When Netflix debuted House of Cards in February 2013, it instantly put the streaming service on the map as a power player that could compete with linear cable networks by delivering award-friendly, prestige dramas with major star power. But when Orange Is the New Black debuted five months later, it proved Netflix could also be more, creating space for different types of stories that we hadn't necessarily seen much of before, if at all. Orange Is the New Black was an instant hit with critics and viewers thanks to its empathetic, inclusive look at the lives of women serving time at Litchfield Penitentiary. It was progressive, groundbreaking, and invigorating to see a major platform spotlight the stories of marginalized groups, and do so with sensitivity and a sense of humor.
All of this is why Orange Is the New Black's seventh and final season, which drops on Friday, July 26, is such a painful disappointment. 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.
Picking up after Piper (Taylor Schilling) was finally released, Orange's final season bounces between multiple locations as it struggles to juggle many storylines that are no longer closely interconnected. There is Piper's adjustment to outside society, as she attempts to figure out her identity away from Litchfield while making her marriage to the still-incarcerated Alex (Laura Prepon) work; there are the continuing power struggles playing out between Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and her now hardened daughter Daya (Dascha Polanco); there's Taystee (Danielle Brooks) having to cope with her wrongful conviction and the betrayal of one of her best friends; Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) feeling renewed responsibility to support her prison family in light of tragic new developments; and there are the guards, the administrators, Caputo (Nick Sandow), and Fig (Alysia Reiner) still in the mix too. And in its efforts to bookend the series, the show digs up even more past characters for cameos that are hastily crammed into these 13 hours.
In order to justify the continued spotlight on so many of the show's original players in the increasingly crowded series, Orange's final season largely becomes trauma porn, as our favorites are continually beaten down again and again in lazy attempts to create problems for them that we haven't seen before. Gone is the joy and sense of community from the early seasons, leaving only tragedy in its wake. So when Orange's final run isn't boring you, it's angering you at the unnecessary pain these women — Taystee in particular — are being put through without any release or catharsis.
There are moments scattered throughout the new episodes that remind you of how great the show can be when it's operating on all cylinders, but in its refusal to let go of the majority of its original cast, Orange damned itself by never making room for new voices to receive the space they need to have their story told properly and have the audience invested in them. As a result, the flashbacks that were once the beloved bedrock of the series now feel like unwanted distractions from the current storyline, as there is little of interest that we haven't already learned about the main rosters' pasts, and the show fails to inspire any real curiosity about any of the new faces who now populate this world.
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. But unfortunately there isn't enough room in these 13 episodes to give the characters involved the attention they deserve when we're forced to check in on Piper at least once an episode to see her doing yoga, meeting with her probation officer, and complaining about how hard she — a middle-class white woman with a supportive family and steady income — has it.
Plus, any goodwill the series earns through these few moments of sharp storytelling is immediately forgotten once the series introduces its inexplicable take on a #MeToo storyline, in which a former guard goes public about sexual harassment she experienced from Caputo. 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.
The final season of Orange is a pit of wasted potential, and even the skills of its supremely talented cast can't save these last episodes from feeling like a chore. There are a few hollow attempts at delivering some hope at the very end of the season, but by then it's too little, too late — the series' parade of tragedy has numbed you beyond the point of caring. What was once a groundbreaking series giving voice to a variety of women's experiences now feels completely out of touch, devoid of any intimacy or emotional resonance (except the occasional annoyance ruminating at what could have been). In its final season, Orange Is the New Black is nothing more than a distorted reflection of the show we once loved, and it's a goddamn shame.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5/5
Orange Is the New Black returns Friday, July 26.