The challenge of wrapping up a show like this one, Kohan said, was an imposing one: “I didn’t have a specific vision, because I was mostly terrified. How do you wrap up seven seasons of this? And, knowing myself, it’s never going to be good enough. It’s never going to be totally right.” The writers knew that they didn’t want to tie up every loose end, but also that there were stories they did want to finish, and issues they wanted to explore. “And I wanted to entertain, as well,” Kohan said. “That’s the first job. You’ve got to give people a good story that they’re engaged with, and characters that they want to spend time with.” If you start out being an issues show, or trying to change the way things work, “you’re never going to get something that anyone’s interested in. It’s like trying to give people medicine.”
That being said, one of the hallmarks of contemporary TV shows in the post-Orange era is an eagerness to engage with issues that might have alarmed producers in earlier decades. But few series grapple with ideas so fearlessly, and in such plain sight. “I have certain politics,” Kohan said. “I have certain beliefs. I have a way that I wish the world would operate. I impose that. But I also think I argue with myself in the show as well. And it definitely has certain leanings, but there are characters who poke holes in those things as well.” (A brilliantly eccentric moment in the final season sees two characters arguing over what the British reality series Love Island says about Brexit.)
As Orange’s themes got darker, so did its worldview. The third season seemed to explicitly state that in a cruel and unjust world, kindness could have its own power. By the end of the fourth season, the series seemed to have accepted that hope, compassion, and civility weren’t enough to overcome profound inequity and prejudice. In the final episodes, the system is still stacked against the Litchfield inmates, even after they’re released, as the show explores in Piper’s life postprison. Affirmation isn’t easy to find, whether characters are unjustly incarcerated or paying hundreds of dollars for the privilege of peeing into a cup on a weekly basis. Joe Caputo (Nick Sandow), who’s evolved from a sleazy prison administrator to a morally enlightened advocate for the inmates over the course of the show, begins leading restorative-justice classes that make explicit questions Orange has always asked: How can justice be found in a world that’s profoundly unfair? What does change look like in a system that’s so markedly rigged?
It’s a cliché, at this point, to say that change starts with empathy. Nevertheless, that’s where Orange began, and where it ends. “I love crossroads,” Kohan said. “I love situations where people are forced to deal with other people who are unlike them, who have very different experiences, who come from a very different place … In those interactions, you have to find common ground and find a way to deal—or not.” The shows she’s created and shepherded, from Weeds to Orange to GLOW, are about characters who find themselves outside of their orbit, thrust into new situations with unfamiliar people. “It just makes for great drama and friction and humor.”
The setup is also akin to experiencing TV or movies or books, where audiences find stories and people they might otherwise never encounter. As Orange Is the New Black ends its run, its themes and issues feel less like fiction than they ever have. But its characters do, too. Six years ago, women such as Taystee and Suzanne had to be snuck into the spotlight of a mainstream television show. Now their stories stand front and center.