Benicio Del Toro
Photo: Chris Saunders (Showtime)

Escape At Dannemora could easily package itself as a stylish, well-pedigreed action tale and still be wildly entertaining—and it’s to the credit of writers Brett Johnson, Michael Tolkin, and Jerry Stahl; director Ben Stiller; and, of course, the brilliant trifecta of lead actors in Patricia Arquette, Benicio Del Toro, and Paul Dano, that it mines deeper, and more subtle terrain. This premiere episode deftly, and with a poignancy that is more potent for how unexpected it is, announces that the titular escape is far from literal. Everyone here longs for a way out of the unrelenting grubbiness of their lives, and this desire—manifest in furtive, backroom sex; creating oil paintings of glamorous celebrities, or simply learning to draw; losing oneself in a cheesy pop song; or even just going to the Revolutionary War museum in the next town over—gives the series its narrative and thematic drive.

This opening episode is more interested in establishing our core set of characters—Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Arquette) and her schlubby hubby Lyle (Eric Lange), Richard Matt (Del Toro) and David Sweat (Dano), and Gene Palmer (David Morse)—than advancing the plot, in a superficial way, at least. “Part One” understands that the relationships between these characters, the strands of lust and fear, tension and sad hope, will inevitably band together into something taut and deliberate. The episode opens with Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott (Bonnie Hunt), interviewing Tilly, who sits before her in a black and white striped prison uniform, shackled and indignant. Though it’d be easy to conceive of Tilly as a dumpy sadsack of a woman, made vulnerable to the cheap flattery of attention from a man, any man, by middle age and limited life experience, Arquette’s Tilly bristles with anger and impatience. She can’t believe she’s here. She didn’t do anything wrong. She’s the one who called the police, after all.

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The Inspector General wisely susses out that appealing to Tilly’s vanity—she’s so glad she’s talking to the one person who knows what’s really going on here—will help her learn everything she needs to know. There’s a constant, low-thrumming buzz of crankiness to Tilly: In the scene that comes after our opening interrogation, the one that toggles back in time, she scowls through a window, watching a snow plow cruise down her street before grumpily rousing her husband to shovel out their now blocked-in car.

Stiller lingers on the Mitchells’ drive to work, and his slow, deliberative approach not only creates a true sense of place—a blue-collar town that would still feel washed out and grayed even without the constant slush—but of mood, as well. The Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan cover of “North Country Girl”—a song that crackles and aches with yearning—swells in the background, well until they arrive at the Clinton Correctional Facility, where they each work. It’s a stark contrast between grander passions and the banalities of a workaday reality. Arquette’s performance embodies these contradictions: She abides over the prison tailor shop, vacillating between agitation and boredom until it’s time to call “Inmate Sweat” into the back room for a rough, quick coupling.

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Dano and Arquette have the right kind of chemistry in this scene: They’re technically semi-strangers, a boss and her subordinate, and yet, there is, if not a genuine affection between them, then at least a desire for connection. They’re not even particularly discreet about these backroom quickies—one gets the sense that she almost wants to be found out, if only so she can be open in her contempt for her humdrum little life. Arquette’s Tilly is a worthy addition to our Year of the Angry Woman; she seethes when she can’t get her way, and lords the power she has at work and at home (however small) with a queenly smugness. Though much will be made of Arquette’s physical frumpification, the way she teases out Tilly’s internal ugliness and allows it to co-exist with her yearning is marvelous. Take, for instance, that tiny moment when she snaps at Lyle for flipping the radio station away from a syrupy pop ballad and then, when the music is back, allows her face to ease into a secretive dreaminess.

The Tilly and Sweat affair (such that it is) sends ripples of titillation through the prison; her co-workers and his fellow prisoners alike snicker and jeer at them. Paul Dano has built a career in roles that contrast his boyish appearance (especially his face, which has an innately sweet-looking rotundity) with the live wire tossing sparks inside his soul (his manic boy preacher in There Will Be Blood ranks among the most iconic film characters of all time), and so far, his Sweat is a more measured calibration of the type. When one of the other inmates needles him about his hook-ups with Tilly, he lashes out at him, and, later, at Tilly, with a defensiveness that suggests he might harbor some subterranean tenderness for her—throwing a tantrum like a schoolboy called out for having a crush.

Sweat is a snarl of his own thwarted desires: He calls his mother, begging her to try and lobby for him to be transferred to a prison in a warmer state. She’s the last person he can call, the only person who will still talk to him—until, of course, she seems to equivocate, and he erupts on her, telling her to go fuck herself. He may hate the cold (and honestly, who doesn’t?), but he also just wants someone who’ll care about him, who’ll want him to be warm enough—even if he has a truly abrasive way of expressing it. His eruption at his mother parallels Tilly’s eruption at Lyle later in the episode, when he gingerly confronts her about her closeness with Sweat: Their maladjustments and their passions are like rats in a sack, clawing and biting in a fight that can’t be won.

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Richard Matt is, at least for the moment, more detached, more resigned to his lot in life as “the man who knows how to get things” in Clinton Correctional. Del Toro plays him with a combination of Robert Mitchum-esque world-weariness and a put-on big man on campus swagger. Matt enjoys a bro-ish chumminess with Officer Palmer, who looks the other way whenever Matt barters contraband in the prison and supports his art by commissioning pieces (in this episode, it’s an oil painting of his girlfriend) and helping him hide his paints and supplies during cell inspection. But this bromance feels like Matt just going through the motions, emotionally—after all, Palmer gets to go home and celebrate his anniversary with that blond girlfriend.

If Sweat and Tilly are defined by their passionate streaks, then Matt is, in contrast, hollowed out, bored by life without a paintbrush in his hand. Del Toro conveys a sense that Matt has carefully curated his prison persona, sketched it out as if it were a portrait of the kind of man who could survive a life sentence behind bars, and has dutifully inhabited it for years, even if the ink is starting to fade. He takes an avuncular role with the younger inmates, particularly Sweat, who he mentors in fine art—indeed, in one of the longest scenes in the episode (which is, admittedly, not exactly action-packed), Matt critiques Sweat’s drawing of Tilly’s two pugs and pontificates on the necessity of having a light source in any image. He tells Sweat that you have to know the rules before you can break them (or, “go disco”).

This line articulates the real story within the “ripped from the headlines” tale: Rightly or wrongly (or, somewhere in between), these people believe that they’re constrained, locked away in figurative and literal ways, by the rules of a polite society, and the only way to be free, if only in their own minds, if only for a moment, is to “go disco.” Although a perfunctory Googling of the real case tells us that going disco had dire consequences for everyone involved, right now, in the world of the show, it’s still the most tempting, exciting choice.

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