Groundbreaking series fades to black

 The ladies of Litchfield are back.

The seventh and final season of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” was released July 26; as with previous seasons, there are 13 episodes.

“After seven seasons, it’s time to be released from prison,” series creator Jenji Kohan announced at the end of last season. “I will miss all the badass ladies of Litchfield and the incredible crew we’ve worked with. My heart is orange, but fade to black.”

For devotees of the dramedy set in a women’s prison in Litchfield, Conn., it will be hard to let go.

“OITNB” debuted in 2013 and was based on “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” a 2010 memoir by Piper Kerman of her money-laundering and drug-trafficking conviction and jail sentence. The series launched with Kerman’s lesbian story, then evolved into a larger tale of how women land in prison and what happens to them in the system.

Racism, violence, mental illness, unjust sentences and lack of access to legal assistance and healthcare — all factors that women face in prison — have been central to the series. An ensemble cast of talented actors has brought this world behind bars vividly to life.

Among the panoply of struggles for inmates is abuse, at the hands of guards and other inmates — an issue “OITNB” has portrayed largely without sensationalism.

Storylines for the final season include the struggles of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she tries to adjust to life back in New York City, especially while wife Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) remains behind bars; and, in a juxtaposition of “freedom,” the ominous experience of Blanca Flores (Laura Gómez), who, in the season-six finale, was released only to be intercepted by ICE agents and a bus to the for-profit prison’s newest venture: an immigration detention center.

The scenario, while eerily timely, actually was plotted before the real-world juggernaut brought institutionalized racism and corruption to light. And it’s a personal issue for Gómez, who immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 2001.

Viewers also can expect the wrap-up of other character plots, including that of Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), who faced life imprisonment at the end of last season; the pregnant Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), who went into early labor; and Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) and Gloria Mendoza (Selenis Leyva), who were destined for life in solitary confinement.

After her absence in season six, Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero) returns for the series’ swan song, also with a heartbreaking — and surprising — immigration storyline.

“OITNB” promises to remain groundbreaking until the end. Throughout 91 episodes, the show has featured queerness front and center, especially with defining roles for lesbian actors Samira Wiley (as Poussey Washington, who died in season four but has returned in flashbacks) and Lea DeLaria (as Big Boo) and out trans actor Laverne Cox, nominated for another Emmy for her role as Sophia Burset (running her own salon on the outside in season seven).

The series continues to tackle certain issues — solitary confinement, immigration, privatizing of prisons, warehousing of mentally ill inmates and unreasonable sentencing for nonviolent offenses — in a way that, arguably, even the government doesn’t.

Politics aside, the series characters have created a sense of comity and bonding while incarcerated that viewers can’t help but love. The women of Litchfield protect each other.

As part of its farewell, “OITNB” has launched The Poussey Washington Fund — in the series and real life. The initiative will support eight nonprofit advocacy groups focusing on criminal-justice reform, protecting immigrants’ rights, ending mass incarceration and supporting women who have been affected by it. n

Previous articleAll hail Queen — and Adam Lambert
Next articlePhilly’s ballroom scene: a retrospective
Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.