Prison Break first aired in 2005 and ran a total of four seasons, ending in 2009. Story-wise, it focused on a pair of brothers, Micheal Scofield (Wentworth Miller) and Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), who go to great lengths to protect one another from various powers that be, namely the shadowy puppeteers behind the American government known only as The Company. While the series’ premise started out true to its title (yes, there actually is a prison break – that’s not a spoiler!), its staple was its standout characters, from a southern fried, darkly comical serial killer to an FBI agent who had more than his fair share of personal demons. Likewise, Prison Break knew how to combine good drama with tightly-crafted suspense as well as allow itself to be slightly absurd at times as it was occasionally over-the-top but avoided becoming campy or a self-parody.
As a whole, I loved Prison Break and, to date, it remains the only drama series I have watched in real time from its first airing until its finale. Like any television show, it had its highs, its lows, and its “meh” moments. But, overall, I have fond memories watching this series. So, in the spirit of nostalgia (provided something from the 2000s can count as nostalgia!), I wanted to give a mini review of each season of Prison Break as well as share my thoughts on its 2017 revival.
[Content Note: Prison Break was given a TV-14 rating throughout its entire run for mild language, violence, scenes of non-graphic torture, peril, non-graphic sexual content, and suggestive dialogue. Therefore, it’s intended for teens and adults only and is not appropriate for children.]
[SPOILER NOTE: While I won’t reveal major spoilers, there may be some minor spoilers discussed or mentioned.]
Season One (2005 – 2006)
Prison Break‘s first season introduced us to brothers Michael and Lincoln, who have gone their separate ways in life. While Michael is the brains and has made a career for himself as a structural engineer, Lincoln is the brawn and often has been in trouble with the law. When the season opens, we learn that Lincoln is on death row for murdering the vice president’s brother; however, Michael firmly believes his brother is innocent. So he formulates a plan that involves him being intentionally incarcerated in (the fictional) Fox River Penitentiary, the same prison where Lincoln is held and the same facility Michael himself helped design (and has a symbolic tattoo of across his entire upper body). Hence the bulk of season one focuses on Michael’s intricate plot to break his brother out. But, as expected, it’s much easier said than done.
In time, a cast of compelling, sometimes colorful, characters comes Michael’s way, the most noteworthy of which are the prison’s compassionate but strong-willed physician, Dr. Sara Tancredi; his good-hearted cellmate Fernando Sucre; the devious yet darkly humorous Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell; the bullheaded prison guard Brad Bellick; the disgraced mafioso John Abruzzi; and many others. As other inmates catch wind of the impending escape, Michael finds himself promising to let them in on the breakout against his better judgment (all except Sucre who, for all intents and purposes, is a decent guy). But unseen obstacles arise and Lincoln’s clock ticks down to his execution date, hence the stakes are raised as Michael must race against time to break his brother out.
The most memorable episodes and characters occur at and reside within Fox River. Being a prison, the setting itself is automatically rife with tension as Michael isn’t exactly free to carry out his plans in the open. Likewise, there is a limited time frame he has to accomplish his goal, which, if he fails, will mean Lincoln dies. This, combined with an enclosed, unpredictable environment and equally mercurial characters, generates compelling drama and suspenseful action, even if all it involves is prisoners digging a hole beneath guards’ noses. That’s not on the same level of action as a car chase or a gun fight, per say, but it’s still intense because, at any moment, Michael’s plans can come tumbling down.
That being said, the scenes outside of the prison, which constitute the government conspiracy B-story, are suspenseful but lack the same ingenuity factor, chiefly as this sort of big, bad, mysterious antagonist has been done before and the characters populating this secondary arc are not as engaging as the Fox River dramatis personae. Probably the most memorable of the B-story characters would be Secret Service agent turned Company operative Paul Kellerman (Paul Adelstein). While his type of character isn’t new, Kellerman at least injects some wry humor into his scenes and Adelstein looks like he’s having fun playing a character who can be truly nasty.
Speaking of villains, the chief baddie throughout the entire series is the shady organization known as The Company. To its credit, the show doesn’t spoon-feed viewers exposition as to what and who The Company is; instead, their actions, on behalf of the agents and persons under their thumb, clues us in on what drives them. Again, this government conspiracy element, at least in season one, tends to comprise the season’s less than thrilling moments. But these are easily forgiven when the action reverts to Michael, Lincoln, and their motley crew of convicts.
Overall, season one is awesome and provides great balances of drama, character dynamics, and suspense. While the show sometimes puts a toe on the line of the suspension of disbelief, nothing feels sorely out of place within the story’s world. Every action and inaction and every character has a purpose in the grand scheme of things, which is the mark of great storytelling. But even more importantly, we’re made to care about the characters, most of whom have nothing admirable about them yet they don’t become stock characters. They seem like real people who had lives before their time in prison, and some we root for so their lives are restored back to normal.
The finale to season one is nothing short of break-neck action and suspense. While I won’t reveal spoilers, you can pretty much guess how it ends. But even though the ending in principle is predictable, the road to get there is not and it’s chocked full of nail-biting twists and turns.
Season Two (2006 – 2007)
Season two picks up right after the events of season one, so while the bulk of season one focused on Michael and Co. trying to break out of Fox River, most of season two focuses on the fugitives’ escape. In some ways, the story line in season two is improved upon from season one as the escapees go their separate ways, chiefly to reunite with family or to start a new life. But with the characters out in the open, and more exposed, it creates a hotbed for tension. Once more, all it takes is one careless move and the character’s best laid plans will go right down the proverbial drain.
Most notably though, season two introduces us to Special Agent Alex Mahone (William Fichtner), who is the FBI agent commissioned with hunting down the Fox River fugitives and who remains a series regular for the rest of the show’s run. At first, you assume Mahone is going to be the typical “bad cop” character, the “villain,” if you will, to Michael and Lincoln. But Mahone is a man who isn’t all that he seems and, as it turns out, he harbors a rather nasty skeleton in his closet. Alex Mahone became my favorite character of the series as he’s a good balance of brains and guts yet has inner demons that enslave him to the powers that be. Fichtner does a great job portraying an emotionally and morally conflicted character, and after the rest of the series took a bit of a nosedive, I still loved the story arc he was given in the end.
Overall, season two has more on-the-ground momentum than season one and, in some ways, improves upon characters’ stories in terms of individual arcs as they interact with a sandbox, an open world with freedom of movement, as opposed to just navigating the confines of a prison. That being said, the character-focused moments constitute the best scenes and the government conspiracy story thread remains the less-than-best aspect of the show. Granted, what makes for a great dilemma is knowing who to root for as there are no traditional heroes here. The knee-jerk response would be that Michael and Lincoln are the heroes, yet they’re escaped convicts so technically they’re not traditional good guys. That leaves Mahone to serve as the principle protagonist seeing as he represents the law, but he has a dark side that prevents him from being a traditional hero as well. So it’s fun trying to decide whose side to be on as the law turns out to be just as corrupt, if not more so, than the convicts.
Season two wraps up its exciting journey with a finale that takes some of the characters down to Panama. But while the change in venue offers the leads a new environment to traverse in season three, it also ushers in a full-circle plot that feels like a rehash.
Season Three (2007 – 2008)
This was when Prison Break started to break down for me though this season wasn’t a complete disaster. As stated, the principle action moves to Panama where Michael finds himself imprisoned (again) and having to break out (again). Only in this case, it’s not a pristine facility but a hot, dirty, dark, ruthless prison known as Sona. Apparently, Sona harbors such a bad reputation that even the guards are afraid to venture inside, so the prisoners essentially rule themselves. One aspect of season three that I liked was that the setting helps ramp up the tension as Michael and a few other characters have to contend with an unstable, violent environment unlike one they’ve ever been in before. Not to mention Michael’s tattoo is of no help to him here, so he has to try to devise a breakout plan on the fly. Similarly, Lincoln alone has to try to help his brother escape, as well as navigate a foreign legal system that offers little to no help. So it’s an interesting reversal of roles where it’s Lincoln who is on the outside trying to get Michael out, and it’s Michael who is living on borrowed time as most prisoners in Sona leave in body bags.
However, there are obvious similarities to season one: a prison break out plot, uneasy alliances, inconvenient setbacks, meddling guards and inmates, The Company’s influence, etc. Thus, season three feels like a remix of season one minus the gripping plot and colorful characters. Most of the new faces we meet here, both inside and outside of Sona, aren’t particularly memorable save for Gretchen Morgan (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe), a Company agent with whom Lincoln is forced to work alongside. On the surface, Gretchen is remorseless and easy to write off as a stock “bad chick” character. But her ability to switch from being a vicious schemer, to exhibiting genuine compassion, to seeing her subservient to her handlers makes her fun to watch. There is more to Gretchen than meets the eye, and while this season doesn’t let her branch out too far, she’s still an entertaining villain figure as O’Keefe owns every scene.
Aside from Michael trying to break out of Sona himself, he is eventually commissioned with breaking out a man by the name of Whistler in whom The Company has an interest and for whom Gretchen is working to secure release. While Whistler walks the narrative duplicity tightrope as we’re never sure if we can fully trust him or not, it’s clear he’s set up as a pawn from the start and simply fills the role of a tag along character, someone who is present but not contributing much to the story.
The more enjoyable moments in season three come from watching Michael, T-Bag, and Mahone navigate Sona without much help from the outside. T-Bag is not quite the fish out of water as he assumes he is and eventually comes into his own, and Mahone is forced to confront his old demons once and for all as well as align himself with an old enemy if he has any hope of escape. The dynamic between Michael and Mahone in such close quarters is entertaining to watch as neither one trusts the other in full, yet both men know they need each other if they have any hope of making it out alive.
However, season three is an abbreviated season through no fault of its own. Between 2007 and 2008, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. Unfortunately, that meant scripted shows saw their seasons cut short if they didn’t have all of their episodes “in the can” (i.e. already filmed). Such a fate befell Prison Break‘s third season, which only boasted 13 episodes as opposed to the usual 22. Thus, what aired was essentially half a season, so the story arcs set up in the season’s first half were never fully resolved. Granted, episode thirteen manages to offer some resolution but it’s noticeably incomplete. I sense if the writer’s strike had not occurred at all or if it had been resolved sooner, the third season would have fared better and would have enabled the earlier portions of the fourth season to feel less rushed and top heavy.
But for what it’s worth…
Season Four (2008 – 2009)
Prison Break ended its run with a fourth and (at the time) final season that left me with mixed feelings. While not as static in terms of tone and action as season three, it still didn’t quite meet the suspense and story-telling high bar set by the first and second seasons. For starters, the first episode has to pick up all of the pieces season three was unable to touch, so it’s very rapid-fire and there is a lot of hand-waving, fast and simple explanations for how certain characters got to where they are and how some are even still alive. It puts a toe over the line of the suspension of disbelief but doesn’t completely cross it as Prison Break is known for being larger-than-life at times, though here (as well as at other times in the fourth season), it borders on being more than a tad unbelievable.
The first half of the fourth season returns to its action/suspense roots as the characters team up to break into The Company by hunting down a device known as Scylla, which is said to be The Company’s little black book of secrets. Homeland Security ropes in Michael, Lincoln, Sara, Sucre, Mahone, and a few others to hunt down the scattered pieces of Scylla in exchange for exoneration. Should they fail or decide to go their own way, then their government handlers have full immunity and the convicts absorb all blame and head straight to prison. Each episode served as a story-within-a-story as the characters race to locate said “pieces” to Scylla (which obviously serves as a McGuffin) while building towards a grand reveal of what Scylla actually is. The pacing is fast and the story, while sometimes disjointed, is generally strong and engaging. It was also nice to see the season not recycle the prison break-out plot and, instead, devise a break-in so the season’s first half of episodes retain a heist plot feel. On top of that, the series’ more notorious figures, namely T-Bag and Gretchen, devise their own plans and let’s just say the world’s greater good isn’t among them.
But about halfway through, the season loses its momentum and becomes very exposition-heavy, eventually throwing in a proverbial monkey wrench that even by Prison Break standards was more than a little bizarre. Without giving too much away, we learn that someone who was thought to be dead is still very much alive and working for The Company. More secrets emerge and, quite frankly, it becomes a little too much in the end. Where seasons one and two were tightly constructed and each episode built upon the other with clear goals at stake, season four felt like two mini-seasons fused together. While the first half flies by at a fun pace, the second half drags out far too long and becomes repetitively melodramatic. Likewise, once the truth about Scylla is revealed, it’s a bit of a let down as it’s not what we had been led to believe. Again, I won’t unleash spoilers but I’ll make this comparison to illustrate: imagine if in The Lord of the Rings we’re led to believe that the One Ring is a powerful talisman but later it’s revealed to be just a cool piece of jewelry that has no bearing on the plot, characters, or anything else. If you would feel more than slightly deflated by that, then those are the same sentiments I felt when Scylla gets unmasked.
What does deserve a mention here is the final episode which, much like the entire final season, assumes a teeter-totter approach. On one hand, the characters you love (and hate to love) all get appropriate endings. Some persons get happy endings while others’ are more bittersweet or entirely justified. Even the closing song, “Lay It Down Slow” by Spiritualized, is wonderfully fitting. Yet there is one aspect to the finale that didn’t sit well with me (and I’m going to keep it vague so I don’t unleash spoilers). The finale’s story occurs in the present day before flashforwarding a few years down the road, showing us the fates of the lead characters. This is all fine and good, but, as it turns out, one character is presumed deceased as we see this individual’s grave. However, absolutely no explanation is given as to how, when, or why this character died. We just see a graveside reunion and that’s it. It was a touching moment, to be sure, but also deeply infuriating.
The writers opted to fill in these blanks but it was later rather than sooner. But, for all intents and purposes, this marked the end of Prison Break – a topsy-turvy final season that started off strong, devolved into to mediocrity, and finished on a rather perplexing note.
With all that being said…
The Final Break (2009)
Seeing as it was probably a good idea to explain why one main character was not included among her/his number at the end of season four, the writers penned two additional episodes that served to fill in the blanks. Sadly, these episodes never aired on American television (though I believe they aired in some other countries) and, instead, went directly to DVD (so I imagine it was easy to overlook as it didn’t get much fanfare outside of the Prison Break fan camp). This two-hour long “movie” is actually two episodes that serve to explain the events that occurred backstage in the series finale.
In brief, The Final Break is nothing more than a smaller-scale female version of Prison Break. Sara is arrested, wrongfully accused of a crime, and sentenced to a Fox River-for-women facility. Naturally, Michael, Lincoln, Sucre, and Mahone team up to help break her out (is this pattern starting to sound familiar?). Granted, it’s interesting to watch Sara, a former prison physician with no prior record, adapt to a prison environment but, for me, it got uncomfortable. Seeing women fight is hard to watch, even more so than watching men duke it out, and I also sensed this was just a way for the show to introduce lesbian overtones. While nothing here crosses the line of the show’s original TV-14 rating, it’s still unnerving and ranks as the weakest of Prison Break‘s story arcs in terms of story, characters, and execution. The story comes across as old, the characters seem tired, and there is nothing to draw the viewers in or encourage them to watch other than the promise of closure. But there were times I wished I would have just Googled what happened rather than spend 80 minutes or so watching an insipid double feature.
As expected, antics and snafus ensue throughout the course of these two episodes and you can probably figure out how it all wraps up. Likewise, the character presumed to be dead in the series finale meets her/his fate here, so there is an explanation as promised. However, the surviving characters later uncover a message from the deceased character who explains her/his actions. But the reasoning this character gives for being willing to die is, to be honest, kind of lame. Without revealing spoilers, the character admits that she/he would have died anyway and, thus, decided to risk her/his life for a good cause. It’s admirable and sacrificial in a way, but it also comes across as a poorly veiled death wish.
As a whole, The Final Break wasn’t necessary and felt tacked on simply for the sake of explaining the series finale’s unseen events. But by all rights, shouldn’t a series finale wrap everything up on its own? Does it need an addendum to explain what happened between points X and Z? For me, if a story can’t say all it needs to say within the time and space given to it, then perhaps it needs to be reworked. In Prison Break‘s case, I sense the best way would have been to scrap the whole Sara-goes-to-prison plot and just show the character in question being killed during the actual series finale.
(One out of Five Stars for the sake of closure but nothing else.)
Season Five (2017)
So what are my thoughts on the 2017 revival? To be honest, I have mixed feelings. On the plus side, I loved this series and, despite its flaws, it still stacks up as a great drama with compelling characters, and quite often I watched it for the characters rather than the story itself sometimes. However, I’m not exactly bursting about the 2017 revival as it all goes back to the events of The Final Break and the nearly ten-year-old series finale.
Essentially, the writers have negated a character’s story arc, which really irks me. Back in 2009, we were assured that this character’s demise was final and, thus, marked the end of this character’s story arc. Now we learn that said character didn’t die and the reasoning is that we never technically witnessed this person expire on screen. Fair enough and that’s true. But if there was a thought of reviving this series, why not leave the proverbial door open back in 2009? Why not imply that maybe this character didn’t die? Doing so would have softened the edges rather than insisting the character had died only to, years later, change the character’s story arc. It’s a bit like if J.K. Rowling came back a decade after penning Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows only to say that Lord Voldemort wasn’t really dead even after assuring readers that the wizard baddie was, indeed, finished.
Thus, if writers change something pivotal about a character or their story world, then anything and everything else can change, too, no matter how crazy. (The only exception to this is if there is a separate story universe, much like how the Star Trek film reboots created a separate story universe, the Kelvin Universe, that’s similar to yet different from and makes changes to the original Prime Universe. But Prison Break isn’t expansive enough to operate on two different story world universes, so that’s not what’s going on here.)
I can be harsh when it comes to this because I’m a writer myself. For me, it’s a mark of lazy writing when a writer (or a group of them) can’t keep their own story straight. Personally, I was fine with having the events of Prison Break end where they did without any additional stories. While it is fun seeing some of the old gang reunite, I still can’t shake from my mind that the original storyline is being altered strictly for the sake of creating a revival. According to the show’s creators, this fifth season is slated to be the finale for real this time (but since when do finales get do-overs?). But that’s what the fourth season finale was supposed to be. Call me picky but some stories are fine the way they ended and it’s okay to let them go.
To be fair, I did check out the first two episodes of the revival series with an open mind, but I eventually resorted to reading episode recaps instead. That doesn’t mean this 2017 version of Prison Break is terrible but there’s still that nagging feeling the writers are trying to retrace their steps to some degree. Even one of the show’s creators admitted, “We don’t have the greatest currency that once we say someone is dead, they are really dead.” Meaning if even they can’t trust themselves to stay true to the canon they created, how can the audience trust anything they’re seeing on screen? I hate to belabor this point but, for me, the revival borders on becoming an unreliable narrative. And if I can’t trust the story, then there is a strong sense of disconnect for me and I can’t invest much (if little) interest.
On a positive note, the actors all seem like they’ve never left the show and step right into character. It’s fun to see the characters seven years wiser (and older), and the actors dive right into their roles without making it look like they’ve forgotten how to portray their fictional personas. It’s as if these characters are like second skins and, hence, it all comes across as very believable. However, one big negative for me was that Alex Mahone was nowhere to be found. Evidently, the writers claimed they would have loved to bring William Fichtner back but stated they just didn’t know what to do with Mahone. But I disagree. Mahone could have been worked in – after all, the writers revised one character’s fate! I loved Mahone and he became a bright spot for me when the show grew dim, so I was deeply disappointed that his character was completely forgotten about in the revival after being such a major character from season two and beyond. (As a side note, Fichtner is/was on a CBS series, so it’s possible there was a contract conflict that prevented him from returning to a Fox show. But the least the Prison Break writers could do was admit that rather than assert they simply had no place for his character. I’m just sayin’.)
That being said, the revival is all very typical latter years’ Prison Break, meaning it doesn’t match the strong storytelling and structure present in its first and second seasons. Instead, the vibe this time around reminds me very much of season three, complete with a hellish prison, a prison breakout plot, dubious government agents, and stretches to suspend one’s disbelief. While the first episode evokes the intense pace of the show’s earlier stories, the second episode starts to reveal its flaws and even more so in the third episode and beyond, including negating more previously established character canon (such as, by way of example, one series regular we learn had a child though audiences had been told, more than once in seasons prior, that said character could not have children, among other canon-rewrite moments). Not to mention the chief baddie this time around wasn’t very compelling or even interesting and actually provided the show with some unintentional hilarity.
As a whole, Prison Break was an awesome show – it really was! When it was great, it was really great. When it lost its steam, the cracks showed, but this only became an issue later on, particularly in its final season. So feel free to check it out, especially if you’re in the mood for a prison/fugitive-based serialized drama that, to its credit, avoids becoming too dark and gritty. I highly recommend seasons one and two as they contain the strongest stories out of the entire series. Not to discredit seasons three and four, but by then the show seemed to have lost its sparkle and what made it exciting and unique by relying upon recycled formulas and outlandish plot devices. While these latter seasons are worth watching to see how it all wraps up, they don’t reach the same high bar as the first and second seasons. But as a whole, I’d definitely recommend Prison Break as a great drama with all of its flaws duly noted.