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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In its final episode, Escape at Dannemora proves that Hell really is other people

Image for article titled In its final episode, Escape at Dannemora proves that Hell really is other people
Photo: Christopher Saunders (Showtime)

Sartre’s famous phrase, “Hell is other people” may have gone from a staggering insight about the nature of the Self in relation to the Other to the snarky script on the coffee mug of that co-worker who always makes you feel like an asshole when you ask for the copier code—but that doesn’t make it any less true. It’s especially true in “Chapter Seven,” the final episode of Escape at Dannemora. The characters are undone and boxed in by their relationships with other people—Sweat is bogged down by his slow, drunk, and self-sabotaging partner-in-crime; Matt is seething, made wrathful and impulsive by what he perceives as Tilly’s “betrayal” (which is, really, Tilly’s failure to stay under his sway long enough to get him near the border, so he doesn’t have to rough it); and Tilly, for perhaps the first time, is forced to confront real and dire consequences for chasing her every whim through an increasingly narrow rabbit warren of desire and need, unable to whine and coo and plead her way out of it.


Last week’s episode, which chronicled the crimes, of the law and of the heart, that landed our terrible trio at Clinton Correctional, arguably strips the finale of some emotional urgency—there’s precious little temptation to pity, let alone root for, these people to succeed. Then again, one could argue that, when the ultimate outcome is but one Googling away, suspense was never the show’s primary concern. Any good finale, especially a series finale, should crystallize the show’s reason for existing: What themes comprised the axis it revolved around? Where did the creative forces’ most profound interest reside? How should the viewers feel about the characters we’ve spent our evenings with, sometimes over the course of years? These answers don’t have to be clean and tidy – in fact, it’s more satisfying, at times, when they’re not, when the show gives us something gnarled to sit with and tease apart for a long time to come.

“Chapter Seven” doesn’t have that kind of thorny complexity, at least outwardly—there’s no grand “what are Philip and Elizabeth gonna do in Mother Russia?” or “did that dude in the Members Only jacket shoot Tony Soprano” or a LOST-like pondering of what the Hell just happened—because it’s a straight-forward procedural. We see Matt and Sweat’s doomed sojourn for most of the episode, with interjections of Tilly simultaneously breaking under the pressure of the investigation and deluding herself into believing that her life can go on normally. The complexity, here, remains in the characterizations—specifically, in how the narrative subverts what we might generally expect from this sort of story, a survival story: Bad people, suddenly hunted, will turn resourceful, will embrace their rare and precious freedom as a chance to do better, to be better, this time.

None of that happens, of course. Richard Matt may fancy himself a charmer and schemer, but the story has already informed us, with the bluntness of a hacksaw driving through bone, that this isn’t true—at least when he’s not in the narrow and confined space of a prison block. “Chapter Seven” re-introduces the sloppy, drugged-out-of-his-senses thug of the flashback episode and makes him even more pathetic: Away from, if not the creature comforts, then, shall we say the proscribed routines and material goods of prison life, Matt is an out-of-shape loser whose explosive impulsivity propels him from mistake to mistake, until, finally, he ends up on the wrong end of a border patrol agent’s assault rifle and his brains spatter on a tree stump. The tension here is never about whether Sweat and Matt will, or should, get away, it’s about how long they’ll be able to bear each other.

No Exit’s vision of Hell may be a suffocating little room, but in “Chapter Seven,” Hell is, ironically enough, the vast expanse of open woodland (which has become a symbolic shorthand for the ideal of freedom itself). For Matt, who lacks the savvy and strength of will to, like, not drink dirty water out of a stream (even after Sweat explicitly tells him not to), who huffs and puffs through miles of unfamiliar terrain, the difficulty and the tedium of the journey is Hell. One kind of Hell, at least. Really, his is a Russian nesting doll of Hells—inside the sore and blistered feet, the chest burning with lack of breath, and the roiling belly, is the deeper Hell that is his own inability to live without chaos. He’s fortunate enough to travel with an experienced guide and to stumble into isolated yet well-stocked cabins (while avoiding the heavily-armed owners)—yet all he can do is go through bottle after bottle of booze, including the grape-flavored gin (which, he jokes, is what you drink when all you care about is getting fucked up), and whine about how if they can just steal a car, they’ll be at the border in 45 minutes.

We know that Matt is doomed once he picks up that rifle (even if we’ve studiously avoided reading anything about the actual escape). He can’t help himself: He’s going to do something irrevocably stupid because he thinks it’s the easy way out—sure enough, he tries to carjack a pair of officers (saved only by the shock of Sweat’s defection), and, when that doesn’t work, he’s taking potshots at the highway, trying to hit a motorist and steal their truck. That attracts a phalanx of law enforcement, including the border patrol agent who’ll end his story once and for all. Stiller includes multiple shots of the tactical squads pursuing Matt and Sweat: He frames them with a martial potency and singularity, a solid yet moving line of uniforms and guns at the ready. They feel like avatars of inevitability—reminders that no matter where our gruesome twosome should go, their reckoning is not far behind. It’s telling that, in the men’s one light moment together, watching coverage of their escape on CNN, they avow that they’re not really guilty of the crimes they were convicted of; they just happened to be there, and some scummy accomplice cut a deal with the DA.


Arguably, Sweat finds himself in the deeper Hells: As the Inspector General will later point out, after Sweat has been shot and apprehended, if he hadn’t taken Matt with him, he’d have made it clear to the border (she tells him that, when he was with Matt, he cleared roughly a mile or so per day; when he was on his own, he cleared 18 miles in two days). Sweat is a man of few words, yet Paul Dano is a maestro of the micro-expression (and, in a delightful meta-textual riff, Matt will ramble about micro-expressions, saying that people have a way of “smiling with their face but not with their eyes). He conveys so much of Sweat’s exhilaration of living free and in nature, his rueful hesitation in accepting a shot from one of Matt’s purloined bottles, and his dread at being saddled with this moronic sociopath well into the foreseeable future. Being with Matt is clearly its own kind of Hell—complete with latrine duty—still, the knowledge that he’s only apprehended, in the end, because of the one quasi-honorable thing he did in honoring his word to a fellow prisoner, must be another, more agonizing kind of Hell. He deserves this Hell—yet the calm, the confidence, and the competence that Dano projects tempts us to root for Sweat to cross the border, for the officer who finds him in a hay field just miles away from Canada to miss the shots that will blow through each of Sweat’s arms, leaving him a bloodied, sputtering heap in the grass.

I’d been hoping that this episode would give us more about Sweat, specifically about how he came to be so adept at outdoor living. Or why it is he’s stopped drinking. Surely, if we can get a Matt mini-soliloquy about how, at age twelve, he stole a horse and fled a foster home, we can get something more about Sweat, something that casts the spotlight on Dano. My one lasting complaint is that the show never capitalized on him, or the strength of his performance. As good as Del Toro is, after a while, we know all we need to know about Matt; there’s nothing new or compelling to discover.


Although the finest performance, and the narrative arc that best encapsulates the story’s main theme—that the price of dancing with the devil is bedding down in Hell—belongs to Patricia Arquette’s Tilly. “Chapter Seven” is utterly unsparing to her: As soon as she’s released from the hospital, the stone-press of anxiety begins crushing her—Sweat and Matt’s escape doesn’t just take over the small town, it dominates the nation—until she’s confronting a plain clothes officer in the frozen foods aisle, confessing that Matt painted a portrait of her dogs as an anniversary present to her husband (but that’s all, she swears). Once the officers interview Gene Palmer, the art collecting CO who helped Tilly pass along the contraband meat containing the saw blades, Tilly is already done for. Still, she can’t help but visit the police of her own volition, spinning stories of her own kewpie-eyed innocence, how she was bullied and coerced by the bad men.

But the police and the Inspector General and the news media aren’t like dopey, lovesick Lyle—they’re onto her for what she is, craven and conniving, an angry woman who didn’t just chase her lustful whims (because that alone isn’t always a bad thing) but perpetually privileged her convenience above other people’s well-being. Whatever she got—amorous attentions from Sweat and Matt, and from Lyle before them, the promise of escape—was never going to be enough, but there was never going to be anyone she wouldn’t hurt to get more of it. Escape at Dannemora has done something truly remarkable with Tilly—given us a truly unlikeable woman character without making any attempt at redeeming, contextualizing, or glamorizing her. She just gets to be.


Arquette infuses Tilly’s final scene, where she practices her statement to the judge in front of a seemingly sympathetic CO—a perfunctory acknowledgement of her crimes and her “need to take responsibility” for actions and the hurt she caused—with a breath-taking self-pity and indignation. When the guard asks her if she’d like to have a little “party” with him before she leaves the jail for prison, we can hear the rumble of karmic laughter. Wherever she goes, there she is—and all the wants and needs and bitter, insatiable desires, will forever follow her.