In the past couple of seasons, Orange Is the New Black has moved into unchartered territory, far beyond the narrative – and thematic – constraints of its source, a non-fiction book by the real-life Piper Kerman.
In the beginning, the series followed the book’s lead, and had a lot of fun as her white, middle-class sensibilities clashed with those of a diverse, predominantly working class band of criminals.
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Piper was a necessary entry point for the viewer, whom, it is probably fair to say, would not have been as fervently enthused by a series solely about the inner-workings of a women’s prison. But, as the series progressed over four seasons, more and more airtime was devoted to the other inmates. Maria Ruiz, Daya and Gloria Mendoza all had their turbulent personal lives plundered, while black characters Crazy Eyes and Taystee became the new fan favourites as their bonds grew stronger through shared trauma.
But the death of Poussey Washington at the end of season four signalled the end of the show as we knew it. By referencing the real-life murder of US teen Eric Garner (who, like Poussey, was suffocated to death by a white man in uniform), the writers opened up a political dialogue that would necessarily overshadow the drama that had come before it.
It meant that, for the experimental – and only partly successful – season five, which charted just three three days as a prison-wide riot broke out for justice in Poussey’s name, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) became the de facto lead, leaving Taylor Schilling’s Piper to fade into the background. For all its flaws – it was erratic and over-long – this was undoubtedly a success.
Our interest in Piper had been waning throughout season four, as race relations between the guards and the prisoners came to the forefront, eclipsing the limited drama of Piper’s minor feud with Ruiz. By the end of the season, she had reunited with her former lover Alex Vause and distanced herself from nefarious activity in prison, placing a nail in the coffin of her character’s arc. Then, from the get-go in season five, Piper declared that she would be staying out of trouble, just as Taystee headed to the frontline.
Brooks put in a moving performance as a bereaved friend fighting for Poussey’s killer to be brought to justice. She gave us something to care about – and got us believing that the prison could be changed for the better, if only for a short while.
In season six, the only truly worthwhile storyline revolves around Taystee once again, as she fights, with the help of the Black Lives Matter organisation, the charge of murdering CO Piscatella, who was accidentally killed by the riot team when they stormed the building. The accusation has been worked up by a prosecutor desperate to see particular inmates go down for inciting the riot.
However, the writers still spend an unnecessary amount of time on Piper, who is really just counting down the days until her release. The bits of the story that involve her feel clunky and out of step with the rest of the drama – her often irritating attempts at adding comic relief fall short can in the big bad world that the show now inhabits.
In season five, as Taystee rallied for justice for her dead friend, Piper and a small group of inmates decorated the riot-torn prison with books in Poussey’s memory (she had served as the penitentiary’s librarian). Season six sees her attempting to quell a long-standing rivalry between cell blocks by reintroducing a communal kick-ball tournament that had been disbanded years before. Eventually, they’re going to run out of cutesy things for her to do on the side.
Piper’s character cycle has concluded – she’s done smoking crack, picking fights and running illegal businesses. She’s got the girl. Let’s see her off into the orange sunset, as soon as possible.
Orange is the New Black season six is streaming on Netflix UK NOW