Showtime’s Escape at a Dannemora
Directed by Ben Stiller
Written by Brett Johnson & Michael Tolkin
* For a recap & review of Part 2, click here.
We open on the Clinton Correctional Facility in the village of Dannemora during 2015, and no, it’s not named for the former U.S. President, it’s named after the county. There are police everywhere. Roadblocks are setup at various points along the road. The NY State Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott (Bonnie Hunt) arrives at the prison to speak with Joyce ‘Tilly’ Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), who’s played a significant role in whatever’s going on at the facility.
Tilly’s been with her husband Lyle (Eric Lange) for a couple decades, but she’s being asked about a sexual relationship with a couple inmates named Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano). The story from her is she didn’t do anything “really wrong.”
A look at Tilly’s life is the life of millions across America, in that she lives like anybody else in the lower middle class. In Dannemora, 14.5% of the population lives below the poverty line, 28% of which includes people under 18. On average, people there make less than $25K a year, not even $50K to a household. All the while the place is centred around a . We watch Tilly go to work watching over the workshop where prisoners sew as part of capitalism’s new slavery [Soundtrack note: The song she puts on is “Bills” by LunchMoney Lewis]. It’s in the workshop where we find prisoners David and Richard working. In the shop’s backroom, Tilly fucks David quickly before they head back to work. It isn’t exactly a well kept secret, either. David – a convicted murderer – flaunts it to Richard: “Can‘t help it if the dumb bitch loves me.” So the manipulation’s obvious to us from the start.
Prison’s like any other place susceptible to corruption, often times worse because of the inherent corrupt nature of much of its ideology. An escort guard, Gene Palmer (David Morse), is close to Richard specifically, and in league with both him and David. He lets the older inmate in on rumours about Tilly and David. We also learn fast Mr. Matt – also a convicted murderer – is a big deal around prison, commanding respect from name alone. Richard goes to his pal, telling him his sex life is complicating things. He worries the husband will figure out the affair sooner or later. Already at the bar, Lyle hears about possible rumours concerning his wife from corrections officer Dennis Lambert (Jeremy Bobb). An ugly, tangled web.
Richard winds up talking to an inmate vying for his attention, Angel (Joshua Rivera). He tries to give the young dude advice for his first time in state prison. He also fucks with Angel a bit for good measure. What he makes clear is there’s a process to things in prison— things go by an unwritten code, and you’ve got to follow it if you want to get anything done for yourself.
Richard and David have a hilarious relationship for two killers. They debate over light in a drawing David’s done, which ends in him realising he “forgot the fucking shadows.” It’s a missing detail, and we can easily tell Richard is not the type of person who enjoys missing details. He stresses correcting mistakes and learning the basics before getting fancy. David has made lots of mistakes, such as getting sexually involved with Tilly. He’s beginning to try stepping back from their relationship. Could this have unintended consequences on her end?
Richard’s an aspiring jailhouse painter, like a less insane John Wayne Gacy. He drinks in his cell, showing off his work to Palmer as they share what could be toilet wine, or who knows what else. The guard admires the killer’s art, even if it’s the work of a brutal criminal. Through this conversation, Richard comes to see all the other limitations of the jail cell outside physical confinement, such as the fact it doesn’t matter how well he paints a portrait, it’ll never be taken seriously as it would if he weren’t a murderer.
Tilly’s ordinary life at home with Lyle is clearly not enough for her. She forces herself through a day at a museum commemorating the War of 1812. While the married couple are there, the husband asks his wife about the man from the shop he’s heard rumours about, getting a story about a suit for the superintendent. Except she freaks out over simple questions, though hubby’s a bit too slow to take this as a sign. She dreams of a life bigger, better, and more adventurous than the one she has with Lyle.
Things aren’t great for David on the inside. He wants to get moved from the facility, and he gets no help from his mother even though he says he’s labelled a “cop killer” and in danger from guards. Meanwhile, he decides perhaps his relationship with Tilly could be useful to him given there’s nobody else in his life. He takes her in the backroom again to fuck so he can deepen the manipulation. Dangerous because of how badly she wants a connection with someone other than her husband. Creepy how she calls him her “little boy” and he calls her “mommy,” too. Yuck. This relationship is toxic in every way.
How could it get worse? Well, Richard— that’s how.
During interrogation, Catherine asks Tilly about gifts from the inmates, getting no real response. She knows more than she lets on, and she insinuates the prison worker would be happier if the escaped inmates were killed, leaving her the sole teller of the narrative. Jump back to before the looming escape. Palmer goes to Matt’s cell prior to a shakedown, helping him clear out his painting materials. After all, he can’t get nice paintings for his lady if his artist gets thrown in the hole. And while Palmer hides his friend and the supplies, Richard looks around a passageway behind and above the cells. You know EXACTLY what he’s thinking. How serendipitous!
An incredibly solid first episode. Perfectly introduces the characters, their motivations, and the storytelling itself is structured so well. Ben Stiller’s directing is great, as are the lead performances, specifically Ms. Arquette, who continually wows me with her abilities year after year. Part 2’s next.