Congratulations, America. Tonight, the prison population has reached an all time high: two million.
— Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), “A Cock and Balls Story” (Episode One)
Keller: Adebisi and Said hand in hand.
Ryan: It’s the end of the fuckin’ universe.
— “You Bet Your Life” (Episode Eight)
Everybody wants a blow job.
— Timmy (Sean Dugan), “Revenge is Sweet” (Episode 11)
Has any TV series soundtrack been so true to drums? Arresting for any number of reasons — graphic violence, extreme masculinity, harsh language — Oz also brilliantly inventive with its percussive soundtrack. At once raw, precise, and seductive, the series’ score underlines recurring tensions throughout. The fourth season DVD set, the extra-long season of 16 episodes, brings you back into Emerald City, the experimental unit of the Oswald State Correctional Facility, where revenge and desperation are the overriding modes of every damn day.
The saga of Oz (on air 1997-2003) is grueling and surprising, a series as well-known for its challenges to televisual conventions (even HBO’s conventions) as for the surpassing skills of its many contributors, from writer/creator Tom Fontana to characters and performers — prisoners Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), Beecher (Lee Tergesen), Adebisi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Said (Eamon Walker), Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo), Keller (Chris Meloni), Schillinger (JK Simmons), undercover officer Mobay (Lance Reddick), Ryan and brother Cyril (Dean and Scott William Winters), Poet (mums ) — and staff members McManus (Terry Kinney), Father Ray Mukada (BD Wong), Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno), Officer Claire Howell (Kristin Rohde), Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson), and Dr. Gloria Nathan (Lauren Vélez). With characters and actors exploring all manner of startling, horrifying, and downright discomforting behaviors and attitudes, the series became provided unusual opportunities and community.
This much is clear from the commentary tracks for the fourth season (2000-2001) set, one by Moreno (who calls herself “a nervy Puerto Rican if ever there was one”) and Fontana (“Every guy on this show wanted to take you in the dressing room and ravish you!”) on Episode Eight, “You Bet Your Life,” as well as Fontana and Tergeson and Dean Winters for number 16, “Famous Last Words (along with a 30-minute collection of deleted scenes, some grim, others less so). The exchanges are colorful and trusting, sometimes obnoxious and usually performative. And yet they do suggest the sorts of bonds established on the set (as when Fontana recalls he had asked for a naked sex and frankly pretty rough scene from Kristin Rohde, and she showed some hesitation, he stripped completely, in an effort to convince her he “wouldn’t ask her to do anything [he] wouldn’t do”).
The episodes were typically initiated by a bit of around Hill’s philosophical narration: seated in his wheelchair, he would hold forth on all sorts of subjects, from gambling to racism to women’s bodies to drug abuse to government corruptions. He starts Episode Five, “Gray Matter,” by wondering “Can we end violence now and forever?” Unlikely. The episode is typically rife with aggression and cruelty, including abuses by the exquisitely pained Mobay, hooked on heroin and increasingly aware that he won’t be able to maintain his cop status. “Busted,” after a fashion, by his erstwhile friend Hill, who discovers his identity, Mobay is furious and afraid. “I’m telling nobody nothing,” sneers Hill, sympathetic in his utter cockiness. “I’m telling nobody that you’re a cop, a cop who breaks the law in the name of the law. I just want you to know that I know you’re a fraud. And I don’t mean that you’re undercover. I mean as a person. You’re a fraud.” Mobay beats the bejesus out of him, kicking him out of his chair on the hard cell floor.
Deceit and defiance, revenge and violence go together in Oz, as each character struggles to define and defend his (or her) teeny bit of turf. In Episode 11, “Revenge is Sweet,” Hill observes, following Keller’s swift and awful neck-break of Beecher’s new lover (Beecher being Keller’s ex), while the kid is giving him a blow job. “When you take revenge on someone,” says Hill, You’re actually paying them the highest compliment possible… Revenge may be the ultimate Hallmark card.”
At every turn, some seeming last line might be crossed (as when Sister Pete is moved by one staff discussion to explode: “What the fuck is happening here?” [Moreno notes here on the commentary to Fontana, “I can’t believe you put that word in my mouth”]), even as the inmates repeatedly use and abuse one another to get ahead; as Fontana observes, Ryan stoops so low as to manipulating his slow-witted brother, while Moreno sighs of Cyril, “Look at that sweet innocent face of his, he’s so good” (this as he pronounces to Sister Pete, “We don’t choose God. God chooses us”).
Such instances of insight — into self or the fabric of the world — are rare in the cell block, goodness knows. Sister Pete sees in her own experience a kind of fortuitous fate, a mix of what she believes and what she accepts: “Most of us tumble into our lives,” she tells Chris Keller, who has frightened her with sex and passionate need. “We become who we are almost by accident. We try very hard not to look backwards, afraid to find out that maybe we should’ve done something else. But you forced me to look backwards, to question every element of my identity. By questioning, do you know, do you know what I discovered? I am a psychologist, I am a woman. I am a nun. And all of these parts of me are not an accident. They were put together by someone else. Someone far greater.”
Crises of faith come up frequently in Oz, though few are resolved so convincingly (Sister Pete is a rock). During this particular season, some of the guys, including Em City manager McManus, decide to capitalize on the incarceration of NBA star Jackson Vayhue (Rick Fox), and set up a tournament. It’s no surprise that several participants are cheaters, even viciously so, taking out one of the most effective players, a security guard by slashing his tendon, and, in Episode 15, “Even the Score,” terrorizing Jackson (his decision to live rather than win the game enrages those inmates who once looked on him as a kind of god).
While such guest luminaries come and go (Method Man, Master P, John Lurie, Lord Jamar), the hardcores put their heads down and bear in. Or not. The season also marks the end of another goddish figure, the great Simon Adebisi; in You Bet Your Life,” he’s shanked by seeming new ally Said, a loss of energy, vulgarity, and salaciousness from which the series never recovers (there are surely characters up to his unpleasantness, but none so viciously charismatic). While Said’s turn to brutality — not to mention his growing affection for a white woman — means he has some trouble leading the prison Muslims, eventually, he finds his own relentlessly violent identity, reimagined through his sadly soulful connection with his most haunting victim: attacking Schillinger and Robson — in part to put an end to their taunting of Beecher, Said declares himself: “Adebisi lives.” It’s a horrific and thrilling moment, as so many in the series are. For while it follows through on the logic of Adebisi and Said’s association, it also turns it inside out, revealing the pain of anger that has so afflicted Said, even as he worked so hard to contain himself, his fear, and his love.
Perhaps the season’s creepiest and most delirious casting choice is Luke Perry as fallen televangelist Jeremiah (on seeing him in frame, Tergeson exclaims, “Dylan!”). As he tries to serve a new flock inside, he is also challenged by a younger, scarier version of himself, Timmy (Sean Dugan), so ground up by his childhood evangelism that he sees power as a birthright (that he bricks Jeremiah up behind a wall, Edgar Allen Poe-style, is only the most overt indication of his pathology). In “Famous Last Words,” Hill ponders the possibilities of fate, in a religious or even a more broadly cosmic sense. He recounts the story of James Dean, who in 1955, reportedly “said to a friend, ‘My fun days are over.’ An hour later his car crashed and he was dead. A self-fulfilling prophecy or just bad luck?” It’s a question that Oz, so provocative, so smart, and so full of integrity, can’t answer, but only pose repeatedly.