What Is Escape at Dannemora, Really?

The Showtime series about a real-life prison break is just the latest work in the Peak TV era to suffer from existential confusion.

Benicio del Toro as Richard Matt and Paul Dano as David Sweat in the Showtime prison drama "Escape at Dannemora"
Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano star in the Showtime prison drama Escape at Dannemora. (Showtime)

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.

That’s possibly because everyone already knows how the story unfolds, and how it ends. In 2015, two prisoners at the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, excavated their way outside using a series of illicitly obtained tools and an unfortunately large pipe. The intrigue of the Clinton escape was amped up by its salacious sexual component—Matt and Sweat were aided in their escape by Mitchell, with whom at least one of them had been having an affair. Mitchell was supposed to help drive them to West Virginia in the aftermath of their escape, but she changed her mind, leaving the prisoners to try to escape on foot. An almost month-long manhunt ensued.

When so much of a television show’s plot is based on well-documented real-life events, the key to keeping things suspenseful is tension. Hulu’s The Looming Tower doesn’t reveal anything about the lead-up to 9/11 that hasn’t already been analyzed in detail, but the inevitability of its final tragedy makes the stakes of the FBI boss John O’Neill’s counterterrorism efforts even higher. And even if you’re intimately acquainted with the dynamics of the Suez Crisis, Season 2 of The Crown gives a punchy kind of urgency to Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s calamitous meltdown. Dannemora, by contrast, takes a glacial approach to storytelling, as if its characters need thawing out before they can get to work. The show spends significant time considering sounds: the repetitive bang of a chisel, the catch of a hacksaw, the jagged whir of a blender. A different director might employ an element of surprise here, leaving viewers guessing what the sonic interludes might be. Stiller seems happy just to contemplate them, but the payoff for viewers is minimal.

Some early reviews seemed surprised that Stiller, best known as a comic actor, would create a series that’s so insistently dour, steeped in the grayness of prison and the synthetic neon emptiness of the community outside. And yet Dannemora has a strain of humor within it, if you look closely. It’s there in the musical cues, which take loaded dramatic moments and punctuate them with Meghan Trainor or Ed Sheeran (Tilly Mitchell, in reality, kept the radio in her prison workshop tuned to a Top 40 pop station). I laughed out loud during one scene in which Benicio del Toro struts through the prison yard with sunglasses on like a portly, incarcerated Blues Brother. In the fifth episode, Tilly makes a profound moral choice while wearing a pink sweater covered in cartoon animals that says “Bearin’ It in Utica.”

But it’s not quite enough to keep audiences more than mildly interested. Del Toro’s smoldering charisma is thwarted here by a narrative trick that doesn’t show who his character really is until a flashback that comes late in the series. The most fascinating elements of the real Richard Matt (such as his artistic talents, which led him to make paintings featuring everything from romantic kittens to Hillary Clinton) are dropped into the series as non sequiturs rather than explored or expanded. Dano’s Sweat feels equally unknowable, despite the actor’s riveting screen presence and his evolution as he approaches the idea of freedom. Dannemora just doesn’t give you enough to make of him—his desires, his emotions, his quirks.

The series allows more richness in Tilly, whom Arquette builds into one of the most pitiable and psychologically complex monsters on television. Tilly is frowzy, frizzy, and buxom (Arquette gained 40 pounds to play the role). She’s childlike in her emotional state (the love for Nick Jonas alone implies a curious immaturity), whining and breaking into tears anytime she’s challenged. In Arquette’s rendering, Tilly has a strong, nasal accent that sounds almost midwestern, and a propensity to be strung along like popcorn kernels on a Christmas tree. She’s shown immediately engaging in questionable sexual activity with Sweat in the equipment room, but when Sweat is transferred, Matt swerves in on a credulous mark.

Tilly is easily swayed because she’s willing to be drawn into any kind of fantasy, however ludicrous it might be. Matt persuades her that she might serve some kind of important purpose, she’s powerful, she’s a woman of such sexual magnetism that she should be in Mexico in an unspecified ménage à trois with two misunderstood felons. Tilly’s manipulated because the fantasy for her is everything, just like the sentiment in a guitar-heavy pop song. The disconnect between what her life is and what she thinks it could be is what makes her so sad, and so nasty to her beleaguered husband, Lyle (Eric Lange). Tilly isn’t remotely sympathetic, but Arquette’s performance of her frailty is fascinating to watch.

It also alludes to what the show could have explored in its extended running time rather than focusing doggedly on the mechanics of sawing through metal and defrosting tools hidden in hamburger meat. Tilly’s delusions feel familiar because they’re rooted in a sense of escapism that permeates Dannemora. For the prisoners, it’s the dream of simply getting out. For Tilly, it’s a Harlequin romance with herself as the heroine. For the Dannemora locals and the prison workers stuck in “Little Siberia” (as the institution is nicknamed), it means anything from retirement out West to an affair to a Dairy Queen Blizzard for dessert. Something ruminative on the subject of thwarted American dreams and rural decline is buried in Escape at Dannemora, and it never quite gets out.