Prison Break

You’ll be provided cell phones, clothing, and toiletries — all the basic necessities to get you up and running.

— Special Agent Don Self (Michael Rappaport)

Don Self. Has ever a TV character been more cunningly named? Add to this flash of genius that Don (played by Michael Rappaport, in a bit of smart casting as well) is a Special Agent with Homeland Security, well aware of his department’s wretched reputation and averse to cynicism. When he first shows up in the fourth season premiere of Prison Break (airing 1 September), Agent Self is trying to cut a deal with the known criminal Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller). Self probably knows it’s a standard deal offered to heroic outlaws and he’s not happy about it. Self probably does not know he’s been assigned the series’ snarliest, yet juiciest role — thorn in the prison-breaking brothers’ sides.

In other words, Self can’t know what you know, that Michael and older sibling Linc (Dominic Purcell) have been battling three seasons’ worth of such thorns, men and women whose mission is to make the boys’ lives miserable, to torture, violate, depress, and enrage them. Though Alex Mahone (terrific William Fichtner) still has unfinished business with Linc (“You know when this is done,” Linc grumps when the team gathers to prep for the new season, “You and me, we’re gonna settle up”), it’s clear that his time as self-righteous lawman is done, that now he’s in escape mode just like those he has long regarded as lower life forms, like Bellick (Wade Williams) and Sucre (Amaury Nolasco). Alex’s inclusion on the team speaks to his observational ingenuity and experience as an enforcer, surely, but it also has to do with that beef with Linc. The show has never lacked for the burly grrr factor.

Though Self likes to make machopoetic threats too (“No games and no stunts: otherwise, I promise you, you’re gonna see a whole other side of me”), he’s also a slightly other kind of cat fro the usuals. Less visibly wily than Alex, less patient with Michael’s philosophizing, he is also — at least for this first night’s worth of episodes (two hours) — more volubly patriotic. Everyone, it seems, can agree that The Company is a bad thing, that the folks who run it are unscrupulous, brutal, and greedy greedy greedy. But Self doesn’t seem to be in it for revenge, like all the other manly men. As he tells it now (and keeping in mind that lying is second nature to all the players on Prison Break), his motive is both more magnificent (in his mind) and more mundane (in everyone else’s). “Some people,” he asserts to Linc, “still fight for this country. Maybe you’ve been too busy boosting car stereos and breaking heads to remember that.”

While Linc is disinclined to believe that his own blustery violence and banditry have warped his vision, Self has a way of reframing, claiming the patriotic high (or low) ground. As of now, you don’t know whether Self has a background that extends beyond his “self,” whether he has a dead wife or injured child to push him to hate the villains so completely. And so, for now, you might as well take him at his word. When he says Michael’s contacts have assured him that Self “can be trusted,” you can be okay with that, for now.

For his part, Michael is still determined to make the world right, that is, Companyless. As message boards have already leaked (concerning the return of Sarah Wayne Callies to the regular cast this season), Michael will not be quite so balls-out Jack Bauer as he seems in the first few minutes of the season’s first episode. In a lengthy, murmury monologue, he retells last season’s plot, laying out where he thinks he’s going, as you observe the back of his head: “It ends today. I will seek the justice that I now know the system cannot provide,” he intones, helpfully reading what he’s written to Linc. “So if you’re reading this letter, you know I died avenging Sara’s death.”

A series of actionated scenes set up his scheme, reintroducing Gretchen (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) and Whistler (Chris Vance), as well as introducing The Company’s top and very surly assassin Wyatt (Cress Williams). As Michael, Linc, and Sara are reunited — thanks to strings-pulling by Self — the season sets up its grid of multiple locations and plot strands: T-Bag (Robert Knepper) is lurching like McTeague across the Mojave Desert, Whistler’s Bird book in his grubby, soon bloodied hand; Sucre’s getting chewed out by Maricruz’s sister again; and Self brings in a Brooklyn-based identity thief, Roland (James Hiroyuki Liao, previously best known for playing coroners’ assistants on Bonesand the CSIs). Asked to explain why they need him, Roland sighs and pulls out his invention, a “digital black hole.” It’s “a wireless hard drive that swallow up any electronic data within 10 feet of it.” Yeah, like what?, the ex-convicts snarl. “Like,” Roland sighs, knowing he has to go slowly with these heathens, “The account information of anybody at Starbucks with a latte and a laptop. Like the pin number of any credit card used at a gas pump. I can walk out of here and get the identities and financial statements of 10 people in 10 minutes on a slow day with one hand on my junk.” A tech with attitude — always good to have one.

It’s especially good when the mission is as preposterous as this one. True to Prison Break form, the new season is laid out as a series of tasks, the retrieval of The Company’s most vital information, stored on what is essentially a digital black book (as opposed to hole). The guys declare themselves “in,” as does Sara, traumatized from being tortured by Gretchen and them, her appearances here always accompanied by big music and Michael’s watchful, mournful eye, as he vows to cherish her and grits his teeth while promising not to feel responsible for “what happened.” As his eyes narrow and the camera moves in, you get the feeling that maybe he will get a little Jack Bauer on someone’s ass before this season is out.

Whether that someone will be Self is, of course, unknowable now. But the contest between the two wannabe bosses is plainly framed here. For now, Michael and Self agree that finishing off The Company is the only sure way to achieve “freedom” for all their lives going forward, with cross-cuts to the Terminator-like Wyatt showing that this is true. Self reminds the ex-inmates that they will always be “locked up” metaphorically as long as The Company is coming for them. Besides all that, he says, “You can take great pride in knowing you’ve helped dismantle this country’s greatest threat to its own democracy.” Yeah. And tell us again: who put that threat in motion?

RATING 6 / 10