This post contains spoilers for Orange Is the New Black Season 6.
For quite some time now, Taystee (played by Danielle Brooks) has been the emotional core for Orange Is the New Black. The cheerful inmate—a young black woman ferried from one damaging institution to the next—has long served as a direct counterpoint to Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a privileged white woman who starred as the shows ostensible lead, before creator Jenji Kohan and her writing team Trojan Horsed the plot to revolve around the many women of color who make up the cast.
Last season, Taystee became the shows focal point, leading an uprising and seeking justice for Poussey Washington, an inmate killed by one of the guards a season prior. Taystee doesnt get the justice she seeks. Instead, she gets framed for the murder of brutal guard Desi Piscatella, who was accidentally killed by a fellow officer during the riot. In Season 6, she goes on a solitary journey, hoping against hope that she wont be found guilty of a crime she didnt commit. In the finale, Taystee is ultimately pinned for the crime and sentenced to life in prison, a dark twist made all the more devastating by Brookss deft acting. Shes a picture of horror: as the jury foreperson reads the verdict, the audio cuts out—save for the sound of a pounding heart—and the camera cuts in on her face. Her jaw drops. Her shoulders shake. She screams, then grits her jaw, tears falling as she absorbs her new doom.
While preparing for this season, Brooks thought a lot about Kalief Browder, a young black man who spent three years on Rikers Island, two of which were in solitary confinement, for a crime he said he did not commit. He killed himself two years after his release, sparking a national debate about the carceral state and the damaging effects of solitary imprisonment.
“I see that same glimmer in Taystee,” Brooks said in a recent phone interview, comparing her characters journey to that of Browders. “She wants to give up.”
To prepare for the scene, Brooks viewed a grim marathon of YouTube clips of real people hearing their guilty verdicts. “It was such an array, from people passing out in courtrooms, to people totally going numb, to people screaming at the top of their lungs and having to be escorted out, to people laughing,” she said. In order to land on Taystees ultimate reaction, Brooks and director Nick Sandow (who also plays warden Joe Caputo on the series) cycled through a series of different takes, incorporating things Brooks had actually seen in the YouTube videos.
The verdict is especially brutal for fans who have loved Taystee since the beginning. Shes capable and ebullient, but has been let down time and time again by the systems conspiring against her. In a particularly precise scene in this season, Piper sits alongside Taystee, bemoaning the fact that people always want to fuck with her. Taystee reminds her that things are much, much worse if youre not a white woman.
“How do you deal with it?” Piper asks, feeling reflective.
“I try to survive,” Taystee softly replies.
And so, each season is a cycle of Taystee trying to survive and occasionally progressing. Last season saw her boldest attempt yet, but its undercut by this season, which sees her paying for all the radical progress she made (or at least tried to make). The finale is all too realistic.
“Jenji wants to stay honest and true to the world,” Brooks said. “Taystee is unfortunately one of those people who has all the skills to survive and thrive in this world, but the system just is not set up for her to win.”
The continuous theme of the show, Brooks says, is to hold up a mirror to the world and say, “Look what we do. Look how we treat each other.” Taystee is a stand-in for so many people (black people in particular) who are falsely imprisoned. Her journey has changed so much since Season 1, back when Brooks was worried that the character might come off as just another stereotype. The actress auditioned for the series shortly after graduating from Juilliard, and had been on a disappointing, predictable streak. “The sassy black woman who can land a good joke was sort of my go-to audition,” Brooks notes. “Or playing a struggling mother. Im, like, 21 coming out of school. Im a child myself basically.”
It was a relief, then, to read the Orange sides and realize Taystee was a fleshed-out, multi-dimensional black character, amid a cast of multi-dimensional women of color. “To me, that was like, Huh, this is worth doing,” Brooks said. “These are the stories worth telling.”
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Yohana DestaYohana Desta is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.