In the summer of 2015, two inmates escaped a prison in upstate New York, aided by an employee they were both sleeping with. The story was instantly tantalizing and captivating. After all, lust and deceit are the foundation of many a TV series, and a prison ménage à trois is a story begging to be told. Imagine what the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime would do with this story.
Thankfully, executive producer and director Ben Stiller took it on instead. His version of Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) tunneling their way out of Clinton Correctional Facility with the help of tailor shop supervisor Tilly Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) is harrowing, realistic, bleak and depressing. This prison break isn’t Prison Break.
The dreary winter is almost another character when Showtime’s seven-part limited series begins. The cold is closing in on everyone, making an unbearable situation even worse. When we meet Tilly, she’s already scurrying into the supply room to have sex with David. But this is not Grey’s Anatomy, so these are not hot, sexy trysts with beautiful people. They are furtive, sad and pathetic. How did Tilly’s dalliances with David start? The reasons are implied. Was it the day-to-day drudgery of her mundane life and the longing for any kind of excitement? Was it being married for 21 years to Lyle (Eric Lange), a clueless, simple man who adored her? Was it struggling financially while surrounded by rich people who summer in the area your family has lived in for 300 years?
Tilly’s sexual relations with David and Richard were an open secret. Security guards and other inmates were suspicious. I mean, how often would Tilly really need help finding thread in Tailor Shop #9? When David gets reassigned because another inmate says something, Richard steps right in, having sex with Tilly but also letting her know that David misses her. Like a middle-school student illicitly passing notes in class, he transports letters and gifts between the two. He creates a fantasy world for her where both men desire her. At the same time, he discovers the underbelly of the prison that leads to a way out. He sweet-talks Tilly into bringing him a hacksaw, which she disguises in frozen meat. “Are you ready to step into the future?” he asks her seductively.
Tilly has cast herself as the victim in her own story. She is to blame for nothing. Whiny and belligerent, she never feels guilt about cheating on her husband and instead becomes furious when he even looks at another woman. It’s an amazing tour-de-force for Arquette, who completely disappears into the role. Where is the woman who starred in Medium for seven seasons? Not here. It’s not just the prosthetics, bad wigs and worse teeth that make her unrecognizable. Her voice is completely different, as is the way she walks and carries herself. I was transfixed watching her. Tilly is enraging and emotionally desperate. Her ability to find no fault in what she’s doing is fascinating.
Unfortunately, Arquette’s performance is stronger than the series as a whole. The show spends too much time on tunnel digging. There’s a lack of urgency and excitement to the story. Like life at Dannemora, the story is weighed down by the ordinary minutia. Dano is terrific as David. He longs to get out, to get away from the cold. He clearly cares for Tilly (I think?), but also knows that their relationship has its limits. Oddly, the problem is del Toro’s performance: Richard is the mastermind of the plan, with a knack for getting other people to do his dirty work. Night after night, David is digging and cutting a path out while Richard sleeps soundly. But del Toro is too passive, too calm. He mumbles when he talks. Maybe this is how Richard was in real life, but it takes the energy out of his scenes. It’s hard to understand why everyone, including prison guard Gene Palmer (David Morse), was so mesmerized by him. When he finally comes to life and dramatically tells Tilly, “Don’t tell anybody,” I laughed, which I’m pretty sure is not what the series was going for.
The allure of the escape is easy to understand. “This is the first time in 12 years nobody knows where you are,” Matt says to David when they first discover a way out. But even if you don’t remember how it ended, it’s obvious their plan was flawed with a capital F.
Stiller gets so much right here as he recreates this story. Claustrophobic camera angles, extreme close-ups and a muted palette all enhance the tale. And I have to give credit to the music choices, which include tracks by Megan Trainor and Joe Jonas: The juxtaposition of pop tracks against the prison slog is truly inspired.
The only person I truly felt sorry for is Lyle, who so blindly loves his wife that he doesn’t see what’s right in front of him. She’s wishes he’d have a heart attack while shoveling. He desperately asks his son, “Does she ever say anything good about me?”
It may not be perfect, but there are a lot of good things to say about Escape at Dannemora.
Escape at Dannemora premieres Sunday, Nov. 18 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .