This article contains spoilers for season six of Orange is the New Black.
After the deaths of two guards and the destruction of Litchfield Correctional Facility’s minimum security campus at the culmination of last season’s riot, “camp” has closed and our favourite inmates have been reassigned to new prisons in season six, which dropped on Netflix on Friday.
Some inmates, like Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Red (Kate Mulgrew) and Sophia (Laverne Cox), have made the short journey down the road to max, while other favourites such as Boo (Lea Delaria), Martiza (Diane Guerrero) and Janae (Vicky Jeudy) are seldom heard from, if at all, this season.
In their place are Piper’s latest foil, Madison (Amanda Fuller) who goes by the intentionally cringe-worthy nickname Badison, and two of the driving forces of this season’s main plotline, long-term incarcerated sisters Barb (Mackenzie Phillips) and Carol (Henny Russell), which fellow white inmates Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Morello (Yael Stone) and Frieda (Dale Soules) all become embroiled in.
This outsized focus on white characters is puzzling not only because most of them die at the conclusion of the season but also considering that OITNB’s claim to fame when it premiered in 2013 was its employment of the Trojan Horse trope. Drawing its name from the Greek myth, OITNB introduced homogenous audiences to the Nice White Lady decoy, Piper Chapman, then pivoted to the stories of poor and trans women of colour in prison. After criticism in recent years, season four particularly, that the show engaged in trauma porn featuring its transgender characters and characters of colour crafted by a predominantly white writers room, maybe it’s not so puzzling. Write what you know, right…?
After all, OITNB is based on real-life experiences of author and prison reform activist Piper Kerman, and this season acknowledges that by planting the seeds in Piper’s mind of the memoir that started it all, an epiphany which occurs while Piper’s fantasising about seeing her gynaecologist when she gets out in nine months, while she and Alex queue to see the prison doctor. “Dr Chin doesn’t take insurance but she has a full herbal tea bar in her waiting room,” she muses.
But Piper, always one to fall on her feet by virtue of her rich, white womaness, gets out a lot sooner than that. As in, by the final episode of this season, because even when she has someone with a vendetta against her striving to get her extra time, Piper lands on her feet on the outside, free to visit expensive gynos, “wear pretty bras” and, hopefully, engage in meaningful discourse about prison reform.
Yet somehow Piper’s preoccupation with her petty problems, amplified by the prison environment, is given equal credence to the insurmountable odds against Taystee (Danielle Brooks) in taking on the justice system after being set up to take the fall for the death of CO Piscatella (Brad William Henke) in the riot. Their differing circumstances are highlighted in a scene in the prison salon, where Piper is getting the gum Madison mashed into her hair cut out while Taystee prepares for court. “What is it about me that makes people want to fuck with me?” Piper laments to her.
“It’s ‘cause of what they see when they look at you,” Taystee humours Piper. “They see the shit they never had: money, education, opportunity. That’s why they’re never gonna stop fucking with you, ’cause of what you represent. But that’s only in here. People out there have been fucking with me my entire life. They see: a dangerous, ghetto, poor, Black girl that should be locked up in here forever. So if you want to trade places, I’m game.”
There have always been parallels between these two characters, from the swatch of Piper’s hair Taystee wears as a weave in season one, mirroring the above mentioned salon scene; to their shared involvement in the riot; to Piper’s lover Alex seeking absolution for informing on her in the past during their wedding, which Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore), whose guilt over framing Taystee festers inside her, is a witness to. And given the media interest in Taystee following the riot, viewers might wonder whether she’s better positioned to be writing a prison memoir. (How many prison memoirs by women of colour are out there?) But Taystee doesn’t think so.
“I’m not special. I’m one of millions of people just like me,” she tells a reporter from ProPublica. “People behind bars and caught in the crossfire… You can’t put a whole system in prison so they[‘re] coming for me. But I’m coming for them. I’m gonna keep standing up for better inmate treatment in here, for my friend, Poussey Washington, because she can’t no more.”
In addition to the memoir, Piper is preoccupied with reinstating a kickball league to boost morale in the prison, not only for the well-being of the inmates but, in typical Piper fashion, because it will be a “positive note to send the reader off on”. She makes kickball—as with her tone-deaf Community Carers taskforce to dismantle “gang-related” activity in season four—her mission like Kim Kardashian made prison reform and the granting of clemency to non-violent offenders hers.
Given Piper’s history of activism (written with tongue firmly in cheek) and her subsequent appropriation of experiences not her own with her impending memoir, she may not be the abolitionist we need, but she’s certainly the one this show deserves. Just as, in the larger celebrity-as-king (or President, rather) hellscape it exists in, Kim Kardashian is the biggest hope for prison reform the U.S. has, agitating in May for the clemency of non-violent African American drug offender Alice Marie Johnson, who was released a week later after twenty years in prison.
Kim has said she’s interested in getting involved with other cases, helping to affect changes to the justice system “one person at a time”, through her connections with Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, the latter of whom is the poster girl for complicity in Trump’s America. Perhaps it’s her way of giving back some of the close-to-a billion dollars she and her family have made from appropriating black women’s features and putting them on white women’s bodies.
There are several other easter eggs, intentional or not, placed throughout the season that hint at white women’s complicity. Kim’s archnemesis Taylor Swift’s name is dropped a few times, while Madison’s continued foiling and suspicion of Piper could be viewed as a commentary on society’s hatred of Kim. Warden Natalie Figueroa (Alysia Reiner) spends an inordinate amount of time pondering the purchase a coat, which unintentionally invokes the image of Melania Trump and her “I really don’t care, do you” coat from earlier this year. Linda Ferguson (Beth Dover), having convinced prison officials in Ohio where she was shipped after the riot that she is, in fact, an MCC (since renamed PolyCon Corrections) executive and not a scammer named Amelia von Barlow, offers Sophia hush money in exchange for her signing a non-disclosure agreement and not testifying for Taystee.
Women like Sophia don’t have the luxury of martyring themselves for a greater cause; they will take whatever they can from wolves in white women’s clothing to get ahead in a system that’s corrupted against them, and Linda is well aware of that.
As always, it’s through these more nuanced portrayals of the cases of Sophia, Taystee and Daya (Dascha Polanco) that OITNB succeeds at portraying how hopeless the justice system is for prisoners. The majority of incarcerated women are automatically presumed guilty so are advised against taking their cases to trial and, if for some reason they do get out, they’re forced to watch their kids live in a group home, like Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez); live out their lives in poverty, unable to secure a job or vote; or succumb to recidivism, like Taystee. You’d think OITNB would learn from past missteps that these are the stories viewers want to see, not those of petty white bitches.