Nicky Nichols (portrayed by Natasha Lyonne) is a recovering heroin addict and inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary. We learn in season three that she received a ten-year sentence for burglary. Known for her sexual appetite and fierce loyalty to her prison family, Nichols undergoes some of the toughest lessons while on the inside.
Growing up, Nichols had a strained relationship with her mother, who largely left her in the care of her nanny, Paloma. With her father seemingly absent from the picture, Nichols’ mother made sure to provide her daughter with a life rich in experience, luxury, and security. In season three, we are shown a flashback to Nichols’ childhood when Paloma had helped her to make a pie to present to her mother on Mother’s Day. However, when her mother disregards her efforts and hardly glances at the hand-drawn card that the young Nichols so lovingly scrawled because of her pressing need to get to work on time, she learns that her mother cares more about her career that provides the means for living than she does about actually living and spending time bonding with her daughter. While her mother had good intentions in pursuing a life of financial stability for herself and her daughter, she inadvertently also provided Nicky withe he financial means to experiment with drugs. Nicky may have seen the world, but she has also seen the underbelly of addiction, which has now robbed her of ten years of her life that could have been spent traveling Asia or Europe.
Season three jumps ahead a decade to Nichols’ young adult life when she was deep in the trenches of heroin addiction. In need of a fix, she and her three friends are aggravated when a cab driver refuses to skip his break to take them where they need to go to score some more “H.” In a split-second decision, Nichols convinces her two friends to hop in the cab and take it themselves to catch their dealer before he leaves town. However, when she crashes the cab not even ten feet from the point of origin, she and her friends are taken to and locked up in the local precinct. Nichols’ mother comes quickly to bail her out of jail, and she makes the case to her mother that they should pay to bail her two friends out as well because it had been her idea after all. When it seems as though her mother isn’t going to give her the cash, we see Nichols attempt to steal it; however, her mother caves in and hands over her credit card.
In another season three flashback, we see Nichols and her friends brainstorming for ways to make money to score some more heroin. Hard up for cash, Nichols mentions to her company that she knows that one of her neighbors (who is currently out of town) has a first edition signed copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea that they could steal and sell.
Needless to say, she and her friends are caught, and Nichols is sentenced to ten years in prison on a plea bargain, which seemingly is “the best possible outcome at this point.” Knowing how disappointed her mother is in her actions, Nichols tells her mother that jail time is the only way that she could be officially “out of her hair.” Defeated, her mother agrees that she is “no match” for Nicky and that only she can save herself from her life-ruining addiction.
We first encounter Nichols in prison when Piper Chapman is first assigned to the newbie living quarters along with Anita DeMarco, Miss Rosa Cisernos, and Nichols, who has just been released from the SHU for telling a C.O. To “kiss [her] ass.” Once reassigned to the dormitories, this foul-mouthed inmate reintegrated with her prison family under Red, who had initially taken her under her wing upon processing into prison and embarking upon the macabre detoxing process.
Since entering prison, Nichols has remained close to Red, who has served as a surrogate mother. Because Red has been the most caring figure, who has willfully decided to be a part of her life, Nichols interprets Red’s nomination of Lorna Morello (Nichols’ prison sweetheart) to run for the Women’s Advisory Council as her way of personally rejecting her. Rather than addressing this issue with her prison mother, Nichols retaliates by tipping off the formidable C.O. George “Pornstache” Mendez as to how Red manages to smuggle contraband into the prison. Once the operation is exposed, Red is forcibly removed from the kitchen, and prison life as she knows it ends. Nichols sees how much pain this causes her and approaches Red to apologize. Whereas one would expect the current Litchfield kingpin to make an example out of disloyalty, Red instead tells Nicky that she “trusts [her] more than anyone” in Litchfield.
Nichols’ romantic relationships are just as complicated. She and Lorna Morello are best friends and romantic partners at the start of season one; however, Lorna decides to withdraw from her when she realizes that her release date is within the upcoming year. At this point in time, Morello argued that she wanted to save herself for her fiancé, Christopher, who we discovered in season two to be a real person but not Morello’s lover in any sense of the word. Accepting of, yet hurt by, Morello’s conviction, Nichols respects her wishes and begins looking elsewhere for companionship.
In December when Nichols is faced with the task of creating a Secret Santa gift for Alex Vause, she begins flirting with the dark-haired inmate. While still dealing with the heartbreak of Morello‘s alienation, Nichols tells Vause that “You only get one chance to break my heart. Hey, remember that, Vause.” While this comment suggests that Nichols wanted to get involved with Vause romantically, the relationship is consummated as her Secret Santa gift and is subsequently extinguished. This is due to the fact that Vause was almost immediately transported to Chicago for the Kubra Balik trial and was later released from prison.
This spontaneous romantic encounter super-charges Nichols’ libido in season two, and she and Big Boo engage in a competition to see who can sleep with the most women. This competition is sparked by her orgasm journal, or “Fuck Book,” which is a record (or her “collection”) of all the women who she has had sex with. While some think this is lewd, Nichols swears that the book is “all about giving.” In fact, Nichols believes that she is “like a bean-flicking Mother Teresa.” As it turns out, her and Boo’s expedition for orgasms is not so saintly. The two both try to get newbie Brook Soso into bed with them, but after Soso discovers that Big Boo agreed to trade Piper Miss Claudette‘s blanket for her, she falls right into Nichols’ arms for a total of three points. Not all of Nichols’ sexual encounters have been the result of others’ misguided actions, however. Nichols reveals that she is quite persuasive; she once won first place for original oratory on her high school debate team.
“I’m like Icarus whose wings melted before he could fuck the sun.”
Nichols’ addictive personality has been satiated thus far with sex, despite the fact that Pornstache and Vee have both smuggled drugs into the prison; however, it becomes exponentially more difficult for her to resist once she comes into the possession of a small dose of heroin, compliments of Vee’s operation. Luckily for her, Gina Murphy finds out about Nichols’ stash and advises her to take it to Red. Having been sober for two years, and given Tricia Miller‘s unfortunate drug-induced demise, she listens to Murphy, although she had been considering indulging herself. Once again, Red is praises her for the level of responsibility she shows.
“Heroin is the love of my life; she’s my best girlfriend.”
But her resolve does not last for long: once Red is shocked in the greenhouse, she finds that it is difficult to cope with the near loss of the closest thing to a mother that she has ever known. Thus, when she discovers the brick of heroin hidden in the laundry room when Litchfield is on lockdown due to Vee‘s escape, she cannot resist coveting it.
Season three picks up right where season two leaves off, and Nichols is severely distracted by what she found by chance. Knowing that this brick could spell disaster for her, she and Big Boo decide to profit off of it. They agree that the only way they can get it out of Litchfield is through a staff member, and the most morally ambiguous staff member they can think of is Joel Luschek.
Nichols decides to approach Luschek herself, for the two have become pals over the course of the past two seasons. When she hints to him, however, that, as a member of “Candy Eaters Anonymous,” she has some “candy” that she would like to unload, Luschek cruelly pretends to take great offense to the proposition and acts as if he is about to drag her down to Joe Caputo‘s office to report her. After scaring her nearly to death, Luschek laughs it off and agrees to do business with her.
But something stops Nichols. For a while she claims that the brick has gone missing, having hid it in the overhead lamps in the laundry room to covet it for herself because “it’s so pretty. I like looking at it.” But it takes her too long to decide to sell it, and the cover to the lamp gives way while Angie Rice and Leanne Taylor are at work. The two dip into the brick themselves, which really stirs up trouble for her with Luschek. Once she discovers who is responsible for the brick’s disappearance, she rescues it and tells Luschek, but he claims that she is not trustworthy, to which she responds that she wants it gone:
“I don’t want to die again. There’s no white light for me.”
After comparing Nichols and heroin to Gollum with the ring, he reluctantly takes the remainder of the brick to divide up into smaller chunks to sell it on the outside.
Meanwhile, Nichols and Morello have rekindled their friendship, which we get to witness at the Mother’s Day event, and it becomes clear that Nichols still harbors feelings for her friend. She notices that Morello has dolls herself up for the event, and she engages more genuinely with her. She says,
“I hate kids. You know, they don’t drink, they haven’t traveled.”
Nichols is also able to catch up with Soso after their singular romantic fling from last season–rather, the prison newbie attempts to catch up with her. But when Nichols informs Soso that they are not friends, she accuses her of “us[ing] people and then throw[ing] them away.” Although Nichols’ friendship with Morello proves that this is not the case, Morello reminds Soso that she looks out for her friends, but Soso, regrettably, is not one of them. This interaction is the first of many that eventually compels Soso to attempt suicide.
However, their friendship is interrupted yet again when Luschek gives up her name when he is approached by the administration in the workshop for having contraband in his desk. Nicky is taken to maximum security as an example to the rest of Litchfield.
As she is being escorted in handcuffs to the van by two correctional officers, Red and Morello tearfully trail along beside her to see her off. Nichols explains that she didn’t ask for help because she loves the two of them.
While transporting Nichols to maximum security, Pennsatucky says that things probably can’t get much shittier, but Nichols knows that it certainly can because she’s “pretty resourceful.” Moreover, Nichols denies that she has any people in prison:
“Red’s not my mom. I wouldn’t wish that on her. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
In season 4, Nichols is spending time in Maximum Security after Luschek throws her under the bus for the drugs found in his desk. Having been sober for 3 years, she finds it difficult to remain so while in Max, for everything she could ever want, she says, is within reach.
While in Max, she’s part of the janitorial staff. Subsequently, she finds Sophia Burset and sneaks her a magazine to read to help her pass the time after she couldn’t fulfill her request for a blanket.
It’s suggested that Nicky and Stella Carlin have been sleeping together in Max, but she’s rejected her before for using drugs.
Feeling more isolated and lonely than ever, Luschek’s visit is like salt in an open wound. She cannot forgive him for his stupidity and selfishness. She tells him that drugs are everywhere and she’s never been farther from her friends and family before.
As she accepts her chip for three years of sobriety, she says “I never really believed in this bullshit before . . . This valueless piece of crappy plastic really means a lot to me, symbolism, et cetera. Well, screw it, I’m fuckin’ proud of myself.” However, as she leaves her Narcotics Anonymous meeting, her chip is immediately confiscated as contraband. Feeling depressed and lower than ever before, she slips back into old habits, exchanging sexual favors for heroin.
Her stint in Max is soon over, however, when Judy King‘s lawyer gets her out as a favor for Luschek, but it’s unclear whether she is physically and mentally okay. When she’s finally reunited with Red, she apparently finds peace, but it’s not long before she starts looking for sexual comfort. When Morello denies her in favor of remaining faithful, she approaches Vause. When this also fails, she convinces Vause to smoke crack with her in the cornfield.
It soon becomes clear that Nicky is stealing from Red to buy herself drugs. Instead of fearing her wrath, though Nicky tells Red (once caught) that she doesn’t care if she’s disowned because she feels like she’s always been hopeless. To Nicky, prison is prison, and she no longer cares if she’s caught. Regardless of their countless conversations about Red always loving her and supporting her in light of her addiction, Red welcomes her back into her arms, especially after the lesson she learned about tough love with Tricia Miller.
Though she claims to be getting clean, we observe the opposite in her actions and behavior. However, now that Red is watching out for her, it becomes infinitely more difficult to obtain anything stronger than pot from everyone. Disappointed in herself for messing up her three years of sobriety, she pushes the blame to Luschek, for without him and Maximum Security, she would have still been sober.
Still looking for intimacy, she forces herself on Morello, but when she rejects her and calls her a “junkie addict liar” after being antagonized about her relationship, Nicky understands that what she had with Morello has to be over if she wants her friend to maintain her marriage to Vinnie, and since Morello’s well-being seems to outrank even the strongest of Nicky’s desires, she stops her pursuit, even if it is for the time being.