As its first season comes to a close, I have to give Orange is the New Black a sincere compliment: It is a genuinely huge show.
It’s huge in terms of its ambition, sure. It’s a show run by a woman, with a mostly female writing staff, focusing almost entirely on female characters, with those female characters being primarily economically, racially or sexually marginalized women, and with that cast being mostly women of color, and with the romantic plot lines being largely lesbian or queer, with the breakout character being a sympathetic portrayal of a trans woman of color, who is played by a trans woman of color, who happens to be a trans rights activist and an author of compelling op-eds on trans rights and race.
I have been covering feminism in pop culture for five years now, and I will tell you, I did not see this one coming. In 2012, we were all fighting about Girls: the TV show tasked with Representing A Feminist Take On Women Today, which was about four wealthy, white, heterosexual 20-somethings with self-consciously great bangs and Greenpoint apartments. For the entertainment industry to progress from Girls to Orange is the New Black in just nine months seems incredible to me, like the transportation industry going from the pennyfarthing bicycle to the jet engine over the space of a long weekend.
But Orange is the New Black is a huge show in other ways, too: namely, it’s committed itself, in this first season, to telling one of the biggest stories I’ve seen in recent years. This show has so many storylines running simultaneously, and so many fascinating characters to carry those threads, that even at the end of the season, some of my favorite characters and performances — Yoga Jones’ journey of atonement, Black Cindy (oh, Black Cindy; with her astrology fixation, preacher father and piano-playing skills, she’s basically the Tori Amos of Litchfield), or the formidably tough and always funny Gloria Mendoza, who’s mostly been standing off to the side of the Daya plotline until this episode — have barely been addressed in the recaps. Throughout the season, it’s sometimes been difficult for me to balance the insular drama of the Larry-Piper-Alex love triangle with the ever-expanding story of Litchfield. But here, in the final episode, it’s clear where it’s all been heading: This has been the story of a community coming together, and the story of Piper becoming completely alone.
The community story reaches its peak with Litchfield’s annual Christmas pageant. These scenes read like a victory lap, as much as anything else. In particular, the auditions are pretty much an Orange is the New Black variety hour, with all the cast members whipping out their extracurricular talents. Big Boo sings! Cindy beatboxes! Leeanne does animal sounds! Maritza and Flaca do a Mean Girls sexy-Christmas routine, which is perfect for them, and Suzanne …“figure skates,” sort of. Suzanne’s real talent is that she’s played by Uzo Aduba, who can commit with her entire being to even the silliest material — I particularly enjoyed the realistic, Olympic-athlete intense-exertion-face she made while holding her last pose — so that’s fine.
The Christmas pageant is explicitly and entirely a chance to remind us of how many characters we’ve met, over the course of the first season, and how much we’ve enjoyed them. As such, it risks being sappy: The idea of Poussey singing “Amazing Grace” (get it? “A wretch like me?” She’s in prison, guys) or the normally silent Norma re-gaining her voice through the power of the Christmas Spirit sounds like pure cheese on paper. But the execution is right, and I for one genuinely do feel unreasonable levels of affection for these women. So it works.
It’s also good to have some heartwarming scenes for the audience to hold on to, given that a number of individuals at Litchfield are still having a genuinely miserable Christmas.
Pornstache’s last move, before being put on indefinite unpaid leave for having sex with Daya, was to frame Red for his narcotics trafficking. Red, therefore, has been kicked out of the kitchen — she’s replaced as head chef by Gloria, who has always seemed like a particularly strong-minded woman, and who makes a very convincing case for herself as a worthy rival to Red in this episode — and is rapidly descending into clinical depression. Being Red, she decides to cure her despair with intrigue and plotting. When her former subordinates, Gina and Norma, refuse to sabotage Gloria’s cooking, she tries to start a grease fire in the hopes of convincing the administration that Gloria’s unfit to run a kitchen. Gina is catastrophically injured, losing Red the support of even her prison “daughters.”
Meanwhile, Daya is dealing with the Pornstache fallout in her own life. Bennett can’t forgive her for “cheating,” because Bennett doesn’t understand that this is a prison and not his senior year of high school, and threatens to walk out on Daya. (Or, at least, as far out as he can walk, given that they still have to spend every day of their lives in the same building.) But the aforementioned grease fire, unfortunately enough, has two horrible consequences: Not only does Gina get burned, the explosion knocks the Daya-Bennett Puppy Eyes of Doom romance back into alignment by scaring them into each other’s arms, and seems to assure that we’ll be dealing with their highly problematic relationship for the foreseeable future.
And then there’s Piper, who’s learning an unfortunate fact about love triangles: At a certain point, they turn into bitter, angry breakup triangles. She’s under the impression that she simply has to “choose” — and she chooses Larry, for reasons I suspect humankind was not meant to understand — but both relationships are too compromised to carry her any further. Alex, now having been painfully dumped twice by the same self-absorbed woman, forbids Piper to ever speak to her again. When Larry gets the brilliant idea to visit Alex, she also gives him quite the speech, about the “fucked-up” woman he’s landed himself with. And Larry, who has all the resolve and emotional maturity of a particularly maladjusted hamster, immediately dumps Piper as a direct result.
Oh, and here’s a fun bonus: Larry dumps Piper while she’s telling him that Pennsatucky is trying to murder her, confirming my suspicion that Larry genuinely does not understand that women are human beings. Every time he talks to or about Piper, he behaves as if he’s the only person on Earth, stranded in a society of cyborgs who cannot feel pain: Someone cornered you in the shower and threatened to cut your body open with a razor blade, leaving you to bleed out alone and in pain on the floor of a prison? What does that have to do with anything? My feelings are hurt! So, though I doubt we’ve seen the last of Jason Biggs, it’s my hope that the writers of OITNB will listen to the fan feedback and make Piper and Larry’s breakup permanent.
Because it turns out that Piper is going to be in Litchfield for quite a while. After all the heart-warming communal grace of the Christmas pageant, Piper wanders out, alone, into the prison yard, where she’s met by Pennsatucky wielding a shiv whittled from a crucifix. (And wearing an angel outfit. This show is not very subtle in its view on mainstream Christianity, is what I’m saying.) She tries to talk Pennsatucky down, and it doesn’t work. She calls out for help, and Healy walks away. And then Pennsatucky tells Piper that she doesn’t deserve love.
Friends, I’m warning you: Never tell a narcissist that they don’t deserve their preferred form of validation. Because in that moment, Piper, the nice blonde lady who never really belonged in prison and didn’t really do anything all that wrong, abandoned by everyone who professed to care about her, leaps on top of Pennsatucky and beats her so hard that her head snaps to the side and her teeth go flying. It’s a good thing we’ve learned to like Litchfield and its inhabitants, because for Piper, prison is no longer a crisis or a bad spell to pass through. Now, it’s home.