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‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 6 Review: A Bleak Run of Episodes Suggests the End Is Near

A season focused on repercussions fails to do what's necessary to keep the show sustainable for the future.

Orange Is The New Black Season 6

Cara Howe/Netflix

[Spoilers continue.]

There’s a chance that Season 6 peaks with its very first scene: Crazy Eyes “channel flipping” through the nearby cells gives us our first dizzying look into how dramatically things have changed with the onset of Season 6, and the blend of bright fantasy and bleak horror are a perfect example of how “Orange” has truly found its own very specific and fascinating tone.

But then, the rest of the season happens. Many of the characters who have had significant storylines in seasons past feel underserved this year, with beats that echo previous storylines without really adding anything.

In future years, Season 6 may come to be remembered as “the season of Carol and Barb,” and it’ll be the worse for it; it’s essential for this show to continue to introduce new elements, especially if it has any ambition of going beyond Season 7, but by the end of the season finale, “Be Free,” it’s hard to see our time with these two murderous sisters as anything more than a waste of time. Mackenzie Phillips and Henny Russell each brought a lovely specific weirdness to these characters, but the choice to have them spend the whole season stirring up a gang war that ultimately was meant to aide their escape — and then for that escape to ultimately never happen after they turn on each other — would feel like wasted potential if there had been the potential for anything more interesting to happen.

However, while Season 6 never attained the operatic heights of years past, it was a relatively solid advancement of this story. The most headline-worthy decision made at the end of Season 6 is Piper’s early release (courtesy of some bureaucratic manipulation) that sees her ready to enter the real world. While Piper’s time in prison always had a ticking clock on it, the show finally pulled the trigger on that, a six-year journey towards fully embracing the fact that this show is no longer about a privileged white woman confronted by the cruelties of federal incarceration.

Orange Is The New Black Season 6

Cal’s question to Piper: “What are you going to do now?” is more than a fair one, and could be a major part of Season 7. As the season had previously set up, Piper’s interested in writing a memoir about her time behind bars, and beyond the meta implications that has for the series (since, of course, the show was originally built upon the memoir written by author and activist Piper Kerman about her time in prison) it could potentially be interesting to see how the show handles her publishing her own version of events.

That said, one thing the show hasn’t ever done a great job with handling is life outside of prison walls. (Aleida’s story this season is a relatively intriguing exception, as her efforts to find a way to get her kids out of the foster care system offers an important reminder that just because you get out, you’re not truly free.) It’s something that Season 7 will have to contend with, as that’s the real gut punch at the end of the season, as we see Piper and also Sophia released from prison, something resembling a happy ending to their stories within their grasp.

But Piper’s prison marriage to Alex has a bittersweet tinge thanks to their new separation, and Blanca Is screwed, shipped off to MCC’s newest industry of choice: customs and immigration enforcement. (While it’s hard to know when exactly this button was added to the season, the current situation with regard to the Trump administration’s immigration policies gives it a chilling flavor.) And there are still plenty of repercussions that come with life on the outside.

“Orange” was renewed for three seasons back in 2016, and Season 7 will be the last of that order, which means there’s a question to be asked about whether that will be the last hurrah for the series… as well as whether it should be. And honestly, if Season 6 had been more successful in introducing a new class of inmates — much like how “E.R.” kept itself alive for over a decade by consistently adding new doctors and nurses to fill the hospital halls — it’d be tougher to have an answer.

It’s not that our affection for Daya, Lorna, Black Cindy, Flaca, Gloria, and the rest has diminished, but their stories now feel played out enough that if Season 7 is the last, it won’t be a disappointment.

Grade: B

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