First, they broke out of prison. Then, they were fugitives. Now, they’re…back in another prison?!?
Prison Break, TV’s most over-the-top show, hit the group running in its third season, at a time when the rest of the television landscape fretted over a writers’ strike. Although this season is strike-shortened at only 13 episodes, it still managed a story with a solid beginning-middle-end plotline, unlike some of its contemporaries. This season introduced a new setting, tons of new characters, new mysteries to solve, and enough cliffhangers to make both Tim Tyler and Chandu dizzy with jealousy.
Once upon a time, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller, Stealth) came up with a plan to free his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell, Blade: Trinity), from prison, as well as proving Lincoln’s innocence in the face of a vast, shadowy conspiracy. After many twists and turns, Scofield did just that, but, in doing so, accidentally landed himself in a nightmarish Panamanian jail.
This jail, Sona, is like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare, in which the inmates run the place, with the guards merely maintaining a perimeter, only occasionally allowing supplies and visitors. Through circumstances far too convoluted to explain, some familiar faces join Scofield inside Sona—hard-ass warden tuned sniveling coward Brad Bellick (Wade Williams, Bug), charming yet sneaky serial killer Theodore “T-bag” Bagwell (Robert Knepper, Hitman), and former FBI agent Alex Mahone (William Fichtner, The Dark Knight), whom Scofield blames for his father’s murder a year earlier.
If all this wasn’t complicated enough, a mysterious group known only as the Company has abducted Lincoln’s son and Scofield’s, uh, girlfriend. A company agent who identifies herself as “Susan B. Anthony” (Jodi Lynn O’Keefe, She’s All That) now insists that Scofield find a man named Whistler (Chris Vance, All Saints) inside Sona and break him out in a matter of days, or the hostages die.
Working against the clock, Scofield must engineer an escape while dealing with the machinations of master criminal Lechero (Robert Wisdom, The Wire). Lincoln, meanwhile, hopes to fight the conspiracy with the help of former inmate Fernando Sucre (Amaury Nolasco, Street Kings) and the secretive Sofia (Danay Garcia, From Mexico With Love).
Prison Break had to reinvent itself again. The easy way out, for this show’s writers, would to have just kept remaking The Fugitive forever. Instead, they’ve gone back to basics, sort of, by returning the characters to prison and by having their heroes engineer another escape. The problem facing the writers with this plan is, then, how not to make it a mere remake of the show’s fresh and exciting first season. The answer was to come up with a new kind of prison. One with no guards, except faceless gunmen circling the structure’s exterior. This new prison is a lawless land, an environment where Scofield is at the mercy of his fellow cons.
Before, Scofield had to escape by working within the rules. Then, as a fugitive, he survived by barely staying one step ahead, again by circumventing established rules of law enforcement, conspiratorial mindsets, and, apparently, extremely lax Vice Presidential security. Scofield’s challenge has always been that he requires the help of others to pull off his schemes. His brains and his way-cool tattoos (which only make one brief appearance this season) can’t get the job done by themselves. This is put to the test inside Sona, where Scofield must compromise his principles and make all sorts of dirty deals not just to escape, but also to survive. Throughout this all, actor Wentworth Miller devotes himself to the Scofield character, keeping his cool mostly, but not being afraid to let the emotion show the cracks when the need arises.
First among Scofield’s challenges is trying to deal with the mysterious Whistler. Just who is this guy? Why is he so important? What’s with his little bird book? And so on. You could argue that Whistler is nothing but a plot device, and Scofield practically admits as much near the end of the season, by stating that he doesn’t care who Whistler is, just that Whistler is the key to the hostages’ safety. Fortunately, Chris Vance plays up the ambiguousness of Whistler’s character nicely, so that he refuses to reveal key information while also seeming needy, and dependent on Scofield’s help.
The introduction of the Mahone character in Prison Break‘s second season was the lightning bolt the show needed to jump forward out of its initial concept. This guy complicated life for everyone. He continues to do so in season three, acting as Scofield’s shadow throughout everything that happens. Although Scofield insists he wants nothing to do with Mahone early on, Mahone is smart enough to know to stick by Scofield. There’s a curious side story in the middle part of the season that has Mahone leaving Sona temporarily, with a possibility of returning to his former life as a well-respected detective. Although this subplot stretches realism to its absolute breaking point (just like every subplot on this show), it shows Mahone as a vulnerable human being, as opposed to the edgy, twitchy guy he plays in most episodes.
Mahone isn’t Scofield’s only problem in Sona—not by a long shot. Robert Wisdom is an absolute blast to watch as Lechero. At first, he’s this terrifying mountain of a man, one you believe an entire prison of unchecked killers would be afraid of. As we get to know him, though, it’s revealed that he knows just how fragile his leadership is, and that one misstep is all that’s needed to make his followers turn against him, making him a dead man. It’s a great performance, and it’s amazing to see Wisdom show new sides to the character as episodes progress. An old standby, T-bag, quickly worms his way into Lechero’s court. I fear that perhaps the writers are trying too hard to make T-bag likable, especially after showing his more vulnerable side in season two. In season three, it’s all about how charming T-bag is, and how he’s able to move up in the ranks in Sona thanks to his winning personality. At times, it’s hard to remember the creepy-as-Hell antics this character got away with during the show’s first season. Also worth noting is Lechero’s tightly-wound right hand man Sammy (Laurence Mason, The Crow), who is the final word in “really scary dudes.”
In another similarity to Prison Break‘s first season, the action outside the jail just isn’t as compelling as what’s happening inside. Lincoln running around Panama and facing off the Company seems like a good idea, and Jodi Lynn O’Keefe is surprisingly great as a villain, but too often the Panama scenes are just Lincoln fretting in a hotel room, or Susan making snarky comments at our heroes in some bar. Much of this is hampered by the Sofia character and her constant worrying about Whistler. I for one would rather have preferred her character be more proactive, working with Lincoln rather than always holding him back by asking “What about James [Whistler]?” every few minutes. On the plus side, Amaury Nolasco continues to be the show’s unsung hero, providing just the right combination of tough guy swagger and “everyman” humor, so that Sucre is the one character that, more than any other, the characters can relate to.
• So is the Company the same conspiracy behind the whole Terrance Steadman thing, or is it a whole different conspiracy? I’m still not clear on that.
• If the guards can go waltzing back into Sona with their machine guns anytime they want, and the prisoners just line up for this, then why don’t the guards retake the entire prison? Wouldn’t that make life easier for everyone (except, of course, that it wouldn’t be as dramatic for those of us watching at home)?
• If the whole “helicopter escape” thing was an option all along, then what did the Company need Scofield for? Access to the roof?
• I get that Lechero gets to have all kinds of goodies—such as a big screen TV and huge crates of rum—thanks to an agreement between him and the guards, but how’d they get all that stuff inside the jail without anyone noticing?
• Why on Earth doesn’t Mahone just tell his former FBI coworkers that he has a prescription? Wouldn’t that admission have solved a lot of his problems? (Yeah, I know, it wouldn’t have been as dramatic for those of us watching at home…)
But, really, nitpicking this show is not doing it justice. Prison Break takes place in some sort of alternate universe where ridiculous plot twists are an everyday part of life. This show falls somewhere between The Monster Squad and Forbidden Zone on the “realism” scale. And yet, that’s what makes it so much fun to watch. You already know that none of this could ever happen in real life—such as, say, a barely-working prison run entirely by the inmates—but it’s the thrill of seeing our characters in these outrageous situations and then their even more outrageous solutions that brings us back week after week.
A major player in the Prison Break mythos vanished this year, and this departure leaves a black mark on the whole season. I have no idea why Sarah Wayne Callies (The Celestine Prophesy) chose not to appear as Dr. Sara Tancredi this season (or perhaps she was booted?), but her absence is the one big stinker that prevents the season from reaching the heights it should reach. For as much fun as I had watching this season, the feeling of “I can’t believe what they did to Sara” still lingers over it all, slightly tainting the enjoyment. As of this writing, the actress is returning to the show for its fourth season, so for now let’s all hope that it’ll be a good thing.
The audio and video on this four-disc set maintain the Prison Break standard on DVD, raising the bar for other TV-on-DVD sets to follow. This season has a real gritty, grimy look, and it all comes through with clarity on screen, so that you can almost smell the sweat coming off of everyone. The audio is great as well, especially in a series of scenes early on that take place in Sona’s sewer, providing a lot of nice—and by “nice” I mean “creepy”—ambient sounds. Unfortunately, the bonus features don’t match up to the quality of previous seasons. There are four promotional featurettes, and an episode of the TV series The Unit. I miss the fun commentaries that came with the season one set.
Prison Break is one of those love-it-or-hate-it shows. You either love it for the roller coaster ride thrill of it all, or you hate it for the gross lack of anything resembling realism. If you’re in the former, you’ll want to snag this DVD set right away.