At the end of its first season, “Prison Break” finally let its cast escape from an Illinois prison. At the end of its second season, the Fox series dispensed with its ludicrous conspiracy story.
The show and its cast were finally free. Almost.
Also during the second-season finale last spring, most of the show's surviving central characters found themselves locked in Sona, a Panamanian prison that's literally run by its inmates.
Once again, the series reset itself, giving its characters a brand-new set of problems to work with.
This out-of-control, confined environment equalized all of them: the former prison guard, the federal agent pursuing the escaped convicts, the murderous one-handed rapist, the man who got himself imprisoned in order to save his innocent older brother.
While they distrust each other, they were, in varying degrees, forced to work together to survive life in a place where even water was in short supply.
Ironically, being in this somewhat unbelievable out-of-control prison actually grounded the often ridiculous series in reality. Michael Scofield, the series' protagonist, doesn't have elaborate escape plans to work with, as he did both in prison and after he escaped. Now, he's occasionally forced to use his intelligence and creativity to solve logistical and interpersonal problems inside Sona's walls.
But that means Michael is without the complicated, Rube Goldberg-esque escape plans that, in its first year, defined the series. Now, it lacks some of the life that came from those fantastic, disbelief-suspending moments and sequences.
For sure, there are still ridiculous developments, such as the secret door that led to a secret tunnel that led out of the prison that Michael was introduced to by the de facto prison leader. But most of the series' ridiculousness now comes from the one part that always made it drag.
For the third season, the show's writers didn't just bring back the prison. They also decided to bring back the conspiracy theory, one that appears to be even thinner and less interesting than the one that preceded it.
Apparently, just having the characters try to survive life in the hellish prison wasn't enough motivation for them to try to escape, and so back comes The Company, which of course was responsible for getting Michael Scofield back in prison so he could then help a prisoner escape. Why a multinational conglomerate that can influence presidential politics needs a 20-something engineer from Chicago to get a single inmate out of a corrupt, chaotic prison in Central America isn't exactly clear, but then, “Prison Break” was never known for its well-developed conspiracy plotlines.
Nor is the series known for its well-developed characters who are part of its conspiracy. This season, yet another mysterious and flat character was introduced to interact with the cast on behalf of The Company, serving as a blank slate upon whom the writers can place any kind of motivation they choose once they eventually figure out what exactly they're doing. Susan B. Anthony even had a lame pseudonym as a name for most of the season so far, although now she has a first name: Gretchen.
Failing to develop characters like Susan/Gretchen, or her boss The General, may be expected, but “Prison Break” has far more inexcusably failed to develop its peripheral characters, wasting them as they waste away in prison.
Being inside Sona stripped federal agent Alexander Mahone and former guard Brad Bellick of their power and, in Bellick's case, his dignity, but it also stripped the characters of their purpose. Now they're left to navigate around the prison and sidle up to Michael occasionally. T-Bag has managed to be creepy as usual as he worked his way into the prison's power structure, but even he seems bored.
Instead of focusing on those characters, who previously gave the series its life, the attention has shifted to James Whistler, the man The Company wants to free because he can help them do something that's as-yet-undefined. Ultimately, what they want from Whistler is unknown and doesn't really matter, just as this conspiracy will one day be dispensed with in a page of dialogue, just as the last one was.
Despite the fact that “Prison Break” is built around that conspiracy, it's really no more than a MacGuffin, a device skillfully and most notably used by Hitchcock that's supposed to be utterly irrelevant yet highly motivating.
That's the role “Prison Break’s” conspiracies play, but Hitchcock did not turn his MacGuffins into fully formed characters and plots, because the audience would quickly see them for what they were: empty and meaningless.
Yet “Prison Break’s” MacGuffin is actually half the series, and every time the focus switches to it, the whole thing deflates.
The show pretty much fails when it comes to character development or overall logic.
For example, Susan/Gretchen kidnapped Lincoln's son LJ and Sara Tancredi, the Fox River Penitentiary physician who fell in love with Michael over two seasons. The point was to motivate Lincoln and Michael to free Whistler, and she did that by cutting off Sara's head and putting it in a box.
Sara's death wasn't really a surprise; an obvious body double and badly edited photos, never mind the news that the actress wasn't returning to the series, made her exit inevitable. But her death, besides being brutal (even for a series not exactly known for its positive treatment of strong female characters), was ultimately just a convenient way to get rid of the character.
Killing her was supposed to motivate Michael via Lincoln's concern for his son, but that was a leap of faith at best; as Michael even said in the most recent episode, he still feels obligated to his still-kidnapped nephew. Like so many other storylines, Sara's execution seemed motivated by external forces, not by internal logic.
Despite that, “Prison Break” still works minute-to-minute, and sometimes even scene-to-scene. The acting is strong, as the actors take their roles seriously, even if their dialogue is ridiculous; the set design is rich, complex and realistic; the music heightens the mood and compliments the action; and the action sequences are intense.
If only they could escape the prison of the show's writing and conspiracy MacGuffin, then “Prison Break” would really be free.