There’s a wonderful subplot in the new season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black that follows Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat), a cranky, elderly cancer patient. A bit player in season one, she remains a marginal character with whom the show nonetheless elects to spend time. We follow her to her chemotherapy. We learn the story of her youth as a bank robber (she’s still unrepentant). We watch her grapple with her rapidly approaching death, which has become more terrible to her because she’ll be dying alone in prison.
To the other inmates at Litchfield Penitentiary, Rosa remains “that person with cancer” (maybe most memorably demonstrated when somebody misguidedly recommends her The Fault in Our Stars). But because the show is so willing to spend time with a character so peripheral, Rosa is opened up to the viewer in a way she is not for her fellow inmates. She goes from being a joke to being a person. The joke begins to be on the other inmates.