By Season 2, when Orange got to more aggressively deconstructing its Trojan-horse setup, Taystee was already being positioned as the show’s most crucial component. Through her story, the series considered the failures of the parole system, recidivism, and—in later seasons—the way racist institutions configure and protect themselves. But she was also, thanks to Brooks’s performance, one of the most spectacular characters on television. Resourceful, sharp, outlandish, funny, and perpetually kind, Taystee continued to thwart all the ways in which the system tried to beat her down. In Season 6, she and Piper had a scene that skewered Piper’s privilege in a single exchange. “What is it about me that makes people want to fuck with me?” a disconsolate Piper asked, having had pink gum lodged in her hair and drugs planted in her shoe.
“Can I be real with you?” Taystee responded. “It’s ’cause of what they see when they look at you. They don’t see you. They see the shit they never had. Money, education, opportunity. That’s why they never gonna stop fucking with you, because of what you represent. But at least that’s only in here. People out there been fucking with me my entire fucking life. They see dangerous, poor, ghetto black girl that should be locked up in here forever. So, like, if you want to trade places, I’m game.”
“How do you deal with it?” Piper replied, chastened.
“I try to survive,” Taystee said.
Realistically, Piper was always going to get out of prison. The show spun out her 15-month sentence for as long as it could, given the creep of jail time and the inevitability of aging, even for TV actors. There were moments when it seemed like she might be headed for extra time, a Sisyphean ordeal of a sentence that just kept increasing. But a woman of her means, with her support network and her lawyers, wasn’t destined to get trapped in the carceral system. Orange’s final season documents some of the struggles Piper experiences in the outside world: the indignity of menial jobs, the mounting bills imposed by mandatory drug tests and parole checks, the dismay of living in her brother’s guest bedroom in Jackson Heights and having to witness her sister-in-law’s arduous regimen of “elimination communication” potty training.
The final flashback of the show’s run, though, makes clear how easy Piper has it. In the 12th episode of Season 7, “The Big House,” Orange jumps back in time to when Taystee was released from Litchfield in Season 1. As she arrives home from her job at KFC, she finds out that the woman she’s staying with is being evicted, and she has to choose between homelessness and staying with a friend’s cousin who’ll put her to work selling drugs. As Taystee tries to decide what to do, she gets a call from Poussey (Samira Wiley), who tells her that pain and upheaval are only temporary. But the sound of her friend’s voice is enough to convince Taystee that she was better off inside, with a place to sleep, food to eat, and people who loved her. It’s a split-second decision that sparks a chain of events that will threaten her life.