When Red (Kate Mulgrew) was first introduced on Orange is the New Black, she was a force to be reckoned with. That became clear right off the bat in the series' first episode, when prison newbie Piper (Taylor Schilling) insulted Red's cooking and Red didn't take it well, to put it lightly. The audience quickly learned Red didn't let anybody mess with her when she fought back by sticking a used tampon in Piper's food. However, the Red audiences first met changed greatly over the course of the show's seven seasons, especially toward the end. It turns out, Red's ending on Orange is the New Black included a personal detail that makes it even more heartbreaking. Warning: Spoilers for Season 7 of Orange is the New Black follow.
Red went through a lot during her time in prison. She started out running the kitchen, but years of abuse from guards and rivalries between inmates took its toll on her. Through it all, she remained a mother figure to many of the other women, taking care of them as best as she could. That continued until the final season, when Red began to lose her memory and sense of self due to dementia.
It was pretty devastating to watch a character who once had such a bold and confident presence shrink into herself because she could not remember where she was or who her friends were. Mulgrew, who played Red throughout all seven seasons, told The Hollywood Reporter:
Red was the single, strongest, bravest and best soul and they took her down. And I knew that they would. Because that’s what happens to people in prison.
Once Red's dementia was diagnosed toward the end of Season 7, the prison doctor revealed her illness was probably exacerbated by her time spent in solitary confinement. Mulgrew said the outcome makes sense for her character, since it's part of the "natural, devastating byproduct of aging in prison in this country."
Originally, the writers were going to give Red's character a similar, but in some ways even more difficult, disease. However, Mulgrew asked them to change it to dementia in part because of her family history. Mulgrew said:
I just said, 'Please don’t make it Alzheimer’s.' Because we don’t have enough time to explore and do it justice in the 13 episodes we’re allotted. Let’s make it dementia or PTSD, whatever you want to call it that happens when you're hit too hard, too many times.
In real life, Mulgrew's mother lived with Alzheimer's disease, so she knew from firsthand experience that the show wouldn't have the space to properly do that kind of story justice. Mulgrew tells the story of caring for her mother in her memoir, How to Forget. Even though Red's ending was different from Mulgrew's mother's situation, both conditions take away patients' memories. Because of that, Mulgrew's portrayal of Red struck a personal, powerful chord for her.
You can watch all of Orange is the New Black Season 7 on Netflix now.