Currently starring on Rian Johnson’s Peacock mystery series Poker Face, Natasha Lyonne is slowly becoming one of the biggest names in our current entertainment landscape. Apart from playing amateur sleuth Charlie Cale in 2023, the actress also scored a second season for her personal project Russian Doll, on Netflix, in 2022, and got herself a cameo in Johnson’s second installment of the Knives Out franchise, Glass Onion. With all this exposition, the love for her roles in late '90s cult classics such as The Slums of Beverly Hills and But I’m a Cheerleader has only gotten more widespread online. But the role that really put Lyonne in the limelight was not Russian Doll’s time-traveling party girl Nadia Vulvokov nor But I’m a Cheerleader’s high school queen turned pariah Megan. It’s time we give the proper attention and appreciation to the part that truly made Natasha Lyonne the TV queen that she is today. It’s time we take a really good look at Orange Is the New Black’s Nicky Nichols.
Created by Jenji Kohan, Orange Is the New Black aired on Netflix for a total of seven seasons between 2013 and 2019. For a long time, the show was considered one of the platform's best original productions, receiving over 20 nominations for the Primetime Emmy Awards in various categories. Focusing on the lives of the inmates of a women’s correctional facility in upstate New York, the show was a real steppingstone for many actresses that are now considered household names, such as Uzo Aduba, Diane Guerrero, and, of course, Natasha Lyonne. And though it might be hard to pick favorites in a cast that had such iconic characters as Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Red (Kate Mulgrew), and Crazy Eyes (Aduba), Lyonne’s Nicky Nichols is definitely in the top five.
Who Was Nicky Nichols, Natasha Lyonne’s Character in ‘Orange Is the New Black’?
Arrested for breaking and entering, as well as possession of heroin, Nicky Nichols is the real heart of Litchfield Penitentiary. Sarcastic, loudmouthed, and extremely sharp, she’s responsible for some of Orange Is the New Black’s funniest one-liners, such as “I’m on a cough syrup cocktail that would make Lil’ Wayne vomit in his dreads” and “I’m like a bean-flicking Mother Theresa." Extremely wise and down-to-earth, Nicky is also a source of comfort and advice for many of her fellow inmates. However, this sensible, no-nonsense persona is often just a facade for a really complex woman with a complicated, tragic past.
Orange Is the New Black is known for alternating between the present day stories of the women of Litchfield and flashbacks that give us insight into their lives before prison. During our looks at Nicky’s past, we learn that she was a rich, but lonely child, rejected by both her parents, who never seemed to have time for her. She’s been estranged from her father for over a decade, as we learn in Season 6, and her mother sees her as nothing but an embarrassment. This isolation led her to develop a heavy addiction to drugs that landed her in rehab various times, in the hospital at least once, and, finally, in prison. Going through this pipeline did little to help Nicky get over her addiction and learn how to deal with her inner turmoil. The series shows us over and over again that Nicky still has issues with drugs during her time in jail. She even gets to the point of stealing from her beloved prison mom, Red, to feed her addiction. Little by little, however, Nicky learns to accept the love that is given to her by her prison family and to love herself.
Nicky’s Story Is All About Paying It Forward
Nicky’s relationship with Red is essential to her recovery, as well as a high point of the show. Throughout the series, the two find in each other something that they lost long before they were put behind bars. Fashioning herself a prison mom, Red has in Nicky her favorite daughter, a perfect replacement for the sons that abandoned her when she was incarcerated and lied about keeping the family business afloat. It is Nicky that stands by her side in Season 7, when she finds out about her dementia. It is also Nicky that keeps her legacy alive, taking over the prison’s kitchen and becoming a mom to younger inmates.
On the other hand, Red becomes to Nicky the loving mother that she never had. Unlike Marka Nichols (Patricia Kalember), who saw her daughter’s addiction as a mere nuisance that could be cured with the right amount of money, Red understands that Nicky needs comfort and care to truly get better. The scene in which Red breaks down in tears after finding out that Nicky has relapsed is truly one of Orange Is the New Black’s most heartbreaking moments, while the one in which Nicky asks Red to take her drugs away from her is truly one of the most heartwarming.
Another meaningful relationship that Nicky has throughout the show is with Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), a “gay for the stay” inmate with whom she falls in love. Initially, it seems like the two have a mutual “friends with benefits” sort of agreement. However, it soon becomes clear that Nicky has feelings for Morello, who prefers to keep her romantic attention focused on the man she stalked before being arrested, even though she does harbor a deep affection for her prison girlfriend. Eventually, Nicky realizes that her relationship with Morello does her more harm than good and decides to break things off. Still, she remains a dedicated friend, staying by Morello’s side as she spirals into madness after the death of her baby son.
But even though she does her best to be with Morello and Red, Nicky still fails to notice the signs of their dwindling mental health until it’s too late. This time, however, Nicky decides to do things differently. Instead of giving into guilt and looking for solace in drugs, like she usually did, Nicky chooses to make up for her mistakes by paying it forward, and showing others the love and care that she received from her surrogate family. The last time we see her, she’s running the kitchen at an ICE facility, wearing Red’s signature red lipstick and nail polish. She’s not only giving back, but also keeping Red’s memory alive and changing her looks to better reflect how her prison relationships changed her on the inside.
Natasha Lyonne Took Inspiration from Her Own Life to Play Nicky Nichols
Nicky’s story is a painful reminder that recovery is not a straight line, and that sometimes love can only be found in the most unlikely of places. It’s a story that Natasha Lyonne — alongside the show’s writers — tells in a beautiful and honest way. Much like in Russian Doll and in Poker Face, Lyonne blends in seamlessly with her character, and navigates easily from one emotion to another. Through her acting, we see Nicky travel from comedy to tragedy, from joy to despair, often in the blink of an eye, and it never feels anything but natural.
This is in great part due to Natasha Lyonne’s amazing talent, of course, but also due to the many similarities between Lyonne and Nichols. Much like Nicky, Lyonne had her own experiences with bad parenting and drug addiction. She’s been estranged from her parents since her teenage years, and her own heroin abuse eventually put her in the hospital with a collapsed lung and endocarditis. More commonly known as heroin heart, the infection required an open-heart surgery to properly heal. This series of events is quite similar to what we see in Nicky’s flashbacks. In one of them, she wakes up in the hospital and tries to convince her mother that she merely had a case of pneumonia. “Must’ve been some pneumonia," Marka points out, opening her daughter’s gown to expose the bandages over her chest.
Though Lyonne never stopped acting, her years of drug abuse did represent a setback for her career. The promising young actress that starred in But I’m a Cheerleader and Slums of Beverly Hills spent about a decade relegated to B-movies, small roles, and small roles in B-movies. Thankfully, she found the strength in herself to recover and climb her way back to the top. Orange Is the New Black represented a return to a place that she should’ve never left. Now, four years after the show ended, it’s safe to say that it wouldn’t have been the same without Natasha Lyonne. And, frankly, neither would our TV landscape as a whole.