Recognized as Netflix’s most watched original series and hailed as revolutionary for its depictions of gender, sexuality, race, mental illness, and different body types, Orange is the New Black is particularly praised for its humanization of prisoners. The show centers around the everyday lifestyle difficulties of female inmates living in Litchfield Penitentiary, a federal women’s prison in upstate New York.
With a plethora of characters with complex and different backgrounds, you as the viewer become attached to and supportive of the various women in the show, especially after their backgrounds are revealed.
Orange is the New Black uses flashbacks to slowly tell the story of each of the central characters, showing how their lifestyle or certain events led them to end up in prison. Some stories are funny, some are violent, and others like the ones listed here are simply heartbreaking. Giving deeper insight into the cracks in the criminal justice system and humanizing its characters, there is a chance these five backstories will make you tear up, so have tissues on hand.
#5 – Lorna Morello
Lorna is a sweetheart character on the show who always has a positive attitude and wants to make friends. For a while in the show, Lorna is vocal about her engagement to a wonderful man named Christopher. She talks endlessly about how much they love each other and how he is the man of her dreams, it seems kind of sketchy but nonetheless sweet.
In a flashback, we see Lorna meeting Christopher while they’re both at a post office. The two go on one date by having coffee together when Christopher expresses he doesn’t want to pursue anything further. Dissatisfied with this, Lorna stalks Christopher and even goes as far as threatening him and his girlfriend and placing an explosive under their car. Seeing the extent of the denial Lorna is in is equally unsettling and sad.
#4 – Gloria Mendoza
In the show, Gloria Mendoza is a great character who displays the type of tough love that you want to get from someone. She’s maternal, loving, and especially looks after all of the Latino inmates. Gloria’s backstory is another tough one that shows the hardships of trying to escape an abusive relationship.
Before Litchfield, Gloria helped run a corner store all while being in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, Arturo. As a means to save herself and her son, Benny, Gloria committed food stamp fraud and saved money from the fraud to start over from her relationship. In her story, it shows that people in desperate situations do what they feel is necessary to survive.
#3 – Sophia Burset
As stated earlier, Orange is the New Black is praised for its representation of all types of people, and the character Sophia Burset, played by the breathtaking Laverne Cox, is an excellent example of that. Sophia is a transgender woman who’s backstory tugs at your heartstrings and definitely conjures sympathy.
Prior to transitioning, Sophia was Marcus, a firefighter with a wife and child. While taming burning homes, Sophia would collect the credit cards and use them to help pay for her gender reassignment surgery. Though I am not an advocate for credit card fraud, one can understand the kind of difficulties a trans person can deal with when it comes to transitioning and living in America.
#2 – Lolly Whitehill
Recognized by the inmates of Litchfield as the local conspiracy theorist, Lolly Whitehill is a beautifully tragic complex character. Revealed in S4:E7, Lolly used to a be a journalist for a newspaper called Free Weekly. When Lolly stopped following the directions of her editor and started writing more about government conspiracies, she was let go from her job. During this sequence we find out that Lolly suffers from auditory hallucinations, which contributes to her growing paranoia about government agencies being after her.
Unfortunately, Lolly’s mental illness leads her to become homeless, but she tries to get by selling cups of coffee out of her shopping cart. To combat her hallucinations, she uses a stick with bells attached to tune them out and get by day to day. One day, when Lolly’s shopping cart wheel breaks, two police officers approach her and tell her to go elsewhere, but the voices in her head convince her they’re harmful. When she reaches for her bell stick to tune out her voices, the police arrest her thinking she was trying to attack them. In both Lolly and Suzanne, the show displays how mental illness can be so misunderstood and not treated properly in our society.
#1 – Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren
Suzanne aka “Crazy Eyes” is perhaps the most lovable character on the show- she’s loyal, kind, and pure at heart. Suzanne’s backstory is ambiguous for the first few seasons, but in season four her tragic background is revealed. Adopted by her foster parents as a child, Suzanne was always loved but treated differently by her parents, her sister, and her peers because she had some form of mental illness.
By the time Suzanne grows up, as we see in S4:E11, she is a store greeter and even is recognized as employee of the month for her kindness and enthusiasm towards customers. When her sister, who is also her roommate, leaves for a weekend trip with her boyfriend, Suzanne tries to find ways to stay busy. At a park nearby, she recognizes a young boy, Dylan, who was at the store she works at and innocently invites him over to play video games.
After sometime hanging out, Dylan wants to leave which upsets Suzanne thinking that he doesn’t want to be her friend. She chases him around the apartment, when he ultimately climbs out to the fire escape and fatally falls onto the street. Suzanne had the purest of intentions and it unfortunately turned out to go awry, which is what makes her story the most heartbreaking.