Prison Break is a twisted fairy tale in four deliriously plotted parts. Against better reason, our hero, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), breaks from the stable, light world to take a long, wild run on the other side. Along the way he’s trapped and escapes (more than once), seeks treasure, is hunted and, in turn, hunts, and finally defeats his hidden enemy, the orchestrator of many miseries, his mother, long presumed to be dead. Scofield’s adventures begin with a bang: the discharge of the gun he fires at the ceiling of the bank he robs before raising his hands and politely waiting for the law to arrive. He has little intention of fleeing, at least not yet. For he’s enacted this failed crime so that he’ll be sentenced to the same penitentiary in which his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), sits on death row. Burrows, condemned for a crime he didn’t commit, is one of noir’s wronged men; Scofield, his savior, is one of its grand schemers. A structural engineer by trade, and something of a mechanical genius, he aims to break his brother free:
BURROWS: It’s impossible.
SCOFIELD: Not if you designed the place it isn’t.
As someone who knows how things fit together—and, importantly, how they can be taken apart— Scofield has addressed every contingency, from the bolts that need to be undone to the people who need to be deceived. His master plan is not only in his head, but seared to his skin, in the form of an elaborate full-body tattoo of codes and keys. Scofield’s plan is one of total immersion. He discards his old identity as an upstanding citizen and wholly commits himself to another domain, the corrupt noir world that’s swallowed up his brother. But in springing Burrows from Fox River, a prison outside Chicago, Scofield incurs the wrath of the Company, the shadowy cabal of conspirators that put him there in the first place. The conspiracy is such that Burrows, a petty thief, stands accused of killing the brother of the U.S. Vice President, Caroline Reynolds (Patricia Wettig). The evidence against him, expertly doctored by the Company, is irrefutable; the cruel irony of his plight is that his supposed victim remains alive, albeit in hiding.
Much like the corporate-criminal factions on display in The X-Files (1993 – 2002) and 24 (2001 – 2010), the Company pursues its unsavory agenda from behind a veneer of respectability. Its grasp extends from the highest levels of government to the lowliest rungs of the correctional system. Its board of directors, we’re told, “call the shots—what laws to pass, what judges to appoint, what wars to fight.” When Reynolds, eager to move up a rung to the presidency, decides that her brother, with whom she’s been incestuously involved, might prove to be something of a liability in her campaign, it’s the Company that makes the problem go away by staging the phony murder for which Burrows is framed. What the Company wants it wills, through blood, intimidation, subversion, and on a global scale—as if S.P.E.C.T.R.E. and Halliburton were rolled into one. This is the dark, unremitting force at work in noir, the unseen evil that shadows everything. Nearly all of the characters in Prison Break are either beholden to the Company or on the run from it.
By the time Scofield arrives to save him, Burrows, like the sulking Swede in Hemingway’s “The Killers,” is resigned to his fate. “All I keep thinking, looking back onto it, is that I was set up,” he grumbles. “And whoever it was that set me up wants me in the ground as quickly as possible.” Following the template of prison-noirs like Brute Force (1947) and Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), Prison Break provides not only Burrows but each of its convict-protagonists with a backstory of bad luck or betrayal. Through flashback, we’re shown how noir’s deterministic accord separates the jailbirds from the average Joes, as in the case of Scofield’s cellmate, Fernando Sucre (Amaury Nolasco). Eager to marry his girlfriend, but too poor to afford a ring, Sucre robs a liquor store for the funds; outside, the police, tipped off by his romantic rival, lay in waiting. Benjamin Miles Franklin (Rockmond Dunbar), or C-Note, the prison’s unofficial pharmacist, is in on a cooked-up charge. As a soldier in Iraq, he witnesses all sorts of illegal behavior (torture, black market dealings) and does what he thinks is right by reporting it; instead, he’s made the patsy—off to Fox River. Scofield, on the other hand, is there by personal design: he’s the only one to have actively sought imprisonment.
Each of the four parts of Prison Break neatly mirrors its opposite. In season one, Scofield must break Burrows out of prison; in season three, set in Panama, it’s Burrows who helps Scofield escape. Season two pits the brothers and their cohorts on the run from the Company; in season four, they set about bringing it down. The lynchpins of this serialized narrative are grounded in genres commonly associated with noir, namely the caper-jailbreak story (an attempt to construct future events) and the investigative journey (an attempt to deconstruct past events). While the series begins with the Company having already rushed Burrows to the gallows, it’s Scofield who sparks the plot. His staging of the jail break, followed by his quest to uncover the conspiracy, becomes the catalyst for a sea of criminality, despair, and death that washes over a wide range of people, from the inmates who eagerly join in on the escape, to the lawmen tasked with apprehending the fugitives, to the Company officials who fight and kill (even each other) to keep their dodgy enterprise from being exposed.
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.
S1E1: The Fox River Eight
The clash between individualism and determinism is one of the hallmarks of noir. From the outset, Scofield, with his meticulously designed plan, functions as if in control of his destiny, and Lincoln’s as well. Yet in reversing Burrow’s path to execution, he lands himself in the same conspiratorial net that ensnared his brother. Such is the vacuum-like atmosphere of noir that even the cleverest and most defiant of men are sucked along dark and uncertain paths. Once outside the prison walls, with things having not gone entirely to plan, Scofield is asked by Sucre what to do next. “We run,” he says, unsurely, as lawmen with braying hounds close in. Flight becomes the defining term of not only Scofield’s existence, but that of the seven prisoners who escape in tow. Later, however, Scofield will be scolded by Sucre for suggesting that one’s righteousness determine’s one fate: “Didn't Fox River teach you anything, man? ‘Cause the same rules apply out here. It doesn't make a difference if you're guilty or innocent. It's who survives.”
David Janssen, who starred in The Fugitive (1963 – 1967), a show on which Prison Break is partially based, once described his scrambling, on-the-lam hero as “a hunted beast in the jungle of modern society. I think people tune in to see how he manages to exist, to endure—nameless, without identity, unable to practice his profession—rather than to see how close he comes to being caught by Gerard or to finding the one-armed man. It’s a show of survival.” As fugitives, Scofield, Burrows, and the rest of the Fox River Eight move fleetingly, anonymously, incongruously, through the sidelines of a society from which they remain isolated. In a news conference, Alex Mahone (William Fichtner), the FBI agent put in charge of the manhunt, likens them to Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth:
MAHONE: Twelve days. That’s how long it took to find him. In his journal during this period, he wrote that the shadow was his friend, the night his domain. He acknowledged that whatever neurosis drove the criminal to commit the original crime is compounded, magnified, by flight, by the sounds of dogs at his heels. Fear become paranoia; paranoia, ultimately, psychosis.
Scofield, in releasing himself and the others from prison, ushers the lot of them into an equally suffocating form of confinement. Though his aim is altruistic, his plan, as enacted, is somewhat myopic, and not without some dangerous edges. Part of the getaway, for instance, is contingent on securing the cooperation of Fox River’s most notorious inmate, mobster John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare).
To this end, Scofield barters the location of the snitch, since disappeared into the witness protection program, whose testimony sent Abruzzi to prison. Given that the snitch is as good as dead the instant Scofield relays this information to Abruzzi, it’s an exchange rife with moral queasiness. “You’re telling me that, if I’m to live, a good man has to die?” Burrows wonders. The transference of guilt figures significantly in Prison Break, where unholy alliances are the means of staying alive another day. Consequently, the brothers are complicit in a number of fatalities, a fact that pulls heavily on their conscience:
SCOFIELD: Too many people have died because I wanted you to be free.
BURROWS: It's only going to get more bloody.
SCOFIELD: But the question is, is the blood on their hands or on ours?
Of particular consternation is the destruction wrought by Theodore Bagwell, a.k.a. T-Bag (Robert Knepper), the crazed hillbilly whose release to the outside world is an unfortunate side effect of Scofield’s plan. Devoid of remorse for any of the deviant acts (rape and murder, not necessarily in that order) that landed him in prison, T-Bag is the noir psychopath exemplified. Once free, he returns to his old tricks, leaving in his wake a trail of casualties, all of which weigh on the brother’s shoulders.
S1E1: The Fox River Eight
Scofield is conspicuous among noir heroes in that his call to action is self-devised. It’s as if, bored with his ordinary, uneventful existence, he concocted the ultimate dare. “I think he was a fairly lonely, frustrated individual,” Wentworth Miller said of his character, “unconsciously waiting for life to tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘This is your quest.’” Through flashback, Scofield is shown holed up in his condominium, obsessively covering his walls (and later his skin) with hundreds of sketches, blueprints, and encoded designs. Once in prison, he strikes an incongruous presence, too “pretty,” as T-Bag purrs, to be behind bars. C-Note, likewise, notes Scofield’s perceived innocence by sarcastically tagging him “snowflake.” Meanwhile, Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies), the prison physician, finds herself drawn to the inscrutable new prisoner during his frequent (he’s faked a diabetic condition) clinic visits. “There are so many questions surrounding you,” she wonders, unaware that Scofield has banked a crucial aspect of his plan on her curiosity about him blossoming into an emotional, and thus exploitable, attachment.
Scofield’s enigmatic nature and intimidating intelligence arouse suspicions all around Fox River. Brad Bellick (Wade Williams), the prison’s unduly sadistic martinet, becomes fixated with his newest charge, whom he harangues with glee; post-breakout, feeling humiliated, Bellick sets off on a tear in pursuit of Scofield. Similarly, the select inmates who are in on the escape question Scofield’s motives and trustworthiness, particularly once he reveals his uncanny power to manipulate others to his end. While in prison Scofield functions very much in undercover mode, like Vincent Terranova of Wiseguy, with whom he shares the ability to forge friendships upon lies. As Paul T. Scheuring, the creator of Prison Break, explained, “We’re trying to shift audience perspective a little bit, because it becomes intriguing when there’s a little grey area where there shouldn’t be.” It’s appropriate, then, that Scofield’s calling card is an origami crane: he’s not only self-constructed, but folded within himself, an elusive and flighty creature.
Scofield’s scheme, contingent as it is on altering the destines of countless others, situates him as an agent of considerable chaos—someone whose “hands are as dirty as anyone’s,” as executive producer Matt Olmstead put it. For starters, there’s the diversionary riot Scofield sparks by shutting down the prison’s air conditioning unit, which results in considerable carnage and the near-rape of Tancredi. To that calamity can be added his thorough duping of the kind-hearted warden, Henry Pope (Stacy Keach), who comes to view Scofield as a surrogate son and allows him privileges denied other prisoners. Scofield has counted on this, and uses it to his advantage, just as he exploits Tancredi‘s lonely vulnerability for the greater good of his plan. While Scofield develops genuine feelings for Tancredi, he also destroys her life by convincing her to leave a critical door open on the eve of his escape. Afterwards, accused of complicity and fired from her job, Tancredi, a recovering drug addict, relapses and nearly dies. To clear herself, which means clearing the brothers, she starts poking around the conspiracy, which results in her father (John Heard), the governor of Illinois, being murdered by Company assassins.
From there Tancredi finds herself on the run from some very unpleasant people, in particular Paul Kellerman (Paul Adelstein), who charms his way into her confidences, and then tries to kill her in a motel bathtub. Though Tancredi manages to escape, it’s far from the last indignity she suffers on behalf of Scofield. Tancredi embodies one of the unsung archetypes of noir: the wifely figure as sacrificial lamb. Veronica Donovan (Robin Tulley), an attorney friend of the brothers who loses her life for Nancy Drew-ing around in the Company’s affairs, is one as well. Their evil opposite in this male-dominated game is Susan B. Anthony, alias Gretchen (Jodi Lynn Keefe), a wretchedly cold-hearted Company operative. Gretchen is the femme fatale of the piece, vile and murderous one moment, sly and becoming the next. She, too, inflicts considerable punishment upon Tancredi, and just about everyone else. But in the end her deadliness pales in comparison to that of Christina Rose Scofield (Kathleen Quinlan), Scofield and Burrows’s “resurrected” mother, who emerges in season four as the most fearsome of spider women—the maternal figure intent on devouring her offspring.
As in 24, each installment of Prison Break is brought to cliff’s edge, open threads left to dangle until the next chapter, at which point new knots and twists are introduced (e.g., the brain tumor with which Scofield is diagnosed), expounding rather than alleviating the tension. Reinforcing such a construction is a narrative strategy seemingly designed to create an atmosphere of instability and treachery in which character relationships are ever in flux. Through a dizzying succession of reversals and betrayals, allegiances switched and switched again, faked deaths and feigned surrenders, Prison Break presents a zig-zagging narrative of considerable unpredictability. Coercion, the currency of choice for the characters of noir, becomes the primary determinant of how the story unfolds. The G-man Mahone, for example, once some threats are made to his family, is forced to amend his original assignment of “capture the fugitives” with an off-book, Company-mandated one of “kill ‘em all.”
Mahone’s dark past makes him a prime target for extortion. Years prior, while working a serial killer case, he murdered the lead suspect and buried him in his yard. Still troubled by visions of his crime, and under tremendous pressure from the Company on one end and the Bureau on the other, he races about on the precipice of a long-overdue breakdown, popping pills and trying to cover his tracks. Yet he’s also the only person with the intellect to unravel the plan Scofield has concocted. “There’s something about this guy,” Scofield notes with wariness and a little awe to Burrows. “It’s like he knows where we’re going, what we’re thinking.” Mahone emerges as the most sympathetic of the series’s compromised figures: a lawman driven to corruption because “I don’t have a choice.” Bellick, in contrast, is impelled to behave badly by his own weaknesses, most especially the greed that consumes him when he learns that a buried cache of five million dollars—the reputed spoils of legendary skyjacker D.B. Cooper—is in play.
The satchel of ill-begotten goods, so central to the noir heist film, becomes, in Prison Break, the device that keeps the players at each other’s throats. In noir, easy money (or the promise of it) heralds freedom, a chance to live life as it was meant. For Scofield, it’s the backbone of his plan to whisk himself and Burrows to Panama; once the others learn of it, the loot becomes the thing to be fought over. The treasure changes hands a dizzying number of times—Sucre has it, then Bellick, but he loses it to T-Bag, and so forth—until it’s finally, scornfully, kicked into a river by a Company agent. In the larger scheme of things, it means nothing. Secrets, the commodity of the blackmailer, are what are most prized in this treacherous world. Secrets, in fact, are the primary theme of Prison Break, beginning with the dark familial past at the root of our hero’s decision to embark on his quest to save his brother. As the series progresses, the foundational elements of Scofield and Burrow’s hard-luck childhood—their father’s abandonment, their mother’s death by cancer—are revealed to be lies.
Turns out that dad, Aldo Burrows (Anthony Denison), was a Company lifer who had a change of heart, blew the whistle, and then disappeared underground so that his sons wouldn’t have to bear his sins. It’s because of this that Lincoln is singled out by the Company: setting him up for execution was the surest way of stirring Aldo to the surface. Though marked for death, Aldo comes out of hiding long enough to share an uneasy reunion with his sons before he’s fatally shot in the back by Mahone (on “kill-or-be-killed” Company orders). The death of Aldo occurs just as Scofield and Burrows are on the verge of escaping to Panama. Rather than scare them back into the fugitive life, it galvanizes them. It’s at this point, about halfway through the series, that they decide to stop running and confront the dragon, the Company. With the tables turned, the serialized plot of Prison Break pivots toward completion by once again depositing Scofield behind bars.
In the scheme of the series, Scofield’s incarceration in Sona, a shamelessly unruly prison in Panama, amounts to payment due for his transgressions—not only the chaos he’s caused, but his challenging of the Company’s authority. Tossed in alongside the psychopath T-Bag, and the fallen lawmen Mahoney and Bellick, Scofield is now at one with their criminal rank, the transference of guilt made complete. This, too, is the will of the Company, which threatens to kill Tancredi, Burrows, and Burrows’s son LJ (Marshall Allman) unless Scofield breaks one of its operatives, James Whistler (Chris Vance), out of the compound. Scofield receives his Company missives from Burrows who, in turn, receives them from Gretchen; hers comes from the Company chief himself, the scowling, glowering, bald-plated General Krantz (Leon Russom). Scofield, once free of Sona, uses Gretchen to wind his way to the head of the hydra. The lure of treasure is again put into play. This time around it’s an article known as Scylla, a portable database containing the (as-yet-made-public) solution to the world’s energy problems.
As Scylla is the very foundation of the Company’s incalculable power, it’s buried deep within headquarters, and protected by all sorts of death traps. By stealing it, Scofield and his gang figure they’ll gain the leverage they need to secure their freedom. Their grand, high-tech caper, planned out over several episodes, is executed in a riveting, near-wordless sequence that pays direct homage to Jules Dassin’s classic heist film Rififi (1955). In the end, as the players are either eliminated or sent home, Scylla merely serves to bring Scofield and Burrows to the face of their own personal Charybdis: their mother, Christina, who’s been secretly yanking theirs chains all along. Christina, a high-stakes player in international crime, is a figure so wicked she gives pause even to the formidable General. Aiming to collect Scylla and sell it to the highest bidder, she critically shoots Burrows and then caustically says to Scofield: “Looks like you have a little decision to make: Scylla or someone you love.” Scofield, having learned some lessons, elects both, and triumphs. A coda, set four years later, reveals him to have succumbed to his long-gestating cancer. Our intrepid hero was doomed from the start. ✦