[22 September 2008]
When I half-jokingly wondered aloud, while watching the second season of Prison Break, whether Michael Scofield and Company would just end up back in a different prison after a season on the run, I didn’t know that the show’s writers a) were listening to me and b) actually taking me seriously. As off-the-rails and stupidly brash as the show had been for two seasons, I didn’t think it would have the gall to go through all the trouble of busting Scofield et al out, just to throw them back in. It would be a cheap and lazy solution, sure, but also the most logical move, given the show’s title – but still cheap.
So when just about every name character left alive did in fact end up, through a series of machinations and coincidences too ridiculous to recount, in a squalid, lethal, maximum security Panamanian prison, I was not at all surprised. I also vowed never to watch the show again. Prison Break, a show I enjoyed immensely for a good season and a half, was finally broken. But now here I am, watching and reviewing Season Three, loving every overheated, ludicrous moment of it, and wondering why I ever gave it up.
I guess there’s a certain inevitability embedded in the show’s title that a critical viewer must just accept. There has to be more than one prison to break out of, doesn’t there? It’s genre television at its most blatantly obvious, with all the formal and narrative strictures that necessitates. No one could accuse Prison Break of breaking the mold—if anything it reinforces it. But it has, or had, enough interesting tweaks on the “jail break” tradition to keep you hooked from week to week, a certain knowing disregard for even the barest hint of believability, but delivered with an entirely straight face. It was loud, dumb, but a lot of fun.
And with so many narrative and characters thrown up in the air as Season 2 wound down, I thought that Season 3 would continue the on-the-run juggling act for a bit longer. But then maybe the writers hit a wall, just resigning themselves to the inevitable, to a lack of imagination, giving in to the exhaustion of the hectic second season. You can imagine them saying “Oh, I know! We’ll just throw them all in an even more dire and impregnable concrete box. Let’s see them get out of this one!” and then setting it on autopilot. Endlessly repeating cycles of tension and release, being imprisoned and being on the run. Wash, rinse, repeat. The show could run on like this, presumably forever.
But then I thought, maybe Season 3 is much cleverer than I’d first thought, and the show was playing with the genre and the audience, taking it up to some sort of meta-level where Michael Scofield is caught in this eternal recurrence of having to devise and execute impossible plans to break out of prisons that he’ll inevitably just end up right back in. His hopelessness would be the same as the show’s, condemned to loop around on itself forever. It would be enough to drive anyone to despair, or at least resignation to one’s fate.
And indeed there’s a noticeable pall of both despair and resignation in Scofield this season, a wearing down of his normally steely resolve and razor sharp intelligence as both the pressure from inside the jail and outside mount. Like maybe he’s actually starting to believe he is becoming the hardened con the world thinks he is; maybe he is paying for sins that neither he, nor his brother, ever committed; maybe he’ll never truly “get out”. It’s just a bare hint of depth in a show that‘s generally all surface, a testament to Wentworth Miller’s soulful portrayal. It might not necessarily be there, in the script, but it’s visible nonetheless. But if it’s not there, if I’m not seeing an eternal, hopeless quest for redemption, what then, am I left with?
Well, a bunch of ruthless cons—murderers, rapists, drug lords, the worst of the worst—all holed up in a concrete sweat box in Panama. Sona Prison has been given over to the inmates—the military maintains a tight perimeter around it, shooting anyone outside the walls on sight. Inside the criminals—too violent to be ruled by authorities—rule themselves, through brutality and murder.
Only the iron will of Lechero (the awesomely named Robert Wisdom), formerly the most ruthless and infamous crime lord in Panama, keeps the place from descending into complete chaos. He espouses equality among the inmates, and eye-for-an-eye justice for all, but rules with a dictatorial ruthlessness that completely disregards his own laws. Again, hints of something more profound in Prison Break, a potential political commentary never capitalized on.
So, thrown into Sona for an act of self-defense, Scofield soon discovers that his incarceration in this particular prison was no accident. Soon he learns that he has been driven in, via the shadowy machinations of the Company (the holdover MacGuffin from Season 2), specifically to break out another prisoner. To ensure his compliance, held hostage are his nephew, the beleaguered LJ (himself framed and pursued for murder in Season One), and his lover, Sarah (sadly absent from the entire season). His brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell, as lunkheaded as ever), who out of everyone remains inexplicably free (he’s the one who was the catalyst for this whole mess way back when) is now Michael’s only link to the outside world, communicating the Company’s stringent demands, delivered to him (Lincoln) by a steely eyed Company agent.
So sure, that’s all fine. Here we go again, and all that. Scofield needs to navigate the minefield of prison politics and relationships, all the while devising another ingenious escape plan, and keeping the one prisoner everyone wants to kill alive to get him out, too. He will enlist the aid for new characters and old, the latter of whom are magically dropped into Sona, one by one
How convenient that the likes of T-Bag (Robert Knepper, still the showstealer) and Mahone (a haunted William Fichtner) and other assorted ne’er-do-wells from Seasons One and Two, all ended up in Sona’s orbit, either inside or circling around it for whatever reason. Sure we’ve come to know and like them, in their various depravities. And sure, I’d like them to stick around in some capacity. But I refuse to believe that someway, somehow, each and every one of them managed to commit exactly the right crime in the right place that would land him immediately in the same maximum security, last resort prison as the main character of the show. Perhaps this Company arranged for all that, too.
But (and here’s my incredulity again) if we are to accept all this, that the Company was planning all along for Scofield, mastermind engineer and now semi-professional prison-breaker, to break this man out of prison, then we also must accept: a) that despite the chaotic helter-skelter nature of their flight all through Season 2, Scofield and his brother and all the rest of the gang were being herded deliberately and relentlessly ever further south, through Mexico, down all the way to Panama and then into Sona by the Company, without their ever realizing it; and b) that in fact the whole set up of Season One—framing Scofield’s brother so he (Scofield) would get himself thrown in jail just to bust his brother out so then both would be on the lam and able to be driven south in the first place—was just to get this one engineer down into a Panamanian prison; and c) that somehow the Company were cognizant before all of this, before they even framed Burrows, that Scofield was precisely the type of person who would get himself thrown in jail, deliberately (but then, who wouldn’t, right?) and then d)….
These are the things that derail me. I want to overthink everything, when really I should just be enjoying the heady rush of it all. And that’s the great thing about watching Prison Break on DVD, rather than week to week— it doesn’t allow you a chance to actually sit and think about it (see also 24). But now that I’m sitting down to write about it, I’m forced to think about it, somewhat critically, and everything starts to fall apart.
See, because here we go again, I think about how colossally stupid it is that Scofield has to walk around in a 120 degree Panamanian prison in a long sleeve t-shirt all the time, till I remember the full torso and arm prison-plan tattoos, and what a nightmare that is for Wentworth Miller and make up, and how the writers maybe should have thought of that, when conceiving the show, especially if it was going to be picked up for subsequent seasons. Makes you wonder why the Company didn’t chase them up into Canada, instead.
I realize I need to stop this, and just give into the escapism (as it were) already, to just forget my guilt and my brain in enjoying this guiltiest of guilty pleasures. So I will. But still, for the life of me I can’t figure out why in the world… (insensible chatter continues)
Season 3 arrives on DVD with 13 episodes spread over four discs. This is one show that benefited quite nicely, in both economy of action and narrative tightness, from the strike shortened season. There are a handful of behind the scenes interviews and features, the majority of which seem to have been promo material in advance of Season 3, for either the web or international distribution. There’s little insight, mostly just reintroductions of old characters, and introductions to new ones. There are also these little two- to three-minute blurbs by each director for each episode. Again, mostly trivial stuff. And there’s one technical feature about the production logistics and shooting of a late season episode which mostly shows that the cast and crew know how to have fun on set.
So mostly a subpar offering (unlike the excellent features offered for Season One). And then, inexplicably out of absolutely nowhere, we are also offered, a random episode of the CBS series The Unit. This one has me stumped – I mean, aside from maybe thinking of having a similar audience demographic, I cannot fathom its inclusion. More than any of the mysteries of characters’ or writers’ motives on Prison Break, this one had me stumped and scratching my head for days.