Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Escape At Dannemora paints a brutal, ugly portrait of a marriage

Illustration for article titled Escape At Dannemora paints a brutal, ugly portrait of a marriage
Photo: Chris Saunders (Showtime)

“Chapter Four” is roughly the midpoint of Escape At Dannemora, so it makes sense that this episode would focus on the unique, and very specific fear, that can come with feeling your fingers close around (but not quite grab onto) the moment, the object, or the person, of your heart’s desire. Matt and Sweat inch ever-closer to the day when they emerge on the other side of the prison walls. Tilly’s daydreams aren’t just the music video images accompanying her beloved pop songs—her life in Mexico, as the paramour of these two very different men, seems like a reality she can try on, over and over, like the bathing suits she auditions in a neon-lit dressing room. A newer, sunnier season is coming, and she better get ready for it.


Of course, the sun will never quite break through the clouds of Tilly’s little life—we know this from the very first minutes of the very first episode—but the show still manages to layer this truth with a real pathos: When Richard Matt snickers to Sweat that hell no, they’re not really taking Tilly with them over the border, they’ll ditch her in West Virginia once she’s outlived her usefulness (and become too conspicuous) as a getaway driver, it comes not as a punch to the gut but as a death by pin-prick, a precise stab that lets all the air out so slowly that she won’t even know her dream is dead until it’s utterly deflated and flapping along some muddied roadside. In some ways, limbo is easier for her—because it’s all she’s ever known. She may have tired of Lyle quite a while ago, but he’s not a battering beast of a husband, the kind of guy who makes taking your chances with a charismatic, yet authoritative, charmer like Matt (not to mention a decidedly swole younger man like Sweat) seem like the wiser option. Lyle is, well, he’s just a dude. Kinda schlubby, kinda lazy, kinda boring—but also kind-hearted, or, at least, kind-hearted enough, so we understand why he might’ve appealed to Tilly once upon a time.

Patricia Arquette turns Tilly’s ambivalence about leaving into a gorgeously ravaged diamond of emotion: sorrow and excitement; suppressed fear and tittering anticipation; a sense of longing made all the more intense for its unruliness, for wanting those Mexican sunrises with Matt and Sweat and for Lyle to have gotten his shit together ages ago, so she’d never want to leave him in the first place. “Chapter Four” could almost be titled “Portrait of a Marriage,” since its emotional heft and momentum is devoted to the deterioration of the Mitchells’ marriage—which is a smudged mirror inverse of John Green’s famous quote about how falling in love is like falling asleep, “slowly and then all at once.”

This portrait is much like the portrait that Matt has given Tilly, the one that, when cornered, he told Lyle was her anniversary present to him—those two small dogs rendered in an oddly imperial composition, with overly, almost ridiculously, luscious colors—because it’s so poignant and so pathetic. Or perhaps, it’s so poignant because it’s so pathetic. Lyle has existed at the story’s periphery as a narrative contrivance, a “glitch” as Tilly calls him—Mr. Cellophane should have been his name—until now. Eric Lange imbues Lyle with an inchoate kind of physicality: He’s awkward and graceless, yet trying, with an urgency that he doesn’t quite understand, to move forward, to make his wife love him again.

Lyle may not be dashing—indeed, it’s a sign of the show’s sophistication that Lyle’s redemption tour coincides with subtle, mostly unspoken reminders, about how Tilly came to be so dissatisfied with their life together: the dirty house; the clogged toilets; the piles of laundry; the bland dinners and the nights spent in front of blander TV shows; and the dumb, pawing attempts at affection—yet he’s still attuned enough to know where Tilly likes to sit in a restaurant. Lyle reserves “the mayor’s table” in the kind of small-town eatery that doesn’t really take reservations, because it’s not too close to the window (“she gets cold”) and away from the bathroom. Lange’s line readings are bright with hopefulness, like he’s a student who knows he’s remembered everything on the pop quiz, and his favorite teacher will proud of him, he’s just sure of it.

When Tilly does to him what Matt and Sweat plan to do to her (even though she doesn’t know it yet) and leaves him alone to stare, in mute shock, down at his drink, the camera pans back, spotlighting his isolation, his smallness in a sea of babbling couples. This indignation is but the prelude to his later, greater humiliation: a drunken Tilly rebuffs the take-out dinner he’s put out on the table for them—and then denies him the one comfort he clung to, that she cared enough about him to have Matt paint that puppy portrait for their anniversary. Lange is a perfect scene partner for Arquette. She is sparky with anger and entitlement, and he is a puddle of wounded befuddlement. It’s like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf if George was too afraid to really fight back.


This episode cedes so much terrain over to the Mitchells, especially Lyle, because the Matt and Sweat arc is straightforward (for the moment). Sweat has been laboring underground for months while Matt carouses on the surface-level—and in some ways, these planes of existence serve as a metaphor for the men’s relationship: Sweat is earning his name in hard, body-bending work smashing through walls upon walls of concrete (Paul Dano is such a physically expressive actor, we feel Sweat’s agitation and exhaustion long before we see his chafed, swollen hands) and he is very aware that “bro, they’re gonna catch us” before they’ll ever break on through to freedom. Matt, however, holds fast on the loftier plane. He quells Sweat’s dissent by telling him to “manifest” a better path, and it’s a testament to Benicio Del Toro’s remarkable power to be both menacing and wry in the same smile that his evocation of Oprah and “The Secret” is both funny as hell and a helluva threat.

Yet, soon enough, Sweat discovers that the steam pipes running under the prison go, if not cold, then at least not scalding hot, during the summer months: They’re empty, and, with a bit of engineering ingenuity involving a fan and some plastic bags, they can be habitable enough for the long crawl to the other side. Whether Sweat’s revelation comes from a Secret-like manifestation or mere happenstance, it accelerates the escape plan, which, in turn, accelerates Tilly’s reckoning with her marriage.


Sure, she’s savagely unhappy, but Tilly’s become accustomed to being savagely unhappy—and familiarity breeds comfort as powerfully as it breeds contempt. She might be running to tone her body into a bathing suit chicness; she’s also running away from the choice she must make, a choice that is crystallized when Matt gives her the “sleeping pills” to slip in Lyle’s drink the night of the escape. This uncertainty vests her with a tenderness that we haven’t yet seen: She’s been raw and wrathful with need, she’s been bitterly sad, but she hasn’t been genuinely concerned about hurting anyone (in her schoolgirl fantasies about Sweat, they are both equally victims of a corrupt system bound and determined to keep them apart). Arquette plays Tilly’s hesitation as if she’s considering that Matt, who is, after all, doing a life sentence, might’ve given her pills that induce something stronger than sleep—and this may be too a high a price to pay for freedom.