Orange Is the New Black's Alex and Piper Taught Me a Lot About Love (2023)

Warning: Contains spoilers for the final season of Orange Is the New Black.

Over the years, Orange is the New Black has left me with many questions about love. When the inaugural season dropped on Netflix in 2013, I wondered: Am I gay? Once I figured that out (spoiler alert: super gay), I had more, amorphous, questions: How do we measure the effects a story has on our own love lives? How do I let someone in? How do I say goodbye?

On Friday, the seventh and final season of Netflix’s dramedy darling dropped, and after voraciously consuming it, I was left with one last burning question: What is OITNB's final message about love?

Ex-WASP turned ex-con Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and hot lesbian drug smuggler Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) are my OTP: the first lesbian TV couple I’ve ever stanned, the only “ship” I’ve ever truly cared about. In 2013, there was nothing I wanted more than for them to end up together. Last week, I got my wish: In the final scene of the show, Piper, now out of prison, sits across from Alex at a visitation table in Alex’s new prison, and neither has ever looked happier to see each other, or anyone, for that matter.

Orange Is the New Black's Alex and Piper Taught Me a Lot About Love (1)

We’ve pretty much always known that Alex and Piper's relationship is imperfect, and in many ways, it seems obvious that they shouldn’t be together. Their foundation was undeniably built on rocky ground: Yes, they embodied hot and steamy young love when they met in a bar, a decade before they were locked up—but Alex was a drug smuggler, and coaxed Piper into carrying a suitcase of cash with her on a “work” trip to Europe. Naïve, pussy-blind Piper followed along, and when Alex was arrested, she named Piper as an accomplice in her testimony. When Piper saw Alex in Litchfield Prison for the very first time since their liaison, she released a blood-curdling scream. Not exactly a great start!

Yes, Alex did make Piper happy. When they were together, Alex treated her to fancy tropical vacations. She looked after her in Litchfield. They got prison-married. But Alex continued to be bad for Piper. Lest we forget: when Alex asked Piper to lie on the stand for her in her boss Kubra’s trial.

Orange Is the New Black's Alex and Piper Taught Me a Lot About Love (2)

Season 7 had seemingly continued making a strong case as to why Alex and Piper shouldn’t be together. Piper struggles to reacclimate to life on the outside after serving 15 months. She has trouble moving forward, still bound to the prison by Alex, probation, and her record, which hinders her employment. Her father wants her to move on from the past. Her ex-fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) urges her to do so, too. Alex even suggests they open up their relationship so as not to hold Piper back, while a new love interest, Zelda—who works in the non-profit sector, has a trendy apartment, and shares Piper’s interests—appears to be a great fit for what Piper’s friends and family agree is the “real” Piper.

Is that the Piper we know, though? Our Piper has always been a flawed, drama-seeking adrenaline junkie. As much as she presents as a pretentious white lady who loves artisanal soaps and extending her back in yoga, what she craves most is intense chemical surges and an alternative lifestyle (being on the wrong side of the law, that is—not being queer). Pursuing an all-consuming, passionate love affair with a wealthy lesbian drug lord was a perfect solution, and the show's final moments reconfirmed this element of who she is.

Orange Is the New Black's Alex and Piper Taught Me a Lot About Love (3)

We're used to redemption stories, and the last minute bait-and-switch of Alex and Piper's reunion really muddied those waters. Given that finale and all this history, I wasn't sure at first what the show’s final message about love was supposed to be. Was it that love is inevitable? That some people can’t help themselves, regardless of romantic Do Not Pass Go vibes? Or that we should invest in love despite it all? Why did OITNB end with a scene showing two people who can’t turn from love, even if it’s bad for them? And what makes love “bad” for us?

Nobody would ever put "criminal activity" in a dating guidebook. Yet despite the red flags, I won’t lie: Moments before that final Alex and Piper scene, I was sobbing on my couch under a pile of blankets, unable to face a world in which Alex and Piper break up because their love wasn’t enough to save them. I’ve been there, and I think we all have: that crushing feeling of wanting to be with someone despite circumstances that just won’t allow for it. The harsh reality is that sometimes loving someone, even if they love you back, isn’t a good enough reason to stay together. That’s often why we look to TV and movies and books: to confirm our beliefs that love should prevail, that we should choose it and keep fighting.

That’s the twisted brilliance of Orange. It hooked me into a wrong-on-every-level romance for almost a decade, and convinced me that it was the right endgame. Orange dragged me through the mud, making me think that Alex and Piper would end tragically, then gave me the ending of my wet dreams.

I know it’s not wise. Alex and Piper’s relationship was the first queer story I ever saw on TV, connected to and fell in love with, and in turn, it drew out my own queerness. Because of that, I’ve learned terrible lessons about dating: that we should chase adrenaline, that power dynamics are fun and exciting, that I should fuck who I want to fuck and hold on to that person with everything I have, even if that means breaking federal laws. I’m not sure any of that is good advice, if “good” means morally sound or healthy.

It’s not a fairytale "happily ever after"—Orange is the New Black’s messaging on love is complex, messy, and flawed.

But I also know that love can and should be fulfilling, and not passive or neat or necessarily conventional. That’s how it was for Alex and Piper, and that’s what I seek in my own relationships: happiness, mutual fulfillment, excitement. While there are many questionable elements to their relationship, I’m thrilled the show let Alex and Piper end up together. Not only does it do their characters and their story justice, and make queer fans like me beam like teens with a crush, but it’s also realistic. It’s hard for people to break their patterns, and if there’s one thing I’ve witnessed, and been guilty of in my own life, it’s that sometimes people make the same mistakes over and over again; they keep going back. That's not as alluring as Alex and Piper’s high-octane origin story, but it’s a hard truth, and ultimately, it’s how their story ends.

Alex and Piper aren’t #goals. On paper, their relationship isn’t necessarily something we should try to emulate. But their being head over heels in love and lust does feel desirable and exciting. It's not a fairytale "happily ever after"; Orange is the New Black’s messaging on love is complex, messy, and flawed. But that's exactly what made Alex and Piper's relationship so real and relatable all these years (apart from the crimes). Love really can conquer all—that's why we keep doing all those atrocious, unadvisable, sublime, wondrous things.

Orange Is the New Black's Alex and Piper Taught Me a Lot About Love (5)

Jill Gutowitz

Jill Gutowitz is a writer from New Jersey. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vulture and more. She lives in Los Angeles with her partner and a very small cat. Girls Can Kiss Now is her debut essay collection

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