Spoilers ahead for Season 6 of Orange Is the New Black. In one of the final episodes of the new season of Orange Is the New Black, Piper (Taylor Schilling) turns to Taystee (Danielle Brooks) while the two are sitting in the prison hair salon and asks, “What is it about me that makes people want to f*ck with me?” It’s a moment that might be met with a dramatic eyerolls, since it's far from the first time Piper has gone down this "poor me” road. Her latest sojourn stems from her issues with her new Litchfield maximum security roommate Madison, better known as “Badison,” sticking a bright pink wad of gum in her hair and dime bag in her prison-issued shoe. But Taystee, who's in the salon having her hair done to appear on trial for a murder she didn’t commit, doesn’t roll her eyes — she gets real with her.
“They don’t see you, they see the sh*t they never had,” Taystee says, looking directly into Piper's eyes. “Money, education, opportunity. That’s why they never gonna stop f*cking with you, because of what you represent.” Taystee's answer is a powerful reminder to Piper that not everything is about her, and it offers a similar reminder to the audience.
Piper has always been Orange Is the New Black’s “trojan horse,” acting as an entryway into the unfair prison system. "The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point," creator Jenji Kohan told NPR's Fresh Air in 2013, "and it's relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It's useful." Piper was the classic fish out of water who helped a certain demographic of Netflix viewers understand the brutality of a women's prison in a way that catered to them. But Piper being the star has always been a point of contention because she has so often felt irrelevant to the show's mission, which is to shed light on those whose stories are underrepresented in pop culture. Taystee's comments touch on the tragedy of Piper's it's-all-about-me attitude in that the time spent on her white woman problems takes away from telling the stories of the disenfranchised women of color who make up the majority of the prison.
It's this heart-to-heart between Piper and Taystee that sets up Season 6's heartbreaking ending. Though OITNB has made efforts throughout its run to highlight the injustices many women of color face in prison, Season 6 goes all in, laying bare the brutal realities of how race and privilege will continue to protect women like Piper while condemning women like Taystee to worse fates. There is no storybook ending here, even if the show can sometimes feel like fun and games: Piper will never be f*cked with by the system the way women like Taystee have been and continue to be f*cked with.
Through six seasons, Taystee and Piper have become the show's greatest foils, helping Kohan tell this tale of two justice systems, two worlds, two realities in which what you look like will always play a role in how you're treated on the inside. From the beginning, Piper has navigated the prison system as if it were a game, or perhaps a Goop wellness retreat where she's signed up to have the full prison experience in hopes of realigning her chakras. She started an illegal used-panty ring, she joined the White Power gang, and she continually pisses people off with her sanctimonious ways. Yet here she is this season talking about writing her memoir, starting a life on the outside with Alex (Laura Prepon), and eventually walking out early with the help of a dishonest guard, never really feeling the consequences of anything she's done. A little gum in her hair feels like persecution, but that's middle school stuff. It's nothing like what Taystee is going through.
After playing the mediator in the riots that stemmed from Poussey's murder, Taystee is looking at a life sentence for the death of CO Piscatella. She didn't kill him. Of course she didn't. Unlike Piper, Taystee has always tried to avoid falling into the trap that the system set for her. Instead, Taystee worked as Caputo's assistant to get job training that will help her start over. That is, if she ever gets out. Even when trying to better herself by following the rules, she's paid the price for being poor and black, and she will continue to do so.
"People out there have been f*cking with me my entire f*cking life," Taystee, who grew up in foster care, tells Piper in their salon exchange. "They see a dangerous, poor, ghetto black girl that should be locked up in here forever. So like, if you want to trade places, I’m game.”
In some ways, after this scene, the two have traded places. Kohan no longer needs to convince people to care about Taystee by contrasting her experience with Piper's — it's a tragedy that's worth considering all on its own. The cool blonde has overstayed her welcome. It turns out Piper isn't the hero of this story; she was just a useful device, a red herring, an easy distraction that allowed too many for too long to ignore the real injustices that were right in front of them. All of which are much more serious than getting gum in your hair.
Piper will never be seen as an ex-con on the outside. She'll go back to being a privileged white woman who can sell the story of her life, and who knows, maybe get a television show. Taystee will go back to her cell and keep trying to convince people to care about hers.
Orange Is the New Black tried to show viewers how they judge these female inmates. But in Season 6, Taystee just gets to say it plain and simple to the character that was always supposed to be the stand-in for the viewer. With one contracted season left, Kohan is done catering to those people who Netflix thought couldn't handle a story about a women's prison without the cool blonde and makes it clear with Taystee's speech that she deserves to tell her story. Not in contrast to Piper's, but all on her own. Taystee's story was always the one that represented how the justice system works in America — whether we want to admit it or not.