Some of the inmates are nonviolent offenders; others have killed. Some have suffered bad breaks, abuse or straight-up injustice; others are dangerous, vicious and unrepentant.
“Orange” extends understanding to all of them (as well as to bullying guards and cynical prison executives) while not simply excusing anyone. If it’s jarring in how it can shift from laughter to shock, slapstick to shivving, it may be because accepting the complexities of real, flawed humans in a flawed system is jarring, too.
This has honestly made the seven years of “Orange” a tough balancing act. It was strongest in its first four seasons, at the end of which the young, hopeful inmate Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) was choked to death while being restrained by a guard. Her wrenching, violent end alienated some viewers to whom it prodded at the wounds of real-life police brutality cases, or recalled an ignominious history of series killing off lesbian characters.
The incident was polarizing, but it was not handled lightly or forgotten. In retrospect, it was the fulcrum of the series’s whole run, and its repercussions continue through the end of the final season. In Seasons 5 (set during the resulting riot) and 6 (dealing with the riot’s aftermath), the series tilted more toward the somber, and the comedy felt more discordant.
Season 7 — not to violate the perimeter of Netflix’s maximum-security spoiler list — is, if not the show’s best, a return to form. The centerpiece is the story of Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (the outstanding Danielle Brooks), facing life in prison for a murder she didn’t commit during the riot. The first person Piper met in Litchfield, Taystee, in retrospect, is the actual aching heart of “Orange.”
The season steers between nihilism and false hope. It recognizes that the weaknesses of the justice system and the forces behind the cycle of crime may be intractable. (In another blunt metaphor, a reform-minded new prison official asks how she can adjust a chair in her office; “You can’t,” she’s told. “It’s broken.”) Yet it holds out the possibility of redemption, small acts of decency and strokes of luck.