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In a brutish hour of TV, Escape At Dannemora takes us back to the beginning

Photo: Frank W. Ockenfels III (Showtime)
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Until this penultimate episode, Escape At Dannemora has distinguished itself as a character-driven drama, more remarkable for its subtleties and for the ways it used its bigger, flashier moments—like, for instance, the titular escape—to illuminate certain truths about its characters (especially the truths they wouldn’t admit to themselves). Parsing through these subtleties and making the connections between the granular facts of these people’s personalities and their broader actions, has made the show such a pleasure to watch—even if its central trio are profoundly unpleasant people. “Chapter Six” is not a subtle episode. Not in its execution or in its central message—which only works when the episode is viewed in tandem with the entire storyline. Without context, there is no message, just a nauseating display of cruelty.

Of course, the show’s creative architects have withheld the stories of how, exactly, our terrible triad ended up at Clinton Correctional, because if we knew upfront what each of them had done, we’d feel too revolted to truly give a damn whether they broke out and made it to that beach in Mexico. The choice to reveal this information, and to reveal it now, after we’ve come to, if not empathize with these characters, then at least become invested in them, complicates our understanding of the narrative. The show jams its thumb square in the eye of one of the most troubling tropes around our contemporary zest for true crime stories—the impetus to portray the killer as a poor misbegotten soul or a compellingly cunning mastermind, a figure worthy of obsession and study. The true crime boon, filled with titles like “My Favorite Murder,” “Making A Murderer,” “The Last Podcast On The Left,” and “White Wine True Crime,” often regard the real violence done to real people with a hideous glibness—reducing the very worst moments of, or the excruciating ends to, human lives as popcorn fodder. This voyeuristic approach aligns us with the smirking killers.

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“Chapter Six” is a direct refutation of this approach: It opens on the deputy who will become David Sweat’s victim and follows him through what is a typical shift, until he makes that fatefully wrong turn down the wrong corridor. Deputy Kevin Tarsia, played with a casual affability by Jim Parrack, is a good cop and a decent man: We see him let a rookie driver off with a warning and teasing admonition about learning the “lost art” of parallel parking; cleaning trash off the road; and, most poignantly, stopping home to drop off the ketchup and mustard for a cook-out he won’t get to attend, gently waking up his sleeping wife with a kiss (and a fond hope for a shift break quickie that ends with a “rain check” that will never come due).

His likability is like a rare and pleasant breeze over the stultifying desert of pettiness and brutality the other characters we’ve been following have lived in, likely for their whole lives. That likability makes him the tragic figure here. Sweat first appears as a lean silhouette loading boosted goods into the trunk of a car; as that silhouette approaches, squeezing the handgun’s trigger repeatedly, director Ben Stiller focuses his camera on Deputy Tarsia’s bullet-ripped body as it falls to the concrete. Then Sweat gets in his car and runs the officer down. We don’t see Sweat behind the wheel—indeed, he only emerges again to stare dumbly at the carnage he’s wrought and mutter, “sorry”—Stiller’s camera lingers on the broken man’s legs flailing under the front bumper.

This is brutal viewing. We don’t go back to Sweat’s perspective, to see anything like remorse—the fact that he has the gall to whine about getting transferred to a warmer prison suggests that he doesn’t. We transition straight to Richard Matt, who isn’t the charismatic schemer of the past five episodes, but a doped-up brute who kidnaps and tortures his elderly ex-employer for the location of some missing (and supposedly embezzled) funds. This sequence, where Matt and his pal ride around with the man stuck in their trunk; carouse with women and booze and drugs; break the man’s fingers to exact the location of this hidden cash; and, when they determine that there is no money, wind a roll of duct tape around his whole head, leaving him to suffocate in the narrow dark. Matt will further humiliate his victim—and earn his prison nickname—by cutting the man’s half-frozen corpse with a hacksaw and lobbing body parts into the river. There’s nothing to like in either of these men. They belong in prison.

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Perhaps the show is interrogating the ever-popular Prestige TV® trope upholding the Very Bad Man™ as some vehicle for our collective, repressed Id—rendering our convict protagonists’ crimes in the starkest, rawest ways to argue that one man’s antihero is another man’s straight-up villain. The story is doubling back to tell us that, no matter what these people want, and how badly they want it, they don’t deserve it. It’s also setting the stakes for the likely manhunt that will play out over the final chapter: Sweat and Matt are capable of truly vicious, truly violent acts, even when they enjoyed relative freedom—and now, they’re fighting to stay outside of the prison walls.

It’s a risky choice, because it turns everything into either a prelude to violence or simply saturates the screen with horror. It’s atrocity overload. I can’t help but wonder whether these details would’ve been more effective in truncated flashbacks (which, admittedly, might have had the adverse effect of diluting that marvelous subtlety in storytelling), or teased out in dialogue—which would allow us to have a more nuanced understanding of who these men really are as we watch them hammer and wheedle their way to freedom.

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The way that the episode treats Tilly’s story makes the case against its blunt, thundering take on Sweat and Matt: It’s unafraid to show Tilly at her absolute worst—she manipulates Lyle, her then-affair partner, into goading her first husband into slugging him; her goal is to label the first Mr. Tilly as an unfit husband and father with a “violent temper,” so she can take their son away and live with his “new dad”—while also shading greater depths into Tilly’s story and further contextualizing Lyle’s current actions. Though it’s been easy to attribute his fervent need to placate a wife who openly loathes him as some incipient beta maleness, we can see, now, where he may view Tilly’s affairs with Sweat and Matt as a kind of long-delayed karmic backhand (after all, he did leave his first wife, and help to estrange a child from his father).

Maybe he knew that it was always a matter of time before Tilly did unto him as she did to the first poor sap before him. Tilly is an ouroboros of narcissistic neediness and wild entitlement. We learn here that the desperation and crankiness we’ve seen in her throughout the series is nothing new—she’s always had her tail in her mouth. This bruised truth best expresses the nihilistic bent of the episode without tipping into unnecessary extremity. Some people have curdled souls, and there’s no making them fresh and whole again.

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