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Prison Break: Season 4

(Fox; US DVD: 2 Jun 2009)

With the start of each new season, I would sit down with every intention of watching Prison Break week to week, as it was broadcast, set to give in and give myself over to its ever increasing lunacy.  But each season I would throw my hands up in exasperation after two or three episodes and switch off. 


And yet, each time the same season was released on DVD, I grabbed it immediately upon release and plowed my way through it in a headlong rush over the course of a few days, thoroughly enjoying every second of it and wondering why I ever gave up on it in the first place. I’ve tried to isolate the point of convergence of my frustration and addiction, and after four seasons, I’ve conceded, rather shamefully, for it to be a supreme case of ADD addled impatience. 


Like its kindred show, 24, Prison Break suffers from overwhelming overabundance of everything – too much is happening, and too much all at once, to tolerate it doled out in 45-minute batches separated by seven days (or more).  You need more, now, constantly. You’d almost think it would be too much to handle in concentrated doses, but that’s actually the only way it can work.


Exhausting marathon sessions tap straight into the frantic, exhausting pace and plotting of the show, and, as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of previous seasons, this viewing strategy precludes stopping to think about just how ridiculous the show is. And so again, with Season 4, Prison Break’s most schizophrenic, wildly paced, and final entry.


Hitting the ground running, the show charges forward recklessly and heedlessly, it’s sole concern to maintain forward momentum, even at the expense of continuity and consistency. And given the broadly hinted suspicions that this was would be the final season, and that cancelation was forever imminent, it makes sense that the show would go in to overdrive, trying to cram in as much as possible.  Although indeed canceled halfway through, the producers were allowed to continue on with a full season of episodes, giving the show a chance to end on its own terms with at least a shot at some resolution.


But this might actually have been to Prison Break’s detriment, the certainty of an end. An abrupt pull of the rug might have served it better. It’s always run on an engine of a definitive lack of resolution, of ever elusive freedom and rest from persecution being forever beyond our heroes’ reach. The producers’ knowledge of an end in sight infects the writing, and now the characters can see their end too, and the precise moment of definitive cancellation is precisely the moment the show runs out of gas and only limps along.


But before that, the show sustains a high level of haywire action and plotting that has it charging into its most preposterous set up yet with yet another reshuffling of the deck. What has kept Prison Break fresh season to season was its continual reinvention, its inability to sit still and stand pat. Its initial setup as a jail break show was untenable over multiple seasons – no one would watch a show for years where the characters remained mired in the same prison. And the resolution of the initial breakout birthed the convenience of always having our heroes on the run. But what to do afterwards, after the initial break out in Season 1?


From there forward, the show has morphed into machismo drenched soap opera mashup, 24 crossed with It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, a crazy scramble after various MacGuffins, be they a giant stash of cash hidden in the desert, or black box device held by the nefarious bugaboo (the blandly named Company – they may as well have just called it Bad Guys, Inc.) running the show’s grand gonzo conspiracy. The show has contorted so much from season to season that when presented with the end point of say Season 3, or the midpoint of Season 2, or the waning winding down of Season 4, there’s no way you could trace backwards to the show’s initial premise in a reasonable, logical manner. And yet, within the closed set of the show and its harebrained logic, it all works, from point to point, at least on the ground level. 


Season 4 picks up the action a few weeks after the end of Season 3, with Michael Scofield (the perpetually calm and resourceful Wentworth Miller, whose cool intelligence is one major key to the show’s success) and company busted out of a Panamanian prison and flung to all different points of the compass. Michael is hell bent on finally taking down the Company and avenging the death of his paramour, Sarah. The rest of the gang is all over the place, and we wonder if this will be a repeat of the disparate action of Season 2, with various narrative strands shooting off in a million different directions.


But, rather conveniently, everyone is somehow once again rounded up and brought together in Los Angeles by a loose cannon Homeland Security agent, Don Self (a blustery Michael Rapaport). His offer to them is to work with him to bring down the Company, and he will wipe their records clean, finally.  All they have to do is track down and steal the Company’s “little black book”, a mysterious device known as Scylla (indeed – no mention of Charybdis, which maybe was planned for a fifth season?). And this entails rounding up six key cards that are needed to open Scylla, as well as a break in to the Company’s underground lair where the Scylla device is being held (ah, so this time we will be breaking IN! It’s about time).


And so, off and running, again, and with looney tunes action at full-bore and plot twists aplenty. Characters once deemed integral to all the shows grand plots in Season 3 are wiped off the deck with immediate dispatch. Others thought dead are improbably resurrected. Villains left for dead in the Mexican desert somehow reemerge as star salesmen in a downtown L.A. R&D firm.


One relentless killing machine is taken out of the picture, another takes her place. The mysterious General, the shadowy puppet master of the whole mess and seen only in passing in previous seasons, is here finally dragged into the foreground.  And Michael develops a highly rare, highly deadly major medical condition that requires immediate medical attention just at the most inopportune moment. (And that’s all just in the season premiere!)


In the front half of the season, Prison Break runs at such a breakneck pace, with so much popping off all at once – it seems like there’s a major cliffhanger not only ending each episode, but each lead up to a commercial break, and each episode boasts at least one major plot reversal and character revelation – that it all but exhausts its bag of narrative tricks and gimmicks and twits just at the time when it should be hitting full stride. Where any other show would have made a season off the heist, Prison Break dispenses with it quickly and efficiently.


And that’s a problem, because once Michael and company gets their hands on Scylla, they have no idea what to do with it – and neither does the show. So, instead, Prison Break opts to snatch salvation out of their hands again, and spends the rest of the show playing a game of keep away. Rather than build to some sort of explosive crescendo, the show goes into a holding pattern of an seemingly endless series of kidnappings, exchanges, double switches and Mexican stand offs. It’s all so much treading water, solely to get to some sort of grand finale that makes sense, as if anything could.


There are, to be sure, some inspired moments of craziness coming down the stretch. The introduction of a new major player into the conspiracy injects some element of deep seated, almost Greek like, tragedy and sadism into the proceedings. Scylla turns out to be much more than the paper trail of a conspiracy – could it be a doomsday device? Could it be plans for beneficent energy reform?  And Lincoln is somehow framed for yet another assassination of a government official (you may – or may not – remember that this is what started the whole mess to begin with). And also, somehow the whole shebang threatens to ignite World War III (of course! wasn’t it headed that way anyway all along?).


But in the end, the show succumbs to exhaustion – the weariness evident in Michael’s face reflects our own. He just wants this thing over, to finally stop running - and so do we. I can’t say I was disappointed in the almost wan, elegiac final moments of the show – I’m not sure I could have cooked up a better ending – but I almost wish that the show had just had the plug pulled in medias res and ended suddenly with a huge pile of unresolved plot threads and everything hanging in the balance—freedom and rest forever beyond reach, the show flying off the rails at the top of the roller coaster, going out over the top, rather than just coasting home safely to an anticlimactic denouement.


Aside from a few commentary tracks (mostly with the writers and directors, with the actors dropping by here and there), which focus on the strategies for how the show is to unfold, the special features are kind of lacking, if you were expecting some series-focused roundup. Each of the features is brief (12-minutes, tops), and the focus of two is explicitly on production logistics. The third is a series of interviews with the cast about saying goodbye to Prison Break, shot on set during the final episodes, and only provides limited perspective.


Nowhere to be seen is series creator Paul Scheuring, who seemed to have little if any involvement coming down the stretch (though he did write the straight to DVD movie The Final Break, which has recently been released as a sort of coda to the show). I was curious to see if the show ended the way he had “planned” it back in Season 1. In the features from that season, he insisted that he had a master plan for the entire show mapped out, and it would be nice to get some confirmation on whether this was actually the case. The safe money is on “No”.

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