Has any phrase been quite so harmed by overuse as “It’s a miracle” has been? The first time I watched Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren say those three supposedly wonder-filled words, about 11 minutes before the conclusion of Orange Is the New Black’s third season, it seemed like the kind of casual exaggeration that greeted the news of Taco Bell offering late-night delivery.
But after sitting through the rest of the episode, I’ve seen the light. Suzanne was speaking factually. The show’s finale gave its characters a real miracle, and in some ways, it gave viewers one, too—one of the best TV scenes in recent memory, or maybe ever.
The setup is as implausible as any biblical phenomenon. After a season’s worth of squabbles, the prison’s veteran guards go on strike the same day that major renovations are planned. The inmates, banned from the dorms while new beds are being installed, congregate in the yard, where contractors just happen to be scheduled to replace a portion of the fence. With a few innocent snips, a portal to the outside world opens up, and there’s not a correctional officer in sight.
The ever-silent supposed miracle worker “Norma Christ,” glum about the dark turn that her kindness cult has recently taken, is the first to notice. Her face, used to express so many different emotions over these three seasons, is overtaken by joy, and she doesn’t hesitate before bolting. The other prisoners need a second before deciding to follow. Is this really happening? Won’t they be caught? Gloria, stressed this season like she’s never been before, is the first to make up her mind. “Maybe they’re expanding the yard,” she says, feigning naïveté. “How are we supposed to know any better”? Elsewhere, Taystee tsks tsks at all the prisoners about to end up in solitary. But Poussey tells her to lighten up—no one has illusions of permanent escape: “Let’s just be free for a second. It’s going to be the last time in a long time.” C.O. Luschek sees the flood of running inmates and just goes back inside; the newbie guard Bayley panics, totally unequipped to stop what’s happening.
In a remarkable filmmaking ploy for a show whose greatest strength is its banter, the rest of the episode is wordless, outside of a Hebrew prayer and the shouting of some names. Over its three seasons, Orange Is the New Black has done such a good job teaching viewers who these characters are that the moment’s significance for each woman doesn’t need to be explained through dialogue.
Crazy Eyes is the first to the lake outside the fence; she dives in and stays under for so long that the other women start to worry. But then she bursts back up to the surface and laughs, and everyone else takes off their boots and sloshes into the water. It’s an encapsulation of Suzanne’s recent transformation from outcast to someone whose creativity and individuality has made her one who unites the prison.
From there, it’s mostly a montage of the cast members doing not much other than floating, sitting, and splashing. Flaca closes her eyes and looks upwards, no doubt thinking about her mother who’s fighting cancer. Pennsatucky playfully quacks like a duck at her friends, a routine that she was last seen performing with the man who would later rape her. And Suzanne, who we recently learned is shy about never having had sex, starts to return the affections (and turtle) of Maureen.
There are a number of silent reconciliations, many between mother figures and the girls they’ve imperfectly nurtured: Red and Norma, Gloria and Flaca, Aleida and Daya. When Taystee bundles her hair up and wades in to join the other black women, it feels like she’s finally embracing her new role as leader of the group. And when Boo hoists up Pennsatucky, it’s the ultimate symbol of the lovely relationship that’s developed between a liberal butch lesbian and an abortion activist from the sticks.
The two most powerful moments belong to characters who’ve never been considered stars of the show. After a wrenching season-long slide into depression on account of loneliness, Soso floats on her back and stares vacantly into the sun until Poussey drifts by and takes her hand. It’s a moment of kindness so simple and so desperately necessary as to be devastating.
The second great moment is Black Cindy’s. Earlier in the episode, she converted to Judaism in a scene that would have been the very best Orange Is the New Black has ever aired were it not for the lake sequence. Now, she finalizes the deal by being submerged naked as a new friend in faith blesses her, and Cindy grins more widely than just about anyone ever has on this show.
The final words of that Mikvah blessing are the final words spoken this season on screen—“Mazel tov,” an expression of congratulations and a wish for good fortune. This is likely no accident. Season three has largely revolved around questions of faith and religion, and at the Daily Beast, Arthur Chu has smartly explained the show’s point of view on the subject:
Orange Is the New Black is a show about how Big Faith, what Soso calls “capital-R Religion,” is a trap—the kind of faith that believes in ultimate justice and in final answers, the kind that says you can be confident in how the story ends. It’s the kind of faith that’s brittle, fragile, that sets you up for a brutal fall. [...]
But the other kind of faith? Little Faith? Faith as tiny as a mustard seed? The kind that won’t throw away the armor of cynicism but will take it off long enough for a swim, that says that there’s no clear path by which everyday kindness and love will fix this broken world and bring a happy ending to our story? That’s the kind of faith that, by not asking for too much, isn’t too easily broken. It’s the kind that can survive betrayal, suffering, hypocrisy—even prison.
The great lake escape is all about Little Faith. The women know they aren’t going to swim away from Litchfield forever, and in the episode’s final moments viewers learn the prison population is about to balloon. But the opportunity to enjoy something novel and cleansing is as much grace as these characters have been shown since arriving at Litchfield, and they respond with what my colleague Sophie Gilbert has identified as Orange Is the New Black’s controlling value: kindness. Note that Piper, the one character who’s gotten meaner and harder as the show has gone on, doesn’t partake; she’s in the chapel, tattooing herself after responding to a lover’s betrayal with a far worse one.
A cynic could argue the scene’s just a treacly wish-fulfillment binge after 13 hours largely filled with rape, violence, betrayal, intolerance, and smelly panties. But what exact wishes are being granted? Small, personal ones that still feel enormous, as so many small, personal victories in real life often do. Compared to the bleak landscape of prestige television, this is special. Even in the context of Orange Is the New Black’s history, it’s remarkable—the previous finale went large rather than small with its divine intervention by smacking down big bad Vee. A vacation to a sun-dappled lake for people we’ve seen cooped up over three years is a very specific kind of payoff; no other show could have pulled off anything like it, and this show likely can’t ever again. Like most miracles, it was one-time only.