This article contains spoilers through the entire series of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.
In the very first scene of the very first episode of Orange Is the New Black, released on Netflix in 2013, Piper (played by Taylor Schilling) takes her first shower as an inmate at Litchfield prison. As she shivers under trickles of lukewarm water, her reverie is interrupted by a loudspeaker announcement about mandatory lice checks, and by Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), who arrives in her nightgown and demands that Piper hurry up. The two women banter for a moment about Piper’s paper-towel shower sandals and her “TV titties.” As Piper walks away, the camera lets her go and instead closes in on Taystee, who’s singing loudly and joyfully in the stall.
The scene seems to encapsulate something, now: Piper was always ostensibly the central character of Jenji Kohan’s prison-set dramedy, but Piper’s genial vacuousness as a heroine was set up from the beginning as a backdrop against which other characters could sing. And as Orange Is the New Black continued over seven seasons, the woman who became the true core of the series was Taystee. In the script, she was a foil for Piper that the writers could use to explore the school-to-prison pipeline in America. Whereas Piper grew up in affluence and studied comparative literature at Smith, Taystee was raised in group homes and foster care, and first went to juvenile prison at the age of 16. Piper traveled after college and made artisanal soaps; Taystee worked in fast-food restaurants. Piper was lured into smuggling cash for a drug dealer because the thrill of it excited her; Taystee wanted no part in the drug trade, but ended up doing the books for a dealer who offered her an alternative to yet another group home.