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‘Orange Is the New Black’ Review: Social Commentary Meshes With Melodrama As the Final Season Begins

The bittersweet first episode deftly blends dramatics and social commentary — but also adds an undercurrent of dread.

Orange Is the New Black Season 7 Yael Stone, Natasha Lyonne, Laura Prepon

Yael Stone, Natasha Lyonne, and Laura Prepon in “Orange Is the New Black”

JoJo Whilden

[Editor’s note: The review contains spoilers for “Orange Is The New Black” Season 7, Episode 1: Beginning of the End.]

The final season of “Orange Is the New Black” arrives on Netflix today and spoiler alert: Things get emotional. 

Episode 1 kicks off with Piper (Taylor Schilling) trying her best to adjust to her newfound freedom — but as we’ve seen with other characters over the years, life outside Litchfield Correctional Facility isn’t exactly easy. Besides living with her brother, his wife and their infant daughter in a cramped apartment, tension with her father, money troubles, and being on probation add to Piper’s roadblocks. The latter provides a keyhole-sized look into the struggle that real ex-cons face with acclimating back into society while caught in the financial spin cycle of struggling to survive. Granted, Piper got herself into this mess so there’s no feeling sorry for her — at least she’s physically free.

This is the balance “OINTB” has always tried to make: balancing social commentary and entertainment. “OINTB” has gotten better at weaving together bits of commentary on the broken criminal justice system and the often overlooked conditions in women’s prisons within its storylines, but over the years the show has been hampered by not always hitting the bullseye and instead veering into melodrama.

The opening episode of the final season is finally a move in the right direction of deftly blending both — as the episode title indicates, it’s the beginning of the end, indeed. Packed between the sisterhoods and genuine friendships, tumultuous relationships, crooked prison guards, drug smuggling, and brutal fights, the writing in Season 7 feels more inspired and less sluggish than its predecessor. Even with a few predictable moments, Episode 1 serves up just enough blocks to build a solid final season, and the country’s current political landscape leaves much to be explored. 

Back at Litchfield, Alex (Laura Prepon) promises to be on her best behavior but it’s not long before she’s backsliding into sticky predicaments, and keeping secrets from the “wife.” Of course, Piper isn’t being completely honest with Alex either. The newlyweds have a sweet little reunion towards the end of the episode — even if they happen to be lying to each other through a prison window. Dishonesty isn’t the best way to start a marriage, but old habits are hard to break for these two.

After taking the fall in the murder of a prison guard in Season 6, Tastyee’s (Danielle Brooks) life sentence is already taking an emotional toll. She’s defeated, and blanketing her pain with rage. Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) and Black Cindy a.k.a Tova (Adrienne C. Moore) are smart enough to keep their distance, while Badison (Amanda Fuller) finds herself on the receiving end of a fistful of Taystee’s frustrations. Meanwhile, Daya (Dascha Polanco) is having a hard time trusting Daddy (Vicci Martinez). As Daya’s paranoia gets the best of her, drug addiction and obsessing over her girlfriend’s ability to be faithful ultimately backfires in a tragic way. 

Lorna (Yael Stone), Gloria (Selenis Leyva), Red (Kate Mulgrew), Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez), Flaca (Jackie Cruz), and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) also trickle in and out of the episode, along with at least one character from Piper’s past who pops up in a flashback scene. It’s safe to assume that other characters could be resurrected in the same manner — this is the final season, after all.

While the death of one of the characters makes for a bit of a shakeup, the somber ending could scare viewers into thinking that the rest of the season will progress in the same fashion. Hopefully, the undercurrent of dread will be kept at bay, and Episode 1 acts as a launchpad into a finale season does have the undercurrent of viewers silently hoping that their favorite characters don’t all get killed off in the end. 

Grade: B

“Orange Is the New Black” is available today on Netflix.

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