Prison Break

As the audience starts to see first one and then another and then another of our protagonists getting killed or getting caught, it becomes kind of a dark American Idol, where you tune in to see who’s going to get eliminated next week.

–Paul T. Scheuring, “One Way to Keep Things Lively: Kill off Characters” (New York Times, 20 August 2006)

Now that eight inmates have escaped from Fox River Penitentiary, terms have shifted for Prison Break. The first few episodes of the second season have returned to the prison occasionally, to show Warden Pope (Stacy Keach) angsting over how those damn inmates got away, as well as terminally angry CO Bellick’s (Wade Williams) overwhelming desire for vengeance. As low-ranking reps of the system, these guys are aptly frustrated, not quite comprehending what’s happened but determined to make their worlds right.

Last season, the upper-rungers, those who presumed they not only understood what was going on but also that they controlled it, were primarily political. Secretive and imperious, Vice President Reynolds (Patricia Wettig) and Governor Frank Tancredi (John Heard) were also the bad guys (and like 24‘s President Logan, their villainy was a function of their power and treachery). Now, it appears the major adversary for the brothers Scofield — Michael (Wentworth Miller) and Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) — is federal agent Mahone (William Fichtner).

Introduced in the season’s premiere episode, Mahone is both upright and a little too obsessed. Like Inspector Javert before him, he’s possessed of the sort of doggedness that makes him seem less admirable than overzealous. Though he has not yet, after three episodes, quite revealed what drives him, he has appeared popping pills from a pen-like container (he hides his habit/need) and jumping steps ahead of his compatriots in the chase. Indeed, Michael and Linc have already shared a “Who are those guys?” type moment. Headed down the highway, Michael noted in the third episode, “Scan,” “There’s something about this guy. It’s like he know s where we’re going, what we’re thinking.” It’s sort of ooky, but mostly it’s upping the ante for Prison Break, which previously had the brothers’ schemes thwarted (however briefly) by brute force, rather than cleverness.

In this first episode, the unimaginatively titled “Manhunt,” Mahone made his entrance at a press conference, where he provided his mission with historical context. Eschewing the sort of stern-faced, just-the-facts stance taken by so many representatives of the law when seeking “most wanted” criminals, he instead turned poetic. “I’d like to talk about John Wilkes Booth for a moment if I could,” Mahone said, the camera close on his face and low-angled.

Twelve days, that’s how long it took to find him. In his journal, [Booth] wrote that the shadow was his friend, the night his domain… and he acknowledged that whatever neurosis that drove the criminal to commit the crime is compounded, magnified, by flight, the sounds of dogs at his heels. Fear becomes paranoia, paranoia ultimately psychosis. I bring this up because in 140 years the fundamental mind of the escaped man has not changed. The escaped man is still human, he is still afraid, and he will stop at nothing in his attempt at flight. Fortunately for us, while our quarry has shadow and night as his ally, we have something far greater: television.

Bingo. Full of moralizing phrases to paint the “criminal” as lonely as well as depraved, the speech also underlines changes in the way criminals are produced and pursued. Television is exactly what makes manhunts different now and forever (projecting into a Minority Report-ish future). It makes Amber Alerts national news, it grants America’s Most Wanted tipsters four minutes of fame, it creates Geraldos and Nancy Graces. It has changed the way law enforcement works, the very conception of crime and punishment.

That Michael and even Linc, to an extent, are smart about this new system until now allowed them to feel steps ahead of their decidedly old-school opponents (it helps as well that the series is fond of trick editing and cunning dialogue that set scenes together that aren’t really in the same space, and Keeping ahead meant manipulating allies, like the governor’s doctor-daughter Sara (Sarah Wayne Callies) or even Lincoln Junior (Marshall Allman). Now that they’re outside Fox River’s walls, Michael’s still making noises about the plan: his elaborate tattoo is still guiding their steps, the precise meaning of each number or hieroglyph exposed, step by step, the body art a map for the series to follow for a couple of seasons, anyway. It makes you think Michael designed the prison to allow the escape he somehow knew would be necessary, years after the construction.

All of which leads to the current season’s imminent body count, at least as it’s been insinuated by writer/creator Paul Scheuring. With the escapees spreading out, their storylines separating, their potential deaths loom like little detours. True, it was a shock to see Veronica (Robin Tunney) shot through the head in “Manhunt,” after all her earnest legal efforts to free Linc last season. She believed that finding the truth — namely, the president’s undead-after-all brother Terrence (David Lively) — would save her and Linc start sundry wheels of justice turning.

Poor thing, to be so deluded as to trust in the administration and the legal system. And poor Linc, who listened to her die on the cell phone, a trauma that caused him but an instant of grief and then, well, he was over it, on to the next step, trusting Michael, “of course,” and figuring ways to get LJ out of prison, where Mahone was trying to arrange an exchange of sorts, dad for son, a proposal both parties knew not to trust, because, unlike Veronica, they lack any faith whatsoever in the integrity of official representatives. Though the brothers’ first effort to spring LJ failed — and had them face to face, sort of — with Mahone — they’ll try again. Because they’re stubborn, angry, and vengeful, less standard issue manly men than cynical and weary men.

The most recent episodes, “Otis” and “Scan,” demonstrated again Prison Break‘s insistence on setting up and then slightly torquing expectations: it offered little bits of typical behavior by the solo escapees. Where Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) went hysterical (believing his girl only needs to see him in order not to marry her new beau, he screamed off in a stolen car with a bobble-head nun on the dash) and T-Bag (Robert Knepper) went sadistic, forcing a veterinarian (Ranjit Chowdhry) to tend to his injured hand, then killing him by lethal injection, his face set with the sort of awesome serenity that popular fictions assign to the psychopathic serial killer. Terrible as T-Bag must be to set off Michael’s ruthless morality, he does bring a certain lyricism to his ferocity: told by the doctor that “nobody can undergo a procedure like this without an anesthetic,” he smarmed, “I ain’t nobody.”

His sense of self is inflated, but the truth is, nobody is nobody in the mediated universe Mahone identified, not incidentally, for the members of the press assembled before him. Though more than one character has announced this season that “someone’s going down,” for whatever reasons, no one is going quietly. Least of all the Scofields, whose stated aim to “disappear” in Mexico seems unlikely, both as aim and as event. Toward that end, they staged a sensational, fiery car double death, good for distracting Mahone and setting up for yet another scheme.

But they’re not about to disappear. Much as the Scofields despise the abject corruption that got them into this fix, they plainly feel less affinity for shadows than full-on righteousness. Or more accurately, in this new era, when authorities are simultaneously aligned with the shadow and the light, their bad deeds fully visible but accepted by a cynical, downtrodden public. Though it may turn out that Mahone is a good man associated with bad leaders, he is plainly “neurotic” in a way that Booth might have appreciated, familiar with the shadow. But so are the Scofields. Even as they embody virtuous resistance to the administration’s rampant immorality, they are also reasonably fearful, . When that fear edges over into paranoia, they will only be products of an age in television is a “tool” for law enforcement, which also makes it a tool for the bad guys. Linc and Michael are not deviant, but logical, highly visible results of a schizzy moral system.

Their perspective is changed by their season in prison. Riding in a car toward the end of “Scan,” Linc remembered what it was like in prison, comparing the quiet of the empty road before them to the din. “Inside,” he said, “There was always noise, I kinda got used to it.” Michael smiled, his brilliant eyes lit up: “Yeah, we should go back.” And they laughed, loudly and uproariously, delighted by their dark joke.

RATING 7 / 10