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Escape at Dannemora finally shows us the escape at Dannemora

Illustration for article titled iEscape at Dannemora /ifinally shows us the escape at Dannemora
Photo: Christopher Saunders (Showtime)
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Here, finally, for better and (inevitably) for worse, is the titular escape at Dannemora. Or, more aptly, escapes: Sweat and Matt finally emerge on the other side of the prison walls. Tilly finally makes her choice—or, rather, her body makes the choice for her—to abandon her fantasies about living out a dime store romance novel in some Mexican cabana, to leave Matt and Sweat and settle for the decidedly unexciting guy who still wants to take her out for Chinese food and then to Dairy Queen on a Friday night. This episode is taut, not only because it stages a prison break (the first one at Clinton Correctional in 86 years, a jubilant Sweat tells Matt), but because it weds the stakes of that escape to the fears and the desires that have driven and dominated these characters for so long.

The episode opens with a nearly 10-minute tracking shot that follows Sweat’s trial run of the escape route: Stiller’s camera zooms down the long corridors and pivots sharply yet fluidly around the turns; it reflects the running man’s point-of-view—before panning wide on Sweat, his months of hard labor oh-so-evident in his hardened body, moving with a martial assuredness until he reaches the manhole that is the portal to his freedom. This shot isn’t just technically dazzling (though it certainly is that), it articulates the character’s kaleidoscopic array of emotions: exhilaration and anxiety, jittery anticipation and a calm determination that feels like fate. The camera work throughout this episode expresses everything that the characters can’t say aloud, given their circumstances—and, more poignantly, everything they can’t admit to themselves.


Take the sudden shift from the wide shot of Sweat, poking his head up out of that manhole—as he breathes in the balmy air of an early summer night for the first time in decades, the world feels so much larger, so much richer with potential. Moments later, as he and Matt stand along their cell doors, whispering that it’s go-time, for real this time, the frame truncates: We shift away from Sweat, head-banging in victory, to Matt, his face closely cropped against the bars. The tightness of the space only magnifies Benicio Del Toro’s pinched, hesitant expression. Though the note he’ll later leave the guards defiantly proclaims that he won’t “grow old and die” in his cell, the truth is, prison has become kind of comfortable for Matt. The stakes and the players are so clear, and so static, that he’s been able to perfect his art of the scheme. In a prison stacked with narrow rows of narrow cells, run and inhabited by people with narrow minds, his penny-ante antics feel so much more significant. On the outside, he’ll be, to quote one Ray Liotta as one Henry Hill, just “another schnook.”

Matt’s trepidation manifests in his willingness to bait Lobell (aka “Murder”) into a confrontation in the yard just hours before the escape—though he evades that fight, leaving a gang of white nationalists to pick up the scuffle, he still watches the guards break it up (and break some skulls) with an eerie, expectant calm. Sweat frets a lockdown—and Matt oh-so-innocently asks a guard about it. Del Toro gets a quicksilver micro-moment here: He must play Matt in his familiar charmer con persona and then, when he hears that “Albany won’t approve the manhours” for a lockdown, play a Matt who must feign relief at this news, while letting the oh shit still slip across his face.

The episode parallels Matt’s hesitancy to leave his snug little prison life behind with Tilly’s revving panic about a possible life on the run: It’s grim bit of Twilight Zone-esque karma, that the man who’s defined himself by, and survived through, his unflappable confidence should find himself feeling just like the bespectacled blond little mouse he’s been batting between his paws for months—to get what he needs for his grand plan, he tells himself, but really, for kicks. For a way to pass the time, to feel superior. “Chapter Five” punctures Matt’s hubris and essentially reverses the dynamic between him and Sweat: Once they finally do make their escape, and emerge out on the other side, Sweat becomes the assured one, the leader. He’s already got a back-up plan on-the-ready as it becomes apparent that Tilly isn’t coming—they’ll head into the mountains and keep low until the hubbub has blown over—but Matt is increasingly flustered that all that work he put in, all that meticulous seducing, has come to naught. He spirals: Maybe they should go back, bro, like, work on Tilly some more. Bro, they can’t just, like, walk into the mountains. Maybe they should steal a car. Yeah, definitely, they should steal a car.

If I have one quibble about this episode, and, frankly, the series, it’s that, despite Paul Dano’s compelling performance, Sweat has been eclipsed by Matt and Tilly. The latter two characters are more open and propulsive in their needs, so it makes sense that they’d dominate the narrative—still, Sweat’s tactical instincts are impressive enough that I wish I knew more about where they came from, about who he was before he was locked up. He could have been a third player in a dramatically-potent triad, but the writing around him has, at times, seemed a bit perfunctory.


The show tries to visually re-connect him with Tilly by introducing her via another tracking shot that mimics, in its own small way, the longer one from the opening. She badgers Lyle into stopping at a grocery store so she can get some doughnuts, even though it’ll make them late—or, rather, precisely because it’ll make them late. And if she’s late, maybe she won’t be able to talk to Matt, won’t have to hear the words that will force her to make that choice between the devil of the life she knows and the devil of the fantasy she knows will never really happen the way she wants it to. Stiller’s camera work provides a silent—and even more powerful for it—exposition: When Tilly is back in the truck with Lyle on their way into work, and then leaving work for the Hunan Wok, he holds them in a nauseating close-up, filmed from the back. We don’t need to see Tilly’s face to be enveloped by her dread, to feel ourselves sealed shut in the airless space of her bad choices.

Still, Arquette masterfully portrays that dread, the slow hiss of fear and anger and raw, ungovernable pain, over her dinner with Lyle. She is simultaneously sharp with jagged edges—sending him away to “wash his hands” so she can drug his soda (he’s driving, so Tilly, who’s having a hard time with a tough new officer at the shop, can enjoy a Mexican beer in a Chinese restaurant)—and a whimpering puddle of guilt, when she realizes that she can’t do this, any of it, and crushes the pills under her shoe. The camera keeps its neurotically tight focus on Arquette’s face as Tilly erupts in a full-fledged panic attack (which she mistakes for a heart attack) and holds there for the excruciating length of time it takes for her hospital intake.


One could argue that this moment makes Tilly more sympathetic before her world inevitably implodes, shrinks down to the size of her own prison cell. Still, as someone who has suffered from panic attacks that landed me in the hospital, I can think of no higher complement than to say that every element of this scene reflects my experience in a way that nothing else I’ve seen on-screen ever has. The cross-cuts between Tilly’s panic attack and Sweat and Matt making their way through the underground corridors become something of a mercy—though the overlaying of the nurses’ voices, soothing in their promises of peace and sleep, as the men race their way to freedom, foreshadows that there will be no peaceful sojourn in the mountains, no hope for any of these characters slinking back into any kind of normalcy.



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