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'Orange Is the New Black' review: Final season is moving, emotional and highly satisfying

Danielle Brooks, right, plays Taystee on season 7

Danielle Brooks, right, plays Taystee on season 7 of Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black." Credit: Netflix/JoJo Whilden

SERIES "Orange Is the New Black"

WHEN|WHERE Season 7 starts streaming Friday on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT At the end of the 6th season, Piper (Taylor Schilling) and Alex (Laura Prepon) have been "prison" married, just before Piper's release. As the 7th and final season begins, she's back in New York, struggling to meet the conditions of her parole, while back at Litchfield, Alex is forced back into an old trade (the drug one). Meanwhile, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) was handed a life sentence for the shooting of CO Piscatella — she was railroaded — and now has to figure out what's next. 

Meanwhile, there's a new sheriff in town, so to speak: CO Tamika Ward (Susan Heyward) has been named warden, and she has a kinder vision for the prison, and that could bode well for everyone. 

 Also at the end of the 6th, Blanca (Laura Gómez) was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement; Polycon, which runs Litchfield, also runs an ICE detention facility. Consider that a major foreshadowing for season 7. 

MY SAY ICE does play a starring role in this final season, much as Darth Vader or Magneto play starring roles in their respective franchises. It's the big bad that upends or ruins lives on a whim, hovering out there beyond the Litchfield walls like a spider about to pounce. 

But however subtle — or occasionally unsubtle — the role ICE plays here is, it does serve at least two vital functions in this final season. Foremost, it helps consolidate lots of character storylines that you'd otherwise need a flowchart to keep track of. In the early episodes, scenes toggle between Daya, Tastee, Suzanne, Lorna, Cindy and Doggett, and same with those on the outside (Maria, Blanca, Chapman, Maritza). By getting some of these core characters back on the same page (so to speak) they can face the same existential and real enemy together, or the one that robs freedom even after freedom is earned.  

But "OITNB" certainly doesn't want to squander the final season by turning into a jeremiad against ICE, and doesn't, at least for the most part, There's too much story to get to, and — really — far too much meaning to clarify. "OITNB" doesn't want to squander that opportunity either, and (for the most part) does not. 

Recall that this series was always about the shock of the new, just as Netflix was about the shock of the new back in 2013. Arguably more than any other show of the last ten years, this one ushered in the new world of TV as we now know it. "OITNB" taught the rest of TV about diversity and inclusion and also gave it a seven-season-long tutorial in sexuality — notably that women could have intimate, sexual relationships in ways that the blundering boy's club of network TV couldn't have begun to have imagined. 

Mostly this is and was a show about women — a complicated community of women, and that certainly hadn't been done on TV before either. We got the full humanity of each of these women, forced to confront their own faults, crimes, secrets and inner emotional lives. The system — or at least the fictional one of Litchfield — passed judgment on them, but fans never did, nor did the show, and that was the final, brilliant secret of "OITNB."   

The wrap is optimistic, and probably needed to be. The final message is that there's hope, for them, for us. Seems like a nice way to wrap anyway. 

BOTTOM LINE Moving, emotional final season that hits mostly high notes, and satisfactorily resolves a whole lot of stories.

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