Prison Break

The only thing I will say at this stage is that it will be a much more stripped-down, brutal, violent version of the show than we’ve seen in the past. Seasons One and Two will seem tame in comparison.

Paul Scheuring

This is the first day of the rest of our lives.

— Mahone (William Fichtner)

The start of Prison Break‘s third season is exactly right: a crowd of gnarly, noisy men, surrounded by prison walls and doused by rain. They scrape and claw and fight amongst themselves, while one man stands apart. Michael (Wentworth Miller) gazes on the havoc, at once mournful and aloof, appalled and utterly bored. You can almost hear him sighing, “Again?”

The mas melo of TV’s male melodramas, Prison Break once more offers up a grand gamut of homosocial bonding, its many players tossed about by loyalties and betrayals, desires and denials. The show loves its formula, and has now found a way back to the original idea too: men in prison wanting to get out. As the men argue, cheat, deceive, and love one another, their emotions are manifest on their bodies — bleeding, bending and breaking, sloshing through sewers, and sweating. Above all, these bodies sweat. Now that the show has moved to Panama (shot in Texas), everyone sweats, all the time. In close-up.

Technically, Michael has the most reason to sweat this season. The opener, aptly called “Orientacion,” introduces Michael to Sona. “The worst of the worst are there,” an American consulate lackey tells Linc (Dominic Purcell), “Men no other prison will take.” Oooh: shudder. Linc, newly absolved of that assassination thing that dogged him for two seasons, is now the one on the outside. “You’ve gotta do something,” he insists. “My brother’s innocent, he’s an American citizen” (not implying, of course, that these are coterminous notions). Much like Linc before him, Michael’s been deposited in Sona on trumped-up charges.

In another, less deadly-earnest show, it would be ironic that Michael has been selected (again, by the shady Company) precisely because his “skill set” is now so infamous. Never mind that he had helped to design the first prison, or that he had a diagram of its inner workings on his (sometimes sweaty) body, as he spent the entire first season working out the details of breaking Linc out. This time, he’s instructed to figure a way out in a week — without tattoos. Asked how he plans to do it, he answers, probably not entirely truthfully, that he has no idea. As it stands, the coming weeks’ drama will again swirl around his efforts to get away, with another man in tow. That man is James Whistler (Chris Vance), accused of killing an important person and rather clever in his own way: when Michael meets him, he’s hiding out in the prison’s sewers, which makes for some especially ripe sloshing.

As before, Michael is surrounded by a tumultuous lot, inmates who, Linc’s informant says while framed in ominous close-up, “rioted so badly a year ago the guards pulled out and just left them to themselves.” Now the inmates look after themselves, with uniformed guards waiting on perimeter, shooting the odd fellow who tries to run past them, sending in supplies and taking out dead bodies on a schedule. “One thousand thieves murderers, and rapists,” intones the informant. It’s like the night Freddy Krueger was conceived, only here it’s every night. Linc is naturally very upset to hear that Michael is locked up in such a terrible place, and visits him every few hours (it seems) to tell him so, the brothers standing on opposite sides of the fence that marks their current existential difference.

One such visit illustrates that the mad tear-jerking of the previous seasons is not reduced, despite promises that the new season will be “brutal” and “violent.” “You know,” says Michael, sorrowful as only he can be. “I keep waiting for you to mention a certain someone.” Beat. Well, Linc confesses, he doesn’t actually know what’s happened to Sara (Sarah Wayne Callies)… or his own son LJ (Marshall Allman), whose fate seems incidental. But he’s working on it. “She’s important to me, Linc,” Michael insists, in case Linc somehow missed this detail last year. “If anything happens to Sara…” his voice trails off, the piano plinks softly, the camera cuts between the brothers, both shot through the fence to make sure you know they both feel… caged. And with that, Linc dutifully heads off to locate the missing “certain someone,” whereupon he meets this season’s Evil Woman, a Company operative who calls herself Susan B. Anthony (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe).

The formula persists inside as well. Throughout the season’s first and second episodes, Michael is rubbing up against inmates he’s known before. Bellick (Wade Williams) is known around the yard as “the American in his underwear” because he stumbles around in his filthy skivvies, begging for water when he’s not cleaning the latrine. And T-Bag (Robert Knepper), renamed Teodoro, is once again sliming up to the boss man. In Sona, this is the ignominiously named Lechero (Robert Wisdom), who immediately hauls Michael and the other newbies into his lair. Sneering at Michael (“You were a superstar on CNN”), Lechero points to his own tenure with pride: “Twenty-seven nationalities we got here,” he instructs Michael, that beigest of all All-American heroes and now nicknamed “Blanco.” “But not one gang, not one racially motivated incident. It’s just me and egalitarianism.” Come again?

In fact, Lechero rules by maintaining secret connections with the terminally resentful guards outside, as well as a brutal set of rules and some voodoo gimmicks (chicken’s feet as warnings and charms). When, for instance, beef arises, as it surely does every day, the men make their grievances known, then duke it out in a mini-terrordome, where they fight with “no weapons, only man versus man, without augmentation or handicap.” As rabid onlookers bark and scream with delight, Lechero watches from a position on high. “Without rules,” he says, “We are nothing but savages.” And you thought Warden Henry Pope was a bully.

The increased barbarity this season appears to be linked to the shift in location. In Sona, the prisoners speak a mix of Spanish and English, look filthy and ignorant, and subscribe to a general raucousness. That’s not to say they don’t appreciate U.S. pop culture: in addition to Lechero’s news consumption, a young inmate (Carlo Alban) wears a Tracy McGrady jersey and wonders whether Chicagoan Michael has ever met Michael Jordan. (We’ll call him this season’s Sucre, even though Sucre [Amaury Nolasco] makes a brief, exceedingly melodramatic appearance, during which he decides one more time whether or not to pursue his romance with the longsuffering Maricruz [Camille Guaty].)

Yet, for all the emphasis on the nasty new environs, so fluid and alien and familiar at the same time, this year’s Prison Break remains in love with last season’s most dogged villain, FBI Special Agent Alex Mahone (William Fichtner). Hunching in a shadowy corner of the group cell, Mahone suggests that since he and Blanco are fellow prisoners, maybe they should “work together.” Here Michael adds some sneering to his usual dolefulness: “Except every time I look at you, all I can see is the man who killed my father.” Da-da-da-dum. And so it appears their relationship is the new season’s most sensationally emotional, their feelings overwhelming as they debate and compete. They frown and glower, they sigh and yearn. And when Mahone offers Michael advice so he might succeed in the terrordome, Michael is almost touched. “You know, I’m surprised, Alex. It almost sounds like you care.” It’s true that without his suit, Mahone looks slightly shaggy, but he’s also got a plan: “You’re my get out of jail free card,” he tells Michael, their faces glistening. Melo, melo melo. These men are all over it.

RATING 5 / 10