The final episode of Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora, which runs an astonishing one hour and 38 minutes long, is actually a pretty dazzling movie. Ben Stiller, its director (yes, that Ben Stiller), crafts a tight, poetically beautiful narrative of escape in the misty blue mountains of the North Country—the kind of tense, thoughtful, slightly surreal drama that contrasts America’s most stunning landscapes with its bleak scenes of rural despair. It’s grim (particularly after Benicio del Toro’s character, Richard Matt, disregards advice not to drink from a pool of standing water). It’s darkly funny (“I knew you were having an affair on me,” one character bleats, “when you started ordering off the diet menu at King’s Wok”). It ends with a scene that’s cryptically ambiguous, and then with a montage featuring an oil painting of a puppy in a T-shirt that reads “Wazzup?”
What, though, to make of the six hours that precede it? Are they necessary? Is this a TV series or an almost eight-hour movie? If television is a medium for characters while movies serve plot, Escape at Dannemora, based on an infamous real-life prison break, seems to plunk itself definitively in the “movie” category, keeping its two central convicts, del Toro’s Matt and Paul Dano’s David Sweat, at arm’s length. Only Patricia Arquette’s Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, a mewling, self-pitying, intensely manipulative supervisor in what amounts to the prison sweatshop, feels like a fully fledged person, if a tragic and repellent one. But then, not that much is happening in the plot, either. Dannemora, written by Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, unspools its events so cautiously that the most dramatic moments in the first hour-long episode include a Nick Jonas song, a tiny pair of pants, and TV’s heartfelt answer to the Bad Sex Awards.