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Escape At Dannemora shows us the downsides of desire

Illustration for article titled Escape At Dannemora shows us the downsides of desire
Photo: Chris Saunders (Showtime)
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If “Chapter One” of Escape At Dannemora was about the power and sway of raw desire—how it invigorates and complicates a humdrum life—then “Chapter Two” is all about the ways that desire can be weaponized, can lead us to action, and, of course, to our ruin. Last episode focused on the affair between Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell and David Sweat, and what that affair reveals about each of these characters—her ardor for Sweat, for the promise of escape, even for a moment, is neurotic, but somehow still kind of admirable, in its intensity; his need to be seen, to be given care and attention, even when he doesn’t especially deserve it, makes him seem craven and vulnerable, but somehow still kind of endearing—but this episode wisely pivots to Richard Matt, who machinates and manipulates with the same cunning and flare he applies to his paintings.

Matt’s efforts to recruit David Sweat into his escape plan, and to seduce Tilly into getting him what he needs to cut a path through the narrow corridor running along the back of the cell block (which he discovered when Officer Palmer hid him, and his paints, back there during a cell toss), propel this episode forward. “Chapter Two” has a greater narrative tautness than its predecessor—significant things happen here: The powers that be remove Sweat from the tailor shop and rebuke Tilly; Sweat is transferred to a new roach-infested cell on a lower, louder cell block and his new digs are dire enough to compel him into joining Matt; and Matt begins his slow-burn seduction, which, by episode’s end, will yield him tools to begin the process of digging out to freedom. However, the greatest pleasures of “Chapter Two” come from watching Matt, and of course, Benicio Del Toro, work his malevolent magic. He moves through the episode like a shark coasting through dark water, his power evident in his stillness.


Del Toro isn’t a particularly “showy” actor; his best roles, including his Academy Award-winning role in Traffic, leverage his ability to make thinking feel like a muscular endeavor. Director Ben Stiller holds his camera on Del Toro’s face, allowing every tiny note of amusement and revelation, condescension and calculation to play across his features—they come together in the song of his life, conveying the many years of grifting and scheming, scrapping and conning, in single looks. In the premiere episode, Matt existed mostly as a world-wearied foil for Sweat, a contrast to his coltish impetuousness. Now, we see Matt as a seasoned operator, a man who has come to life, animated by his plan to escape, certainly, but equally inspired by all the plotting and spinning he has to do to fulfill that plan.

“Chapter Two” treats Matt’s scheming as a form of artistry, something that, like his painting, he uses to ease other people into doing what he wants (his pallin’ around with Officer Palmer, and the perks that come with it, are contingent on him giving the art-loving guard a regular fix of work) and for his own pleasure. Indeed, we open on him completing a portrait of Hillary Clinton, which isn’t likely an image he can barter among the blue-collar guards or prisoners; he responds to one fellow prisoner’s incredulous question about whether he actually “likes that bitch” with a heated “get the fuck out” (which, to be fair, is pretty much how last Thanksgiving with my Trump-loving father played out).

I’m not sure whether the real-life Richard Matt saw himself as an artist (I’m deliberately avoiding anything about the real case to appreciate the show as a distinct story in and of itself), but the decision to parallel his careful, meticulous love of making art with his careful, meticulous art of the con is savvy—and it makes excellent use of Del Toro’s chameleonic potency. He watches Tilly rail and sulk after Sweat is booted out of her shop, refusing to train the new inmate shop leader, Lobell. Then he offers to broker a tenuous peace between them. Within a span of moments, he goes from being coolly avuncular with Lobell to being earnest, and tenderly empathetic, with Tilly. He is methodical in the way he teases her and tests her loyalty: He gives her a phone number in Mexico, claiming that it’s his daughter’s, and asking her—in that voice of his, like thick steam rising off a pile of hot stones—if she’ll please call, please just tell her that he’s okay, he’s thinking of her. He’s crafty enough to realize that, to truly woo Tilly, to bend her to his will, he’ll have to play not only to her fleshly desires, but to her sense of vanity, her desire to be someone important.

One could almost pity Tilly. Almost. One of the show’s more interesting decisions, at least so far, is to resist the urge to portray Tilly as a sort of working-class Anna Karenina, a woman undone by her loneliness, whose reckless abandon is the only thing that gives her life meaning—because she’d be more sympathetic that way. This Tilly is straight-up bratty and mean: She has the audacity to yell at her husband over looking at some “new chick” working at the prison, and to threaten that she’ll physically hurt him if she catches him doing it again. When her supervisors confront her with an anonymous note that outs her affair with Sweat, and with her department’s appallingly low production numbers, she doesn’t take solace in the fact that she’s not fired on the spot—she rants and she rampages, taking her anger out on her husband and the inmates working under her, and, unbeknownst to her, of course, making herself vulnerable to the sinister attentions of Richard Matt, who, by the episode’s end, will have her on her knees, after she’s promised to get him the tools he needs to “stretch canvases” and “paint her pretty pictures.”


There’s been a lot of ballyhoo about the “unlikeable female character,” but even the stalwarts of the trope have some redeeming qualities: Jessica Jones, despite all her sarcasm and rage, will step up and become a hero when she needs to; Claire Underwood is a horrible POTUS who plays chicken with nuclear war to preserve her power, but one can’t help but admire her ability to savagely outmaneuver her overtly sexist foes; and Rebecca Bunch makes genuine efforts to redeem the bad acts of her past, even as she commits more bad acts. There’s something nervy, even thrilling, about the way the show doesn’t give Tilly any outs—she’s selfish, boorish, and entitled. When she calls Lobell over to tell him that he’s been promoted, we see an initial lash of fear whip over his face; he’s no doubt wondering whether he’s going to be the next Sweat, compelled to “help” the boss lady out in the back room. This raises the question of how exactly, consensual Sweat’s initial encounters with Tilly really were—after all, as a prisoner, his word means far less than hers, and it’s not as if he’d be taken seriously even if he did complain. For all Tilly’s protestations, Sweat still suffers the worst consequences from their affair (if you can call it that).

He doesn’t seem to pine for her at all once he’s removed from the shop, and, tellingly, refuses to respond to the love note she sends him, because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his potential transfer to a prison in a warmer climate, closer to family. His desires are more concrete and tangible than hers, and the circumstances that finally compel him into joining in on “Matt’s dream” are concrete and tangible as well—the cockroach-laden cell, the obscenely-loud hallmates, and that dude who seems Hell-bent on spoiling Call of the Wild for him. Once he realizes that his mother won’t be lobbying for his transfer, and that he isn’t even guaranteed the modicum of cleanliness and quiet that he enjoyed before, he snaps. If Matt alone is responsible for weaponizing Tilly’s desires, then the cruel fluke of circumstance is to blame for Sweat’s decision to partner with Matt on an escape.


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