In Part 3 of our Orange Is the New Black Ending Explained, we take a look at how Galina “Red” Reznikov, Nicky Nichols, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, and Alex Vause’s stories resolved. Watch this video to see where they ended up, and to see the significance of their endings.
Suzanne Warren: “This year I’m loving someone who deserves me: Me.” Orange Is the New Black, 2x06
While the countless story arcs of Orange Is the New Black may have seemed to ramble or digress at times over the years, in the show’s final season, each character arrives at a neat resolution, shedding light on what her arc has really been all about. If you look closer, the series uses each person’s ending to encapsulate a distinct message or central theme of the show. So in the third video of our series on how Orange Is the New Black ended, we’re looking at the deeper meaning in the conclusions of Red, Nicki, Suzanne, and Alex. Here’s our Take.
Red: The Dangers of Anger
Red’s ending illustrates the dangers of anger, as well as the perils of aging without a safety net.
On one level, Red’s story is a cautionary tale about hanging onto rage. Matching the trademark hair color that spawned her nickname, Galina “Red” Reznikov is a fiery person, full of tough spirit.
Galina “Red” Reznikov: “Stop hitting walls, and plot your revenge.” 2x10
The series immediately introduces her as a powerhouse who rules the prison kitchen and reigns as the proud mother of her prison family. In light of this vibrant portrait of strength, it’s particularly heartbreaking when this character who once seemed unbreakable is diagnosed with early-onset dementia in the final season.
Yet if we look closer, Red’s decline has been a longer, more gradual story. As we get to know this dynamo over the years, we observe that her inner fire (in addition to making her ferociously loving) also leads her to cling to anger, which (over time) corrodes her from the inside.
Red: “So they can put me on a leash and feed me with a tube for the rest of my life? They can drag me out of this kitchen when I die.” 7x8
And the painful fate that befalls her is, at least in part, caused by her inability to let go of all this rage. A big trigger of Red’s mental deterioration is the unthinkable torture inflicted on her and her family by sadistic rogue CO Desi Piscatella. But Piscatella only gets into Litchfield during the riot because Red lets him in, hoping to get revenge. Her long isolation in SHU then causes irrevocable damage to her long-term health, but she’s placed there because she attacks Frieda in a fury over her friend’s betrayal. As admirable as it is that Red values loyalty and honesty above all and holds herself to a high standard in relationships, her inability to overcome passionate grudges and disappointments causes her to suffer more than any of the people she vows to punish. Because she won’t curb her emotional reaction toward Frieda, she misses the opportunity to meet her grandchildren for the first time, so her hot-headed impulsivity directly harms her long-term happiness.
Red: “How can I sleep knowing Frieda’s in Florida living the life of Riley while I’m stuck in this cesspool, missing all the good years with my grandchildren?” 6x12
Just as Red won’t let go of past events, her past won’t let go of her. As the series ends, she desperately attempts to obtain forgiveness from the mother of a young man whose death she unintentionally caused long ago. But when the mother denies her this grace, adding insult to injury, Red’s told that she’s already received this rejection, and we can only assume her ailing mind will drive her to repeat this humiliating emotional distress again. It’s a fate that captures Red’s essential problem: when you refuse to give up past hurts and grievances, you’re sentenced to relive that pain over and over.
Red: “I-I never sent her a letter.”
Nicky Nichols: “See, I-I think that, you know, maybe you did. And, you know, you just forgot.” 7x8
Even if she won’t forgive, though, time will force her to forget. And Red’s forgetting creates a personal hell for her in the form of Frieda. Red is doomed to live beside this woman she’s forgotten she hates, only to intermittently remember long enough to be tortured by the knowledge that her burning desire for revenge is forever thwarted.
Frieda: “I’m gonna wait it out till you lose your mind again. And then maybe we’ll play a few hands of gin.”
Red: “I’ll kill you!” 7x13
In addition to teaching these lessons about anger, Red’s bleak ending is a devastating portrait of how the tragedy of aging is exacerbated by destructive, callous institutions. Red’s diagnosis is all the more sad because it could have been avoided. The prison is directly responsible for triggering and accelerating her health issues through locking her up in the SHU, and it also rewarded and tolerated the dangerous Piscatella. Red’s story illustrates how environments like Litchfield not only don’t provide for the special needs of old age but even actively damage elderly people and worsen their problems. This is a very relevant observation given that the elderly population in prisons is rapidly growing and now higher than ever, with close to 200,000 people in American prisons aged 55 and older.
For as long as we’ve known her, Red’s personality has been synonymous with the iconic shade of her locks. But as she stops dying her hair and lets it go gray, this visually reflects her fading health and mind, and signals even that she’s becoming less herself. The Red we first got to know was impossible to defeat — the leader, who mothered and took care of those weaker than her. In most stories, this character would inevitably triumph over anything you threw at her. So the unremitting misery of her ending — the fact that she can’t get back up again—sends a clear message about how impossible it is to overcome a world that’s fully stacked against you.
Red: “‘Happily ever after’ was invented for the storybooks, so kids reach breeding age without killing themselves.” 3x13
As Red ceases to feel like herself, the one silver lining is that someone else becomes the new Red at Litchfield.
Nicky: Pay it Forward
Nicky Nichols’s ending is about paying forward the kindness you’ve benefited from. As the series wraps up, Nicky’s longtime prison family unravels. Feeling guilty that she failed to read the signs of Red’s and Lorna’s worsening mental illness earlier, Nicky scrambles in vain to keep the family together — even neglecting Shani, the new woman she’s fallen for, and failing to say goodbye before she’s deported. Her belief that she’s let her loved ones down calls back to Season 4 when Red learns that Nicky has relapsed into drug use and blames herself for not noticing sooner.
But in this case, there’s nothing Nicky could have done to change Red’s outcome, and likewise, even if she could keep Lorna in D-Block with her like she tries to, it wouldn’t be enough to give her friend what she needs. So in the end, Nicky takes Red’s place as the new prison mother to other inmates—a succession that’s visually signaled through her sporting Red’s signature bold red lipstick and nail polish. From her surrogate mom Red, who shepherded her through the darkest times in her addiction, Nicky learned what supportive parenting looks like.
Red (to Nicky): “Norma’s gonna get you some mouthwash, a clean mouth makes you feel better.” 1x6
When Red gave her prison daughter permission to incriminate her to the federal agents in order for Nicky to avoid a long sentence, she showed what it means to be a true mother—a far cry from the narcissistic, neglectful parents Nicky was born with. So thanks to what she’s learned from her mom about providing active love, Nicky is equipped to pass on that nurture to others who can use her help. She employs recovering addicts in her kitchen, offering the support she once badly needed.
Nicky: “Day three of detox is rough. Here’s a bucket. Just get it out. We’ll keep going.” 7x13
Thus she exemplifies the lesson that — while we may badly desire to pay back the kindnesses we’ve received — more often life offers us the opportunity to pay them forward. And in this, we find true satisfaction and self-actualization.
Nicky: “You’re gonna be okay.” 7x13
Suzanne: The Power of Unique Perspective
Suzanne Warren’s story illustrates the power of embracing your own unique perspective. She begins the series dubbed “Crazy Eyes” by her fellow inmates, and introduced to us through white middle-class Piper’s eyes as a scary threat, underlining how people with mental health issues, especially people of color, are frequently misjudged to be violent or frightening.
Piper Chapman: “Her name is Crazy Eyes and she follows me everywhere.”
Polly Harper: “Jeez, What kind of crazy?”
Piper: “They’re just crazy. They’re just full of crazy. It’s terrifying.” 1x3
But over the course of the series, Suzanne repeatedly disproves the false and reductive assumptions others make about her, and she gradually empowers herself by expanding the scope of her understanding.
Early in the series, her mood instability, impulsivity, and difficulties reading social cues make it hard for her to form stable relationships, and vulnerable to manipulation. Though this Shakespeare-quoting, erotica writer clearly possesses high intelligence, she has a child’s emotional maturity and grasp of how the world-at-large works. Actress Uzo Aduba has said that the stage directions described her character as “innocent like a child.” And while she remains an innocent at heart, her story in Orange Is the New Black is one of growing up.
Suzanne: “I’m growing up. It’s hard, but it’s happening” 7x13
She develops emotional maturity by forming healthy relationships with people who get her and appreciate her for who she is. Even though she never really gets the level of professional help she needs, thanks in large part to the support of these caring individuals, she develops her self-understanding and her ability to socially engage. Her deeper nature as a fiercely protective person who wants more than anything to be loved gets to be expressed positively, and she increasingly finds her voice through creative outlets like writing.
In the final season, when she faces the truth she’s repressed that Taystee has been wrongfully convicted, Suzanne takes a big step forward in acknowledging that the world can be wrong. This revelation unbalances her, since (like a child) she’s dependent on the comfort of believing that the world is as it ought to be. As she opens up to this more adult-like view of the flawed world-as-it-is, eventually Suzanne even comes to the revelation that she doesn’t deserve to be in Litchfield because her mental condition prevented her from knowing she was committing a crime.
Suzanne: “Mom. Do I deserve to be here?”
Pat Warren: “You deserve to be in a facility that can help you with your cognitive difference.”
Suzanne: “But..I’m not, Mom. I’m here.” 7x2
And the final season sees her analyzing the social dynamics of the prison’s chicken coop as a microcosm of her social environment, interpreting the chicken’s behavior as an analogy for debates about how to treat inmates.
Suzanne: “So, I isolated the offender away from the other chickens.”
Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett: “You put the chicken in the SHU?”
Suzanne: “SHU has a negative connotation.” 7x10
Her painful progress toward grasping complex problems and injustice underlines the importance of looking directly and honestly at the dysfunction in the world, even though this is difficult (for all of us) to do. By the end, Suzanne comes to own the differentness of her “special brain” and inspires others to do the same
Suzanne: “You’re not dumb you just have a special brain like me.” 7x12
In many ways, Suzanne is the soul of Orange Is the New Black. The show is full of admiration for her sensitive, funny, loving outlook toward the world, expressed through her one-of-a-kind mind. The writing takes pains to point out how poorly our system takes care of pure, vulnerable people like her, repeatedly highlighting the prison-industrial complex’s failure to properly treat mental illness. But ultimately the show uses Suzanne’s journey as inspiration — to remind us that understanding empowers, and accepting what’s unique about us is a superpower.
Pennsatucky: “What is it you really want?”
Suzanne: “Ice cream! ... And justice.” 7x3
Alex: No Escaping the Past
Alex Vause comes to represent the inability to escape your past.
For much of the show, Alex tries unsuccessfully to get free from her previous life working for an international drug cartel.
Alex Vause: “Piper, I wish I could do this all over again but I can’t.” 2x1
When she manages to get released from prison, she’s consumed with fear that she’ll be killed by her former kingpin as punishment for testifying against him, and she quickly ends up back in prison for violating her probation. While her paranoia later reaches such heights that she seems to be losing her sanity, her fears are justified when a guard attempts to murder her. For most of her time behind bars, and especially near the end of the show when she hopes to join her wife Piper on the outside, Alex is determined to keep a low profile and not add any more time to her sentence. But she’s unable to distance herself from the person she used to be — her natural talent for criminal activity gets noticed, and she’s forced to sell contraband by multiple guards.
Meanwhile, from the very start of the series, Alex must confront her personal past when her former lover, Piper, arrives at Litchfield. As the series goes on, all the events in Alex’s and Piper’s past continue to resurface and haunt their relationship. After Piper learns Alex named her as an accomplice, landing her in jail, this betrayal leads to resentment and revenge, creating more wounds.
Piper: “I’m really f*cking angry because I love you, Alex. I love you and I f*cking hate you.” 1x12
Meanwhile, the reason Alex implicated Piper was already partly as payback for her ex leaving her when she was emotionally distraught over her mom’s death. Much later in their relationship, again Alex fears that Piper will bail when it’s no longer convenient — leading her to act out in destructive ways.
Alex: “Because your life is out there now, and I was scared you were going to leave me” 7x12
The affair she starts with her CO, McCullough, repeats a toxic past pattern, too—as we find out that Alex had another girlfriend when she first began seeing Piper.
Silvia (Alex’s Ex): “This is what you do. You are so afraid of losing control that you blow shit up before anyone can hurt you.” 7x10
Eventually, Alex tries to release Piper from their unofficial marriage, feeling that these unhealthy cycles can’t be overcome. But in the end, Alex finds silver linings in her inability to leave history behind her. When she’s transferred to a Maximum security prison in Ohio, she happily reunites with former friends from Litchfield—so this time, we see her reconnect with her past in a positive light. And Piper makes the decision to stand by her wife, even though it’s messy and hard, vowing that they’ll give themselves a fresh start.
So ultimately, the solution to Alex’s personal hell of being trapped by a dysfunctional past is to stop resisting this.
Alex: “I just want you to know how sorry I am for the fucked-up detour you took with me.”
Piper: “No. You’re not a detour from my life. You are my life.” 7x13
You can find peace by accepting what’s behind you, embracing the chaotic person you still are, and not expecting more of yourself than slow, steady progress.
Alex: “Look, life gets messy sometimes. You know, you gotta learn you can’t always fix it.” 1x11
McKillop, Matt, and Alex Boucher. “Aging Prison Populations Drive Up Costs.” The Pew Charitable Trusts, 20 Feb. 2018.
Reese, Hope. “What Should We Do About Our Aging Prison Population?” JSTOR Daily, 17 July 2019.
Shattuck, Kathryn. “Uzo Aduba Gives Voice to Hidden Figures.” The New York Times, 27 July 2018.