Michael Scofield’s (Wentworth Miller) tattooed torso is Prison Break‘s most compelling and startling image. The ink curves around his shoulders, down his arms, chest and back, creating the illusion of a long-sleeved shirt, as though he wears a costume beneath his clothing. He does, in effect, as these tattoos function like a superhero’s outfit, transforming the man into a symbol of justice.
But while superheroes typically seek justice for all, Michael’s quest is more focused. He has intentionally gotten himself incarcerated in order to break his brother Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) out of Fox River Penitentiary, where he awaits execution, framed for killing the Vice President’s (Patricia Wettig) brother. Michael, a structural engineer whose firm retrofitted Fox River, tattooed the prison’s blueprints on his body, in code so the authorities won’t catch on, before deliberately bungling a bank robbery. As Michael also hides an object under his skin to be retrieved later with a razor, his MacGyver-y resourcefulness accounts for much of the show’s appeal.
The setting, however, presents a challenge. Like life in prison, the series tends toward repetition. Each episode involves Michael nearly missing bed check or coming across an errant guard while sneaking about. He and his crew always return to their PI (prison industries) duties just as a guard pops by.
The show’s four-month hiatus (which ended 20 March) may have been a blessing, heightening tension by dividing the season into two escape attempts. When a blocked pipe thwarted the first attempt in “End of the Tunnel,” Michael returned to studying his chest and back in the mirror, devising a plan that makes the first look like a cake-walk.
The new scheme, outlined in “By the Skin and the Teeth,” involves walking several feet in plain view of three guard towers and escaping through the asylum (or “wack shack,” as murderer/rapist T-Bag [Robert Knepper] calls it). “It’s suicide,” Michael warns. “Prison pharmacist” C-Note (Rockmond Dunbar) agrees: “I don’t like your plan, Snowflake.” To ratchet the stakes even higher, a jet of steam scorches Michael’s back, along with an instrumental part of the tattoo (landing him once again in the infirmary with pretty Dr. Tancredi [Sarah Wayne Callies]).
As such convolutions suggest, Prison Break functions more like an action film than a television show. Michael’s intensity and the thrilling twists and turns keep viewers “breathless,” but secondary characters sometimes fall by the wayside. Initially, T-Bag’s inclusion in the group seemed twisted. In the newest episodes, however, he feels watered down, his creepiness reduced to calling Michael “Pretty” and making empty threats.
The other crew members seem unlikely prisoners. As in Shawshank Redemption (1994), which creator/writer Paul Scheuring claims as a “model” for this first season, prisoners are mostly sympathetic, guards and government officials mostly corrupt. Michael’s cellmate Sucre (Amaury Nolasco), C-Note, and hijacker-turned-sweet-old-man Westmoreland (Muse Watson) want only to reunite with their lovers and children. Despite their violent pasts, it’s hard to think of them as “bad guys.” This underlines Michael’s basic morality: with the exception of T-Bag, he’s not unleashing danger on the general public.
Though it takes place in a maximum security underworld, the series upholds a traditional action hero paradigm. The broody-eyed brothers exemplify standards of masculine stoicism and bravery: “Give me the strength to walk out of here a man,” Linc prays while dead-man-walking. In this way, the series provides a “safe” alternative to Oz and The Sopranos, which ask viewers to sympathize with depraved characters. Michael’s actions are clearly “right”: “This isn’t about the morality of the death penalty,” he insists. “It’s about killing an innocent man.”
Linc’s innocence, however, is somewhat ambiguous. He’s innocent of the murderous act, but not the intent. He agreed to kill the V.P.’s brother in exchange for his son’s safety, but found the man already dead (even here, the case is shifting: recently revealed evidence suggests the corpse was someone else). Though Prison Break leaves this ambiguity unexplored, it raises interesting questions. If Linc had pulled the trigger, would he still be worthy of rescue? Would Michael’s actions still be heroic?
Perhaps more to the point, if Linc were guilty, the show would benefit, specifically by losing the “outside” characters. It’s hard not to feel bored when scenes cut from Michael’s calculating squint to Linc’s lawyer/ex, Veronica (Robin Tunney), and her forgettable cohort Nick (Frank Grillo), as they persistently track down “the truth” of Linc’s framing. That storyline feels superfluous, as Linc’s exoneration would be a tremendous buzz-kill for the audience. Though the inmates can’t wait to get out of Fox River, the thrill of Prison Break is being in there with them.