Pulling off a jailbreak takes a lot of reckless courage, a belief that every system put in place to keep insiders from getting out can be overcome with enough planning and sheer desire. Pulling off a TV show about a jailbreak—specifically a show that routinely places introspection above intrigue—can be an equally tricky endeavor, one that Escape at Dannemora (premiering Sunday at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime) attempts with mixed, occasionally exhilarating, results.
Based on the stranger-than-fiction tale of two inmates who busted out of Clinton Correctional Facility with the aid of a lovelorn prison employee in 2015, Dannemora begins at the end, with Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) in custody, having confessed to helping Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) escape. It’s a stage-setting device that seems to promise a juicy flashback narrative—but the series, directed entirely by Ben Stiller, isn’t particularly interested in giving viewers what they expect from a show with Escape in its title. The premiere lingers over shots of the grim-gray palette of upstate New York winter, as Tilly squabbles with her dopey but devoted husband, Lyle (Eric Lange), and engages in not-quite-secret trysts with inmate Sweat, whom she supervises in the prison tailor shop. Richard’s chance discovery, in the episode’s final minutes, of a catwalk behind his cell is the only allusion to the action to come.
But! If a star-studded prestige drama about a crazy true crime isn’t entitled to a little patience, I’m not sure what is. The reality of Sweat and Richard’s scheme is that it took months of labor, both psychological and physical. Richard, a charismatic manipulator nicknamed “Hacksaw,” uses Tilly’s longing for romance to his advantage, wooing her with sweet talk and sex in exchange for supplies. Meanwhile, Sweat is living up to his name, sawing through cell walls and steam pipes with smuggled hacksaw blades (courtesy of Tilly), and conducting middle-of-the-night recon missions in the prison’s dark, labyrinthine bowels. With its frequent dialogue-free stretches and affinity for tight shots held a beat too long, Dannemora owes a stylistic debt to the 1979 classic Escape from Alcatraz, and the show’s eclectic soundtrack—which runs the gamut from Bad Company to Nick Jonas—helps cultivate a mood of retro-timelessness.
As the inmates’ preparations gain momentum, so does the show, and Stiller punctuates the deliberate pacing with bursts of adrenaline. When Sweat first shimmies into the coffin-like confines of the steam pipe that he hopes will lead to his freedom, the sudden onset of a panic attack is not only understandable, it’s contagious. Perhaps the most dazzling sequence is Sweat’s night-before dry run: The camera dips into the tunnel and trails him as he jogs through the maze—his pace and excitement increasing with every step—toward the finish line, a manhole outside the prison walls.
Generally, Dannemora is more interested in the characters than their caper. Arquette, her face pinched in a lemon-sucking scowl, goes beyond Tilly’s frumpy exterior to explore her need for adventure, which she chooses, time and again, over happiness. Del Toro, a hulking figure in an army jacket and black fingerless gloves, brings a confident swagger even the quietest moments, and he’s got just the right cocktail of charisma to convey the many facets of Richard’s sociopathic charm. With his hangdog face and simmering anxiety, Dano brings a melancholy humanity to Sweat, a guy who’s desperate enough to break out of jail but thoughtful enough to enjoy the moment once he has. When their getaway ride is a no-show, Richard starts to panic, but Sweat stays cool. “I’m gonna smoke a cigarette, and I’m gonna walk down the street,” he says calmly. And that’s exactly what they do, passing the butt between them, with nothing but a brief, hushed laugh breaking the silence. This shot goes on for a full minute before credits roll. Grade: B