Warning: The following contains spoilers for Orange Is the New Black's sixth season. Read at your own risk!
Piper Chapman has long been the weak link in Orange Is the New Black, which is by no fault of star Taylor Schilling, who has delivered outstanding performances season after season as the insufferable embodiment of white privilege within Litchfield's claustrophobic walls. But just by the very nature of Piper's personality and the role she was conceived to play — that of a "trojan horse" through which creator Jenji Kohan would expand the world to tell more underrepresented stories — Piper has likely never been anyone's favorite character. In fact, fans have been crying out for years that they'd like to see a version of Orange without Piper at the center. And it looks like the show is preparing to give us just that.
The sixth season ended with Piper being granted early release, leaving Litchfield and her new wife Alex (Laura Prepon) behind. As her brother Cal (Michael Chernus) drives her away from her prison life for good, a shell-shocked Piper stares almost longingly out the car window while Cal wonders, "So, what are you going to do now?" This is the question that's going to hang over fans until Orange returns for its already renewed seventh season, which will likely air next summer. Because while we've long wanted Piper to get out of prison, now that we've gotten just that, what does that actually mean?
To start, Piper leaving Litchfield doesn't necessarily mean she's leaving the show. Orange has continued to follow Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) since her release in Season 4 and a major storyline of the most recent season followed Caputo (Nick Sandow) and his continued involvement with Taystee (Danielle Brooks) despite no longer working for PolyCon or being directly involved in the prison in any way. And unlike Laverne Cox and Laura Gómez, whose characters Sophia and Blanca, respectively, were also granted early release this season — although Blanca was immediately picked up by ICE — we do expect Schilling to return as a series regular for Season 7. At this point, Orange has simply invested too much into Piper's storyline to cut it off when they're so close to bringing her arc real closure.
However, next season shouldn't be about setting up a new adventure for Piper as she readjusts to the outside world. It should be about wrapping up her lingering storylines so that we can finally close the chapter on Piper and get back to what made this show great to begin with: telling fresh stories through interesting characters.
As Orange has progressed over the years, its unwillingness to move away from its original characters has been anchoring it in the past rather than allowing the show to keep evolving toward its full potential, and no character embodies this weight more than Piper. Her usefulness has run its course and while she occasionally has funny or provocative moments, Piper's perspective has been the most familiar to viewers and so it's always felt the least necessary. That is, except for the few times when Piper's point of view is directly addressed, such as her conversation with Taystee this season about Piper's continued inability to comprehend her own privilege.
Piper still being one of the show's main characters feels like a holdover from when we needed her to be the audience surrogate rather than a testament to the storylines she's actually given (please, oh please, never make us hear the word "kickball" again). But hopefully, now that she's out of Litchfield, Piper will transition more to the sidelines of the series before eventually exiting completely. And if Orange knows what's best, the show won't try to replace Piper with a new lead and will just let the show be the true ensemble it was meant to be, constantly cycling the cast in and out as some characters' sentences end and new ones begin.
Although the idea of a (non-soap) scripted series with a revolving cast seems slightly unorthodox, take a look at Degrassi. The show has been running for literally decades in some form or another and part of its ability to survive is its willingness to accept that the series outgrows some of its biggest stars. Sure, they occasionally have followed some Degrassi High graduates as they navigate the transition into college, but they also know that the future lies in the younger generation of characters and not in trying to hold on to the past. Every season brings in fresh faces and transitions out the graduating seniors, all without a dip in quality. Thanks to its seventh season renewal, Orange is already poised to become Netflix's longest-running original series, and if it wants to continue to break records, then it needs to learn to look toward the future and that means letting go of Piper... and some of our other favorites too.
The Season 5 riot provided a great excuse to give some of the other original stars more prison time, which means longer tenures on the series. Daya (Dascha Polanco) is locked up for life, Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Maria (Jessica Pimentel) got another decade added on to their sentences and now that Taystee's been wrongly convicted of murder, she likely isn't going anywhere any time soon. While we love all these characters dearly, it's time for some of them to take a backseat to give other characters the chance to shine too.
Although Season 6 wasn't the series' best work by far, it was a stark reminder of how good Orange is when it brings in fresh blood and new perspectives rather than clinging to the old. The introduction of Daddy (Vicci Martinez), in particular, made us remember the best aspects of the show's early seasons when we were first getting to know Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and the other women for the first time. While not all of the new characters we met at Max proved to be too interesting (we're looking at you Badison), we're genuinely excited to see what Orange would do given the opportunity to clear the deck a bit and focus on all the women of Litchfield Max — and not just the ones who are antagonists to the original characters.
Orange was originally championed for how it showcased a diverse array of perspectives, many of whom were from communities that often don't get accurately represented on TV, if they get represented at all. But by sticking to its original ensemble, Orange has locked itself in place. The flashbacks have largely ceased to serve any purpose since we already know the ins and outs of who these central women are. And while it's always fun to watch Nicky and Lorna (Yael Stone) joke around or Red try to control everything, it feels flat compared to the exploratory and often revelatory nature of Orange's early years, which always challenged you to reconsider your assumptions about people and made you see the prison system with fresh eyes — ones not tainted by that terrible strip tease from last season.
If Orange can commit to shedding its past and truly start focusing on getting viewers invested in new characters again, it has a chance to recapture the magic of those early seasons. Finally letting go of Piper seems to be a step in this direction. Let's just see if they actually follow through with it.
Orange Is the New Black is available on Netflix now.