Lest we forget that Escape at Dannemora is a dramatization, it should be noted that the real David Sweat knew full well why he didn’t bust out on his own after completing the dry run. As IG Leahy Scott’s report details, it was largely a practical concern. It was 4 a.m. when he first popped his head out from the manhole, leaving him precious little time to get distance from the prison before morning bed check. And, yes, Sweat also paid lip service to the romantic notion that he and Matt “had a deal” and he wanted to “stick to my word.”
That, naturally, is a lot less compelling than hemming and hawing and finally grandstanding about how, “I never thought to leave him. I gave him my word, and in prison that’s all you got.” But then, when you spend more than seven hours turning two troubled and violent murderers (Sweat’s protestations that his bullets weren’t the ones that technically killed that sheriff’s deputy aside) into ostensible protagonists, the lone survivor has to utter something somewhat noble.
“Part 7” is a curious thing, drawing out Sweat and Matt’s well-documented demise, down to the last bowls of spaghetti and ketchup (‘cause, ya know, it’s what Ray Liotta was stuck with at the end of Goodfellas) and each ruminative rustling of the trees as they evade helicopters and patrolmen. Yet it also makes a stab at suggesting that this limited series was some sort of feminist missive. IG Leahy Scott grills Gene Palmer about his provincial sexism and bristles at a guard’s poorly placed chivalry, and the finale concludes with a creepy county-jail CO sexually harassing Tilly. The camera zooms in on our Tilly through a pane of glass. Ms. Mitchell’s true sentence, you see, is a life lived according to how other people see her.
This might come across less disingenuously were Tilly not so insufferable for most of the show’s run. As drafted by writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin, directed by Ben Stiller, and played by Patricia Arquette (yes, there is blame to go around), she comes across less as a victim of inherited circumstance and oppressive manhood (which is how the real Mitchell has stated her case) than pathologically self-serving and simple. It’s an almost hateful characterization, no matter how hard the previous episode forced a new perspective by flashing back to the three principals’ pasts. At least Lyle is sympathetic, even if he’s reverted to his default position of put-upon naïf after a brief awakening as panic-attack-conquering hero.
But the real action — what Stiller, Johnson, and Tolkin have a real hard-on for — is happening in the woods of upstate, miles from the Canadian border. And the sequences of Matt and Sweat finding shelter under makeshift canopies and in unoccupied cabins, alternately bonding over successful scavenges and clashing due to Matt’s drinking and general recklessness, are what Dannemora’s been building to all along. It could have made a great made-for-TV movie, too, but as payoff for six preceding episodes that ground a sensational — and recently, thoroughly covered — saga into procedural pulp, Matt and Sweat’s 23 (21 in Matt’s case) days of floundering freedom sag with the weight of failed urgency. By the time a trooper blows Matt’s head open and, two days later, another officer fells Sweat with two slugs in the torso, what should have been a thrilling climax, regardless of its inevitability, is more an act of mercy for the weary viewer.
There are some high-water marks to be had, particularly an epic long-distance view of Sweat outrunning the sunset at a frantic clip, Leahy Scott and Palmer’s Abbott and Costello–worthy back-and-forth about Matt and meat, and Michael Imperioli’s cameo as an all-machismo Governor Andrew Cuomo. We also learn at last what the deal is with Matt and his affinity for horses (he rode one after running away from foster care, apparently) and are reminded that Matt and Sweat each turned one year older while on the lam, a fact that passes as some kind of poignant irony.
Dannemora, by design or otherwise, amounted to an anticlimactic, fairly hackneyed ride-along through life and death and discontentment as experienced by an unlikely handful of infamous cons and co-conspirators. Like another late-2018 limited series based on very recently occurring, sensational true events, Dirty John, Stiller’s Escape banked on style and high-profile stars in hopes of us overlooking how a bit more remove from the source material might have resulted in a deeper watch. Alas, it felt more like the equivalent of ordering off the diet menu at King’s Wok.
Apart From All That:
• If I haven’t said it before, Benicio Del Toro absolutely ruled in this series.
• Grossest gratuitous diarrhea shot in recent memory? I’d say so.
• Trump’s on TV. It’s 2015. We get it.
• Oh, those male guards and their disapproving headshakes at Tilly.
• Re: IG Scott’s trip to the Hudson Valley Gym in Watertown, any New Yorker will tell you that Watertown is fairly far afield from the Hudson Valley Region. Though said gym can be found southeast in Peekskill.
• That intersection of Orrs Mills Road and Jackson Avenue that Joyce and Lyle drive by? In the Hudson Valley town of New Windsor, New York, far south of Malone.
• Kudos to Stiller & Co. for capturing TV’s first and only majestic shot of the Albany skyline.
• Love that Lyle’s a Dolly Parton fan.
• No, Gene, not the painting of Ruth!
• FWIW, it was Matt’s son who claimed the body, and semi-reluctantly.
• I gave this series a shot, but it really failed to deliver in the end. You?