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

Escape At Dannemora shows us its characters' inner strengths (and a very swole Paul Dano)

Illustration for article titled Escape At Dannemora shows us its characters' inner strengths (and a very swole Paul Dano)
Photo: Christopher Saunders (Showtime)

One of the pleasures of watching Escape at Dannemora is the way the show connects action (and “Chapter Three” has plenty of action) with the internal movements of its characters. The fact that anyone who wants to know exactly how the titular caper panned out can spoil themselves with a basic Googling has freed the creative team to let the smaller beats and details of the characters drive the momentum. “Chapter Three” moves us closer to the moment that Sweat and Matt finally feel daylight outside of the prison walls, and it gets us there by offering a subtle yet satisfying study of their relationship.


Most of the story here is expressed in montages—Matt’s machinations to get rid of “Scary Gary” and reinstall Sweat in the adjoining cell; the two men slowly sawing through the grates of their cells to the space underneath the prison; the process of exploring that space to determine how, exactly, they can make it out on the other side; and, last but certainly not least (at least, in my heart of hearts, which nurtured an adolescent crush on Paul Dano), of an increasingly-swole Sweat taking a purloined sledgehammer to the series of underground walls between him and freedom—and yet these montages are powerfully illuminating.

Patricia Arquette has the most openly emotive, explosive role here: In just this episode, she vacillates from bitterly joking (but not really) that she wishes Lyle would have a fatal heart attack while shoveling snow, to showing a simultaneous excitement and hesitancy when Matt finally asks to “stick the tip in,” to swooning girlishly as she pens a lust letter to Sweat (while wearing a face mask, and with her pugs looking on, no less). Tilly’s motivation for everything she does—especially secreting the hacksaw blades to Matt through a package of ground beef she’ll claim she’s gifting him “for keeping peace in the shop”—is her desire for a more thrilling life, but this motivation is a song with many chords. She’s a plucked guitar string, humming in lustful reverie at her couplings with Matt and her renewed connection with Sweat. But the tune is more than carnal—Tilly wants to feel smart and capable, to feel like she is worthy of being at the center of an intense, dramatic life, the kind of life her cherished pop singers would croon about.

The episode begins with Tilly at a nail salon, overhearing two svelte, moneyed out-of-towners refer to the place where her family has lived for hundreds of years as “so cute” with the condescending haughtiness of people who know they’re only an SUV ride (one with heated seats, most likely) ride into the pomp and glitz of the big city. It’s a small exchange, but it will haunt her throughout the episode, as she buys the meat and the hacksaws (purposefully using cash until she must whip out the credit card, because she is not exactly a criminal mastermind), and oh-so-casually asking Palmer to pass the meat on to “Rickie Matt.” She doesn’t have to be some chic, skinny bitch to be exciting or cool. She can escape the tedium of her shabby little town and her shabby little life all on her own. She can order the margarita at Buffalo Wild Wings while everyone else has a beer. She can have secrets—even if she’s so terrible at keeping them that Palmer, who has his own selectively lax standards about fraternizing with inmates, sternly warns her off her new pal. But it’s too late. Tilly’s all in.

The promise that Matt makes her in that gonzo final scene—that she could have him and David, and they could live together in Mexico, “the most beautiful country in the world,” where it’s never cold—is like a wrecking ball that demolishes her disheveled house, and knocks down her loaf of a husband (who grouses about being asked to help with the laundry). However, we already know that, in the not-so-distant future, it’ll leave Tilly standing in the wreckage, shivering at the sudden rush of cold air. Still, Tilly only wants to live in the moment at hand, and that puts her snugly in the palm of Matt’s hand. Del Toro and Arquette come together in a duet of hawk and dove, the sharp beak and the tender throat.

Del Toro is, in essence, playing the part of a man who is playing multiple parts, from prison Don to tender lothario, from a go-along-to-get-along kinda guy to the ice-cold convict who’ll threaten you if you squeal on him. Matt is whoever he needs to be to get what he needs to have in any given moment. His scene with Lyle alone, after Lyle finds the painting of Mitchells’ dogs, should be Del Toro’s Emmy reel: In a finger snap of time, he goes from being a quietly subservient prisoner who’s just grateful that Tilly “looks out for him in [the shop]” to Lyle’s good bud (“hey man, she really loves you”) explaining that, hey, Tilly knows things are tight and she just wanted to give you a really special anniversary present—the delight of that confrontation comes from Matt’s emotional Judo flip, how he deftly maneuvers the angrier man, the man who could, if he wanted to, get Matt booted out of the shop and scuttle his forthcoming escape, into utter acquiescence.


By contrast, Paul Dano doesn’t get these kinds of showstopping moments—but he doesn’t need them to convey some real depth and history. We don’t know much about Sweat (at least, in the world of the show), just that he is, by his own admission “a cop killer,” and that he has complicated and mercurial relationships with his family (especially with his mother). But Dano’s choices, particularly regarding his physicality, write volumes of silent history: When Sweat is without a clear task or purpose, he’s inchoate and jangly, seething with unexpressed energy. However, once he has that task, especially a task that requires him to rely on raw force and intuition, he moves with a remarkable focus and precision.

Dano is best-known for playing nebbishes or weirdos, boy-men who live in their minds and treat their bodies as afterthoughts at best and awkward inconveniences at best. So, his turn as Sweat is even more remarkable for how fully embodied it is: Sweat undertakes most of the physical labor, sneaking through corridors and smashing down walls, and Dano—in mostly wordless sequences—expresses the sense of purpose, of contentment, even, that it brings him. There’s a martial alertness to his movements; he’s poised and focused in a way he simply isn’t when he’s forced into the more transactional banalities of prison life. The change is so apparent that Matt and Sweat experience a kind of role reversal when underground.


Matt, who wields a formidable Big Dick Energy as a topside wheeler-dealer, is overheated and out-of-breath, while Sweat assumes a tactical control, making plans to separate and cover separate ground and then meet back in 20 minutes. Matt is a man of the mind, smoking a cigarette and philosophizing about how, for the first time in decades, nobody knows where they are. Sweat is a man of muscle, intuitively powering through obstacles with enough vigor to merit a jaunty Elton John tune as the soundtrack. “Chapter Three” is giving us a sense of our players’ greatest strengths and their vulnerabilities, just as it ratchets up the stakes.