Warning: The following contains spoilers from Season 7 of Orange Is the New Black. Do not keep reading until you have finished Episode 4.
The closing moments of Orange Is the New Black Episode 4 are not for the faint of heart. As the hour draws to a close, Danielle Brooks‘ Taystee has reached her breaking point. She makes her bed, tidies up her belongings, and ties a makeshift noose to the side of her bunk.
As Taystee prepares to end her life, Cindy is reading aloud in Mr. Caputo’s restorative justice class. “No one escapes this life without experiencing pain or injustice,” she says. “And some people are dealt far more hardship than others. It can feel like there’s no way out. It can feel hopeless, like no one cares.
“How do we restore justice in a world that is profoundly unfair?” she asks. “What do we do when we reach the place where we don’t know what to do?”
There’s no easy answer. And for Taystee, it’s beginning to feel like there is no answer. She takes the noose, wraps it around her neck, and tries to kill herself. The attempt lasts all of 13 seconds, but it feels like an eternity. Ultimately, she cannot bring herself to go through with it, and Cindy’s voiceover resumes.
“Punishment is not the answer,” Cindy says. “Giving up is not the answer. We have to find our own answers, and that can feel like it’s beyond our strength. But all we have to do, first, is try.”
For Brooks, this seventh and final season of Orange started out like no other. “I got the call from [series creator] Jenji Kohan that it would be the last season, and what Jenji had done, which she had never done before, was actually tell us the arc of our character,” Brooks tells TVLine. And while she wasn’t shocked by the trajectory of Taystee’s final season journey, nothing could have prepared her for the scene at hand.
“When I think about that scene where she tries to commit suicide, just mentally, it was rough for me to get through,” Brooks says. “I had good support around me. The producers were very sensitive and caring, as was [director] Andrew McCarthy,” but “I do wish there was a level of therapeutic support for when we were doing scenes like that. This show was blessed to have had women that were able to carry these stories without needing that, [but] I still think it could have been helpful, at least for me. I found myself having to walk around the set for about 10-20 minutes afterwards to clear my head of what I was experiencing in my heart, mind, body and soul, through one-hundred percent of my being.”
Brooks is candid about the experience. She tells us that McCarthy did a “good job” keeping the on-set crew to a minimum throughout the shooting process, to ensure that there wasn’t a huge crowd in her sightline. During rehearsal, and throughout filming, “my safety was taken care of first.” That included being strapped to a harness before she acted out Taystee’s attempted hanging. But that, alone, wasn’t enough to put her mind at ease. “You’re dealing with the discomfort of having a makeshift noose around your neck, and I don’t think I need to explain why that’s not a comfortable thing for a black woman, or for any person really, but specifically a black woman. I’m just grateful I’m strong enough to handle a scene like that.”
While some actors are able to separate themselves from the material, Brooks is not one of them. “I actually have to try and live that — and the hard part,” she stresses, “is that we’re not just doing this scene one time. This isn’t a one-shot. Even when we were doing the scene where we lost Poussey [back in Season 4], we did that scene maybe three times, and I tried to get it down to two. But when we did this scene, we did it over and over and over and over and over, because you’re getting different angles, you’re getting different levels… you’re trying to figure out the right level. Whatever it is, we at least had to do it over six, seven times, and that can be a lot on an actor.”
When it came time to shoot, Brooks channeled everything Taystee had been through over the course of seven seasons. “It’s not just this one experience. It’s multiple experiences,” she says. It’s the culmination of everything that’s happened in her life.
“There are some moments that are really not about you, and you have to surrender all of yourself to the character. That’s what I tried to do,” Brooks explains. “And then after you snap out of it, that’s when you’re, like, ‘I need to take care of me.’ I actually do need to take care of myself and make sure that I’m mentally OK.”