With just eight days left in 2018, Ben Stiller and the creators of Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora” have made a play for the best TV episode of the year.
Sunday’s sixth and penultimate episode of the prison-break miniseries – based on a real 2015 escape in upstate New York – upended the entire structure of the show, and likely surprised fans who were waiting to see what happened once David Sweat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) made it out of prison, after their accomplice Tilly (Patricia Arquette) failed to meet them with a getaway car.
Instead of continuing the chronological story, director Ben Stiller and writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin take a hard left turn and portray what put Sweat and Matt in prison in the first place, and show a less than savory part of Tilly’s past, too.
The episode opens with an extended sequence following a sheriff’s deputy on a night shift, as he monitors traffic for speeding, picks up ketchup at a convenience store and checks in on his sleeping wife. The sequence is long – too long – and dread mounts as it continues, leading the audience to wonder who this man is and how he’s connected to the prison break. Eventually, the deputy comes upon a truck that he believes might be the one an APB is seeking. He approaches the car, another vehicle and a group of men, slowly, with his lights off.
Just as he gets out of the car and identifies himself, he’s hit with a hail of bullets. The shooter then jumps into one of the cars and runs over the deputy, again and again. When the shooter gets out of the car the camera slowly pans to his face, and it’s Sweat, with a mustache and a look of horror. Two other men run to the scene, and when one of them realizes the deputy is still alive, he picks up the gun and shoots the deputy twice more. Sweat quietly says “sorry,” and the onscreen text (finally) informs us it’s July 4, 2002. This is what put Sweat behind bars in the first place.
Next, we jump back to Christmastime 1997, when a sweet-looking old man in red flannel pajamas is doing a puzzle and humming a carol. There’s a knock on his door and it’s Matt, who manipulates his way into the house and immediately attacks the man, his former boss, hoping to find a safe full of cash. Matt’s sequence is less one of building dread than relentless violence and horror, as Matt tortures and kidnaps the man. Eventually, after realizing there is no money, Matt wraps his captive’s face in duct tape, which causes the man to suffocate to death. Matt then cuts up the body and tosses it, limb by limb, into a lake.
The camera turns to Tilly for another unflattering portrait. It’s 1993, and Tilly is married to a different man, Kenny (Charlie Hofheimer). After her screaming son is carted off to daycare she and her husband, head to work at a shoe factory, where their marital bliss fractures. Tilly, with a history of affairs at work, sneaks into the woods to have sex with Lyle (Eric Lange), her future husband.
When Kenny finds out about the affair, he’s furious and she’s scared. Tilly manipulates Lyle into provoking Kenny into a fight, so she can claim to a judge that Kenny is too violent to win custody of their son. Tilly prevails in court, and then tries to brainwash their son, Kenny Jr., into believing that Lyle is his father.
The episode is so effective because, until this point, the series had been subtly encouraging its audience to root for its protagonists, even though they’re amoral criminals. Sweat, Matt and even Tilly were fulfilling roles usually occupied by heroes. The oppressed are the ones who often labor against imprisonment, authority and injustice in our cultural narratives. Breaking out of prison should have been a triumph. But the “Dannemora” writers remind us that it’s a tragedy.
By saving the backstories of all three main characters until after we’ve seen them break out, Stiller and the writers have masterfully played with our emotions and made a fantastic episode of TV.
It’s a great, and harrowing, Christmas gift. And the final chapter of the epic tale is yet to come.