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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.”

Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Michelle Williams Amazing Range

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The film that started it all: Williams made her first big-screen appearance in this gentle family adaptation, at the tender age of 14.Photo: From Paramount/Everett Collection.PreviousNext

<em>I Feel Pretty,</em> 2018

I Feel Pretty, 2018

As breathy beauty mogul Avery LeClaire, Williams showed a knack for delightfully strange comedy.By Mark Schäfer/Everett Collection.

<em>All the Money in the World,</em> 2017

All the Money in the World, 2017

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Mark Wahlbergs salary demands made headlines—but Williamss determined mother, Gail Harris, is the real heart of this kidnapping drama.From TriStar Pictures/Everett Collection.

<em>The Greatest Showman,</em> 2017

The Greatest Showman, 2017

She sings! She dances! She holds her own against Hugh Jackman and a tents worth of colorful circus folk!From 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection.

<em>Manchester by the Sea,</em> 2016

Manchester by the Sea, 2016

Williamss heartbreaking monologue is the most memorable moment of this drama—even if her performance wasnt the one to be rewarded with an Oscar.From Roadside Attractions/Everett Collection.

<em>My Week with Marilyn,</em> 2011

My Week with Marilyn, 2011

As the silver screens most iconic siren, Williams exudes fragility and sex appeal—much like Marilyn Monroe herself.From The Weinstein Company/Everett Collection.

<em>Take This Waltz,</em> 2011

Take This Waltz, 2011

Williams brings pathos and empathy to the story of a woman torn between her husband and a charismatic stranger.From Magnolia Pictures/Everett Collection.

<em>Blue Valentine,</em> 2010

Blue Valentine, 2010

Warning: if youre planning to watch Williams and Ryan Gosling fall in and out of love, bring tissues.From The Weinstein Company/Everett Collection.

<em>Meeks Cutoff,</em> 2010

Meeks Cutoff, 2010

As a pioneer traveling the Oregon Territory in 1845, Williams is a pillar of strength.From Oscilloscope Pictures/Everett Collection.

<em>Shutter Island,</em> 2010

Shutter Island, 2010

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<em>Wendy and Lucy,</em> 2008

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Lucy is a dog; Wendy is Williams, de-glammed to play a woman hovering on the very edge of financial stability.From Oscilloscope Pictures/Everett Collection.

<em>Deception,</em> 2008

Deception, 2008

Is Williamss character, known only as “S,” a victim, or a femme fatale? Youll have to watch the film to find out.From 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection.

<em>Brokeback Mountain,</em> 2005

Brokeback Mountain, 2005

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<em>A Hole in One,</em> 2004

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Let it be known that Williams can shine even opposite . . . Meat Loaf?!From Beech Hill Films/Everett Collection.

<em>Land of Plenty,</em> 2004

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Wim Wenders uses Williams as his eyes in this dramatization of post-9/11 America.From IFC Films/Everett Collection.

<em>The Station Agent,</em> 2003

The Station Agent, 2003

The movies known for Peter Dinklages star-making role, but it wouldnt be the same without Williams, playing much more than a love interest.From Miramax/Everett Collection.

<em>Me Without You,</em> 2001

Me Without You, 2001

Williams runs the gamut of emotions as a woman caught in a lifelong toxic friendship.From Samuel Goldwyn Films/Everett Collection.

<em>Dick,</em> 1999

Dick, 1999

Further proof that Williams should make more comedies: this uproarious period piece, starring her and Kirsten Dunst as the teenagers who broke Watergate.From Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection.

<em>Halloween H20: 20 Years Later,</em> 1998

Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, 1998

Was it wise of Williams and her friends to have a Halloween party in the town that gave birth to Michael Myers? Probably not—but its fun to watch her scream.From Dimension Films/Everett Collection.

<em>Dawsons Creek,</em> 1998

Dawsons Creek, 1998

Yes, the show was ultra-90s teen cheese—but Williams brought surprising depth to the role of Jen Lindley, the sensitive sexpot next door.From Everett Collection.

<em>Lassie,</em> 1994

Lassie, 1994

The film that started it all: Williams made her first big-screen appearance in this gentle family adaptation, at the tender age of 14.From Paramount/Everett Collection.

Yohana DestaYohana Desta is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.

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