Prison Break premiered its first two episodes of its new season, respectively named "Scylla" and "Breaking and Entering", and as a result laid down the foundation of the expected change in the show’s theme and plot line. Prison Break, as it seems, is no longer about a prison break, but rather it has evolved into a geste, a caper, and an adventurous team escapade involving most of the original Prison Break cast, including the returning Sarah Wayne Callies who plays Dr. Sara Trancedi.
Ironically, in the episode "Scylla" we learn that a prison break did occur; in between seasons, and off camera, through an explanation given as to why T-Bag (Robert Knepper), Sucre (Amaury Nolasco), and Bellick (Wade Williams) have escaped Sona. Of course this rather convenient development is mentioned in passing, and no more details are given further than that. Something tells us that that is about the closest thing we are going to come to an actual prison break this season.
Season four picks up a month after the last season ends, and we see Michael Scofield readying himself to kill Gretchen (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) and Whistler (Chris Vance). After the initial introduction by Scofield, the action starts in a very explosive manner, incorporating a Bourne Identity or Mission Impossible feel almost, in terms of pumping music and swift camera directions. Admittedly, the opening sequence works its magic in grabbing the audience’s attention. The high octane scene is riveting and enticing, and one almost gets chills expecting this season to be Prison Break’s best season yet – until… Gretchen reveals to Scofield that Sara is still alive.
From that point onwards, the series dips so fast and so unexpectedly in terms of energy and thrill, that it does seem like the writers believed an excellent introduction is all they needed for a series to go on its 22-episode run. After this energized introductory sequence, we then have Scofield going on a wild goose chase trying to find out if Sara is alive, as Gretchen has told him. What baffles the audience is why can’t he get a straight answer from anyone? After all, isn’t it a simple yes or no question? The whole rigmarole involved before Scofield finds out Sara is indeed alive seems like a cheap and tacky effort to create suspense. With all the publicity surrounding the return of Sarah Wayne Callies to the cast, it seems resonantly pointless to set up such complex stumbling blocks for the hero to overcome in order to see his lady love is well and alive.
The writers included very obvious signposting in having Scofield spell out word for word as to how Lincoln (played by Dominic Purcell) could’ve made the mistake of thinking Sara was dead. This was definitely a piece of dialogue that was unnecessary and appeared contrived and too blatant. Writers don’t always have to show the audience what happened, they can sometimes resort to telling us. However, in this instance, the reason for the inclusion of this dialogue between the brothers was so glaring that there might as well have been fog horns and sirens signaling, “THIS is the reason why Sara is alive!” Subtlety is obviously a lost art form in writing for plot development for Prison Break’s scribes.
As with season three, Bellick, T-Bag, and Sucre are pushed to the periphery, with no real need or reason for them to be in these first couple of episodes. Providing neither depth to their characters nor movement to the plot, their existence seems questionable at this stage. At least in Mission Impossible, or Ocean's 11 or other such team escapade movies, everyone on the team has a purpose and a mission, unlike these secondary characters in this show.
As if having too many secondary characters already isn’t a problem, two more new characters are introduced. One of them is Wyatt (Cress Williams) and the other is Don Self (Michael Rapaport). Something seems to be off kilter with the casting department at FOX, as seen in their previous casting of the overacting, scenery-chewing Jodi Lyn O’Keefe as Gretchen/Susan. This time around, they have taken on Cress Williams who plays Wyatt as a monotonous, one-note, one-dimensional assassin, as well as Michael Rapaport, best known for his goofy roles in comedies such as My Name is Earl, and as Phoebe Buffay’s boyfriend Gary in Friends. Rapaport isn’t able to convince the audience that he’s a powerful agent capable of being in charge of this team of misfits. Instead, he delivers his lines in the same way he does when he plays goofy and dorky in his other television roles.
Even the way in which all these characters find themselves coming together to help bring down the Company is set up in such an overly evident manner, with all of them being caught conveniently within the same time frame, despite being at different locations, while attempting to carry out varying activities of their own. Such apparent manipulation of the story plot makes this episode seem weak and poorly written, and orchestrating such blatant coincidences into the plot only shows up this episode as thoroughly lacking in sophistication.
Another unnecessary element in Prison Break’s storyline seems to be the romance between Scofield and Sara. Whether it’s due to Wentworth Miller’s inability to portray enough range to switch from stern and stoic to tender and loving, or whether it’s due to the two actors (Miller and Callies) not having natural chemistry that translates onto the screen, Miller comes across as cold and harsh when he interacts with Sara in their first bedroom scene together. It seems extremely strange to see Scofield not showing any emotion in an intimate scene with Sara, when he spent most of season three despairing over her supposed death. Perhaps such a romance has no place in an adventure-wannabe program like this season of Prison Break in the first place. In which case, one wonders if it would’ve been better if Sara had not been resurrected, but rather left as dead, because at this stage it seems a pointless exercise in bringing back such a lackluster romance.
Also, other than to serve as window dressing, and perhaps as an accessory for the hero, Sara’s existence in this season seems redundant, much like the other secondary characters. We are given glimpses into her tortured past, but surely that can’t possibly have a reasonable place in helping the story in the present or future. Her horrific past experiences seem to only be there to make her more sympathetic towards the audience and to Scofield, and to give Scofield a reason to join in this adventure. Other than that, her past can’t possibly have any bearing on where the story goes from here. Again, like a lot of the devices employed in the show, Sara’s past seems easily dispensable, and inessential, plot-wise. One wonders exactly why was Sara even brought back? Her function and purpose seems superfluous at best.
The level of acting in episodes one and two seems shockingly poor too, especially from the leads. Miller spends most of his time in constant shock, and then after discovering Sara, goes into his usual brood. Purcell plays it flat and unaffected for the most part, and Callies doesn’t have enough depth or skill to be capable of playing someone broken and with a secret. In the scene where she is tearfully telling Scofield that something happened to her, and showing him the scars on her back, as well as the scene in which she is seen aggressively acting out because she was having flashbacks of her past, Callies is not able to effectively convey the resonance of a tormented soul underneath a serene exterior. She painfully and unequivocally looks like an actress just pretending to be angry when she’s flinging the pieces of wood around.
As for the series famed farcical implausibility, season four brings the unbelievable factor up a full notch! First we have Scofield enduring the blazing off of his tattoo without sedative. It is not heroic to attempt a procedure like this without any painkilling assistance, so the effect of making sure the audience knew Scofield handled his tattoo removal au natural doesn’t exactly emblazon him as more of a hero in people’s minds, he just strikes us as more of a fool. Secondly, we have Scofield walking upright and looking healthy and well right after the removal, which would be a medical marvel given the intensity of such a removal of a tattoo that size.
The second episode of this season, Breaking and Entering, has even more improbable elements such as the maid needlessly carrying her bag around as she looks for an unsecured window, and the gang depending on her to do just that. Another tremendously hare-brained scene was with Scofield declaring that the house they wanted to break into was a “fortress”, yet we see him and Mahone running within the premises without any explanation of how they got within the property in the first place.
Therein lies the problem; while team-escapade-adventure-capers such as Mission Impossible, Ocean's 11, and The Italian Job all have a base of a tight script, with fluid yet strong twists and turns, Prison Break does not. The maneuvers and tricks that the gang comes up with, and the way in which they manage to get a positive outcome, seem to rely on too great a scale of coincidences and impossibilities. Most caper-like escapade programs require a suspension of disbelief, however the action still needs to logically exist within the realm of how far one can stretch their minds to accommodate such story arcs. However, Prison Break is unsuccessful at this, as these couple of episodes push the boundaries of logic so far beyond its realm, that one can’t fathom bending the mind any further to accommodate such irrationality.
In theory, the whole idea behind season four is a brilliant one. It’s been ages since we’ve seen this sort of team escapade adventure on television. It would’ve been a novel concept to bring what has been traditionally the structure of good action thriller movies onto the small screen. The problem lies in the execution of this idea. In order to efficaciously pull off a Mission Impossible or Ocean's 11 feel every week, you literally need 22 exciting vignettes, each one fully encapsulating the same energy one would find in a big action thriller movie. In essence, you need adrenalin pumping scenes, edge of the seat sequences, high octane pursuits or chases, and all of these have to be wrapped up in some kind of acceptable logic. At this point Prison Break, with its unsound grasp of logic, has already shown that it can’t deliver the goods required in this type of genre.
Instead, Prison Break’s vast use of illogic, in turn, weakens what fun it tries to bring to this season by changing the series into an adventure caper, because the plot devices employed are rather absurd, unsophisticated and overtly simplistic. What could’ve been a fun, fun, fun start to season 4 has turned fatuous, judging from these two episodes!
And in the last scene of "Breaking and Entering", which is pivotal in setting up yet another storyline and conflict for our hero (as if having too many secondary characters, and not being able to cogently tell the story weren’t enough problematic areas for the show), we see yet another inane and loopy attempt at establishing another avenue to move this story into. Unless the function of the last scene is to set up the demise of this series altogether, I don’t see any relevance to it being a worthy plot device since a television series cannot pack so many varying story arcs if they want to keep the show tight and well paced. Prison Break, the television series, has to realize it’s not a movie. If the relevance of the last scene is to give our hero and this series a significant end, then it surely serves as a welcome addition indeed, because the sprightly fun of adventure went out of this show a long time ago. Now, it’s just a drag.