Orange is the New Black cemented Netflix as a force to be reckoned with in peak TV. Jenji Kohan’s women-in-prison dramedy, based on a memoir of same name by Piper Kerman, follows the journey of Piper Chapman as she goes to prison for a crime she committed nearly ten years earlier. Once inside Litchfield Penitentiary, Piper meets a bevy of complex characters that continue to fascinate fans of the show four seasons in.
Piper, initially posing as the show’s main character, ultimately serves as a gateway to an ensemble cast packed with well-rounded individuals. Each of them had unique experiences before prison put their lives on hold. Dependent on your threshold for the often insufferable Piper, this was either a good thing or a great thing.
Using a Lost-ian flashback format, almost every episode puts a different character at the show’s center, spending the hour jumping back in time to show their pre-Litchfield experiences. Sometimes we discover how they ended up in prison, while other times we merely acquire a snapshot of their previous lives. We are always left feeling illuminated to learn more about OitNB‘s endlessly deep characters.
Here is a list of the 15 Greatest Orange Is The New Black Characters, Ranked.
15. Flaca and Maritza
The characters in OitNB are only good as the bonds forged between them. And perhaps no bond at Litchfield is stronger than the one between Flaca and Maritza. The two Hispanic inmates have been as thick as convicted thieves since season one, and they’ve stayed this way throughout the whole series.
While most relationships in OitNB are fraught with conflict, Flaca and Maritza’s relationship is usually mined for laughs, and there are many laughs to be had between the oddball pairing. Perhaps the biggest laugh came when the two suddenly kissed and quickly decide that neither are really feeling it.
Of course, on their own, Flaca and Maritza go through their separate hardships. But throughout all of it, each always has the other’s back. Maritza remains friends with Flaca when she pursues a job opportunity for Litchfield inmates (which ends up being massively disappointing), and it’s safe to assume Flaca will support Maritza after the horrible abuse she faces at the end of season four.
14. Brook Soso
It’s no easy task to turn grating comic relief into a wholly empathetic character, but that’s exactly what Jenji Kohan and her writing staff did with Brook Soso. Entering the show in season two, Soso first came off as nothing more than Piper 2.0. She was an amusing chatterbox who provided solid chuckles, but not much more. However, it wasn’t long before the other sides of Soso began to shine.
We don’t yet know how Soso came to Litchfield, only that once she arrived she had great difficulty making friends. Because of her ceaseless talking, she deterred pretty much everyone. The only inmates who took an interest in her were Big Boo and Nicky, both of whom were pursuing her solely to win a bet over who could have sex with her first. Counsellor Sam Healy was the only other person to give her attention, exacerbating Soso’s depression by throwing medication at her.
Soso’s quest for companionship finally leads her to a loving relationship with Poussey, which ends up being the show’s sweetest romance. Unfortunately, the newfound appreciation audiences found for Soso soon turns into heartbreak over her tragedy.
13. Sister Jane Ingalls
Of the many characters on OitNB that stir up drama at every turn, Sister Jane Ingalls opts for a calmer demeanor. This is especially strange given that the crime that Sister Ingalls committed when she was protesting the system. Sister Ingalls’ character contains multitudes.
Imprisoned after chaining herself to a flagpole at a nuclear testing facility, Sister Ingall’s had already accumulated a lifetime of rebellion. She entered the convent during the turbulent ’60s, and quickly got swept up in the protesting spirit. At Litchfield, she mellows out a bit, but still maintains a deep-seeded will to right all wrongs.
Sister Ingalls is a religious character whose faith never undercuts her humanity, but instead fuels it. She becomes close to Sophia Bursett, a transgender inmate, and speaks out on Sophia’s behalf when she is wrongfully sent to the SHU. Prison can’t break Sister Ingalls’ will, it only hardens it.
12. Rosa Cisneros
Though she sports a tough exterior, Rosa Cisneros contains substantial vulnerability beneath her stoicism. A con of the highest order, Rosa has perhaps the most exciting past leading up to her incarceration, but it is also filled with heartbreaks and lost love.
Rosa’s life of crime began in the early ’80s, when she began going on risky bank robberies that would eventually cost her the lives of those closest to her. Seemingly cursed, for every heist she went on with a romantic partner, said romantic partner would never make it out of the ordeal alive. Rosa carried this guilt with her until the day she was captured, and even afterward, up to the day she dies.
Soon after arriving at Litchfield, Rosa was diagnosed with cancer. She spends much of the series resigned to her fate of a quiet death with no fanfare. Luckily, Rosa gets a chance to ride off into the sunset courtesy of Lorna Morello. If Rosa is going to die, she is going to die like the daring bandit she was in her younger days.
11. Big Boo
Sharp-witted characters are easy to come by on OitNB, but almost all of them are playing catch up with Big Boo. As pointed as she is foul-mouthed, Big Boo is a character that only becomes funnier, and more human, the further the show digs into her. On one hand she is a relentless sex hound, while on the other, she is a person just trying to find her place in the world.
Born as Carrie Black, Boo grew up wanting to dress up in boys clothing. Her mother’s objections to her outfits only made Boo more persistent. For a while it seemed Boo’s father was her only friend, telling her to put on a dress just to make her mom happy. However, as time went on, it turned out that Boo’s father was doing just as much to restrict her as her mother was.
As an adult, before Boo could see her mother on her deathbed, her father requested that she put on a more appropriate outfit. He referred to her butch getup as a “costume,” belittling her choices. It is here where Boo becomes more resolved than ever to remain true to herself.
10. Norma Ramona
For Norma Ramona, silence is golden. The shy, compassionate Norma can speak more with a bashful glance than she can with any dialogue. However when she does speak up, or, in a particularly memorable scene from season one, sing out, it is always worth listening to what she has to say. There’s a lot of story behind Norma’s silence.
We first meet Norma as Red’s kitchen assistant. Though speechless, Norma somehow manages to be Red’s voice of reason. At one point, she even acts as the voice of hope for a legion of followers she assembles called the “Norma-Worshippers.” However, having these followers brought up uncomfortable memories for Norma, based mainly on her past in a cult.
Norma developed a stutter at an early age, and didn’t find a place of belonging for herself until marrying a self-appointed spiritual guru. Soon the guru took other wives, and Norma began to realize that her silence was not so much accepted as it was unobtrusive. When Norma became the last wife standing, she realized that couldn’t take her guru’s nonsense any longer, and pushed him off a cliff.
9. Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett
Introduced as a clear-cut villain, Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett winds up being one of OitNB‘s most tragic characters. Pennsatucky’s development served as a prime example of Jenji Kohan and her writers’ talents. Every character has vulnerabilities, and Pennsatucky is no exception.
Before her time behind bars, Pennsatucky was turned into a pro-life symbol by Bible fanatics, which ended up being the perfect defense for her shooting up an abortion clinic. Pennsatucky carries this fanaticism with her during imprisonment, taking on the role of an unofficial preacher to likeminded followers. However, Pennsatucky soon develops in ways viewers couldn’t have predicted.
It isn’t long before Pennsatucky became isolated, shunned by those who once followed her. She’d also faces abuse at the hands of a guard (an unfortunate reflection of a traumatic event from her past). To the audience’s surprise, Pennsatucky proves to be consistently forgiving– so much so that she even achieves the friendship Boo, who originally coaxed Pennsatucky into an phony alliance in order to ridicule her.
8. Lorna Morello
In a place where hope is scarce, the inhabitants of Litchfield are luckier than they realize to have a ray of sunshine like Lorna Morello among them. Morello’s boundless pep, energized by a seemingly-real wedding engagement, earns her the adoration of all. Her past soon turns out to be sketchier than anybody realizes, but it doesn’t make her any less lovable.
For a full season, audiences couldn’t stop hearing Morello talk about her alleged fiancé, Christopher. While it was easy to see that Morello was idealizing her relationship with Christopher, nobody expected the final outcome. Christopher was never her lover, but instead the object of her heedless stalking. Even after her obsession got her imprisoned, she kept it up, as it was the one thing that gave her hope.
Morello is a good influence on everybody around her, whether they like it or not. So when Morello ends up losing her optimism, even somebody as cynical as Nicky feels compelled to boost her spirits. What goes around comes around, and Morello’s own positivity inevitably comes back around to her.
7. Gloria Mendoza
Gloria Mendoza is the unsung hero of OitNB. As a tough-as-nails maternal figure, Gloria is every bit as fierce as Red. She acts as a mother to Daya when Daya’s own mother, who is imprisoned with them, acts selfishly. Gloria is far from perfect, which makes her one of the best characters in the show.
As a mother (both literally and spiritually), a cook, and a practitioner of Santería, Gloria possesses a great deal of power. Despite the strain imprisonment places on her relationship with her real children, Gloria never stops trying to raise her kids right. She has had plenty of tough love to give, and Litchfield’s bars can only do so much to keep the love from getting out.
Of course, Gloria’s protectiveness over her children enacts some unquestionable wrongdoing while she is on the inside. When Sophia accuses Gloria’s son of being a bad influence on her own son, Gloria reacts harshly. Tensions between Gloria and Sophia escalate until Gloria ultimately causes Sophia to be unjustly sent to the SHU. However, Gloria never truly forgives herself for this.
6. Galina “Red” Reznikov
As a source of power, mystery, and even humor, Galina “Red” Reznikov is a standout character from the moment she walks onscreen. Her capacity to withhold forgiveness is apparent when she denies Piper meals– as punishment for Piper insulting Red’s cooking– and yet her capacity to support others is also apparent by how she helps Nicky go through withdrawal.
Red’s sentence stretches back farther than many other prisoners. She was brought in years ago for hiding corpses of the Russian mafia in the freezer of her store in Queens. Once inside the gates of Litchfield, Red wasted no time establishing a status quo that placed her at the top of the food chain. Red is equal parts benevolent and tough to her prison family, willing to help any of them out of a rut while also threatening to abandon them if they dare to slip up again.
Red’s biggest flaw is that she is prone to fighting fire with fire. Her vindictive attitude doesn’t always pan out for her in the long run. When Gloria usurps her as head of the kitchen, Red attempts payback, but only burns one of her own in the process.
5. Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson
Taystee is a scene-stealer rivalled by none. She is a standout for her hilarious booze and barbecue sauce-related testimony at Alcoholics Anonymous alone. Taystee stands squarely in the spotlight of every scene she is in. She not only entertains us, but also breaks our hearts.
As a worker in the Litchfield library, Taystee is well-read and incredibly determined. She even wins a mock job fair hosted by Litchfield, though the winnings she receives are less than desirable ($10 for her commissary). Taystee’s determination is often undercut by her ability to envision a life on the outside, which, granted, is a tough thing for any ex-con on parole to do. Taystee would be released from Litchfield only to purposefully commit a crime to get sent back.
While it is sad to witness Taystee return to prison, viewers would be hard-pressed to imagine Litchfield, or OitNB as a show, without Taystee in it. An insurmountable tragedy at the end of season four ensures a powerful arc for Taystee going forward.
4. Nicky Nichols
Nicky feels more like a friend to viewers than a fictional character on a TV show. She is an irreverent observer of all happenings at Litchfield, and acts as Piper’s confidant when everybody else is annoyed by her. Admittedly, Nicky might’ve cozied up to Piper in the hopes of having sex with her, but she still helps the blonde inmate transition into Litchfield easier.
As a recovering heroin addict, Nicky has no choice but to go cold turkey once incarcerated. The road isn’t easy, and, even after she becomes clean, the temptation to relapse (totally possible given the drugs that go in and out of Lichfield) always hangs over her. What keeps Nicky from falling back into despair is learning to trust people, namely Red and Morello. Trust is hard for Nicky, in large part because of a complicated relationship with her mother.
Nicky’s charms are irresistible, as evidenced by her successful career as one of Litchfield’s most notorious womanizers. Though other characters can’t always depend on Nicky being consistent, they can at least depend on her for a good laugh.
3. Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren
At any given moment, viewers can find themselves laughing at one of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren’s antics, and, a second later, they would immediately feel guilty when they discover that Suzanne amounts to much more than her erratic quirks. While audiences grow to understand Crazy Eyes, they eventually stop referring to her by her condescending nickname, and instead get to know her as Suzanne.
Crazy Eyes initially deluded herself into believing she was in a relationship with Piper (“I threw my pie for you“), right up until Piper blatantly stated that she wasn’t interested. Suzanne did not respond kindly, and put on a disgusting display right before Piper’s eyes that she would not soon forget. However, Jenji Kohan and her staff were clearly not satisfied with Suzanne being defined for her sometimes ludicrous behavior, and wasted no time revealing her many dimensions.
Suzanne’s history of not fitting in stretches back to childhood. Adopted by a white family, Suzanne never truly felt like she belonged anywhere. Once her softer side was shown, viewers fell in love with the complex and vulnerable Suzanne.
2. Sophia Burset
Of OitNB‘s many progressive elements, perhaps the most notable is the inclusion of a trans character played by a trans actress. However, Sophia isn’t just a figurehead, she’s also an eternally interesting character. Her virtues and her mistakes are put forward constantly on the show, warts and all. She is a character who refuses to be ignored.
Before Litchfield, Sophia was labeled as a male at birth. Sophia gradually realized that she could not accept her original sex assignment, and soon made plans to transition into being a woman. Sophia isn’t above taking shortcuts to become who she is meant to be, and sadly it is one of these shortcuts that puts her in Litchfield.
She makes the mistake of stealing credit cards to pay for reassignment surgery, and is caught after her own son reports her. Like Gloria, Sophia makes a point to remain a parental figure in her child’s life, even after her son alerted the police to her crimes.
1. Poussey Washington
If Gloria us the unsung hero of OitNB‘s cast, then Poussey is the whispered savior. It’s impossible to truly encapsulate Poussey’s value to the cast of characters and the show in general. However, viewers don’t realize this until it is too late.
Born into a military family, Poussey, like many characters on OitNB, had trouble fitting in. This habit was made worse by the fact that her family had to constantly move around. Poussey would acquire worldly experience, but her friends and lovers would come and go. Some she’d lose through distance, while others were forced away by people actively keeping her apart from them.
Poussey has the distinction of being a Litchfield inmate who knows what’s best for herself. She searches this out, building a close relationship with her best friend Taystee. However, when Taystee’s friendship isn’t enough, Poussey knows that she had to seek out romance, which leads her into a relationship with Soso. Poussey sets an example that many Litchfield inmates can benefit from following.
Orange is the New Black is available to stream on Netflix. Who are your favorite characters from the show? Let us know in the comments.
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