somehow ends up with one of the most pronounced redemption arcs, but the show nonetheless fails to see it through without more input from the woman herself.
What could have been a provocative way of the show reckoning with its own past — Caputo's origins were largely glossed over once the show rebranded him as one of the "good guys" and not just another bureaucratic creep — becomes a problematic and downright offensive story that completely minimizes the experience of the victim and focuses almost entirely on how this accusation affects the accused, ultimately even delivering a message of second chances and redemption.
It's The Kind Of Final Season That Doesn't Shy From Proper Endings And Indulgent Fan-Service
Every major character receives an eventful ending, although let's get real, one really can't hope for many happy endings.
Some of the final-season flourishes are pure fan-service fun, like Gloria's (Selenis Leyva) plan to bring "the old gang back together" in the kitchen, the appearance of Litchfield's mythical chicken, and the return of notable characters from years past. (One flashback features a surprise that will make the hearts of longtime fans burst with bittersweet joy.)
If You've Stuck With The Show Thus Far, Keep Going
The dramedy has been slowly dipping in quality season after season, particularly since the death of Poussey (Samira Wiley) in Season 4, but the series' final 13 episodes hit an astounding new low that bears little in common with the series that once captivated audience's hearts.
As the show gets toward its closing episodes, Kohan and company display a strong grasp on what these characters have gone through in what was a condensed time period, living and suffering lifetimes over less than two years of story time. The last two episodes, both over an hour and both punctuated by cameos and callbacks, pack an emotional heft — happy and sad, because "Orange Is the New Black" is introspective enough to understand that not everybody gets a happy ending — the show hasn't approached since the end of the fourth season.
However uneven the pacing of "Orange" season 7, it likely won't stop you from getting through these final hours. If you've stuck around this long with the Litchfield crew, you care about them. You want to see how it all ends.
Overall, "Orange" leaves with a fitting farewell and ensures that we're not left on the hook with any of these beloved (and hated) characters. Their stories will still continue, for better or worse, without us.