Prison Break: Season Three

Second verse, same as the first.

(This review includes spoilers!)

What happens

Our hero Michael Scofield, along with FBI agent Alex Mahone, former corrections officer Brad Bellick and the villainous T-Bag, are confined in a hellhole of a Panamanian prison called Sona. The Company, represented by a woman named Gretchen Morgan (Jodi Lyn O'Keefe), take Sara Tancredi and LJ Burrows hostage in order to force Michael to break out a man named James Whistler (Chris Vance). Lincoln Burrows works with Sucre and Whistler's girlfriend Sofia (Danay Garcia) on the outside to help Michael make the escape.

What works

Sona itself is an important character in season three. It is brutal and ugly and features Thunderdome-like fights to the death. In fact, it makes Fox River look like a spa. I particularly liked the structure of the open cells around the central courtyard, and the primitive, colorful murals on the walls. Are there prisons that terrible? I suppose there must be.

Michael's earlier escape attempt that involves sun in the guards' faces is too simple and a bit silly. The season got much stronger as it progressed and Michael got to be a structural engineer again as he and his team -- Whistler, Mahone, Bellick, T-Bag and prison boss Lechero -- construct an escape tunnel. I loved that the team consisted of such a diverse group of criminals and lawmen, all the best characters in the series, and all with different goals.

Much like season two, Alex Mahone (William Fichtner) is a highlight in season three. After an entire season of trying to kill Michael and Linc, Mahone immediately realized that Michael was his get-out-of-jail-free card. Although it took place gradually, I enjoyed seeing Michael and Mahone come together as effective allies, since Mahone is the only other character on the show as smart as Michael is. I was disappointed that Mahone wasn't strong enough to kick his addiction the first time, although the scenes where he hallucinated that Haywire was haunting him were strong. But I liked that Mahone kicked after all because his friend Agent Lang (Barbara Eve Harris) believed in him. Mahone also endeared himself to me by telling Michael how to win his Thunderdome fight.

Season three is the best season so far for Linc, who gets to be powerful, brave and decisive as he acts as intermediary between Michael on the inside and Gretchen on the outside. Sucre finally gets to do more than yearn for his beloved Maricruz as he gets a job as Sona's gravedigger and functions as Linc's strongest ally.


Although I seem to remember that she was an unpopular character at the time, I really liked Jodi Lyn O'Keefe (lately of Vampire Diaries) as the ruthless Gretchen Morgan, who spent most of the season being referred to as "Susan B. Anthony." Perhaps O'Keefe was just projecting, but I kept getting the feeling that Gretchen was also a victim, even though she was utterly brutal when it came to carrying out the job, or that she was simply doing it for reasons of her own that we didn't know. It was actually hard to see her tortured in episode eight, especially when it was obvious that she had been tortured before.

It was also a good season for T-Bag, who became quiet and smart again as he insinuated himself into the operation of prison boss Lechero (Robert Wisdom, who was so wonderful as Bunny Colvin on The Wire and Uriel the angel on Supernatural). Lechero is a lot more interesting and relatable than Abruzzi, who had basically the same role in Fox River.


If Brad Bellick weren't such a thoroughly miserable, selfish sorry excuse for a human being, I would have felt sorry for him. At the beginning of the season, he is stripped, injured, filthy and starving, and then he gets burned all over his back for being a rat, a deliberate callback to Michael getting burned in season one. Bellick is slightly redeemed by his reaction to what happens to Sara Tancredi, plus he is smart enough to win a Thunderdome fight by soaking his bandaged hands with acetone.

What doesn't work

Four words: Head in a box.

Killing off Sara Tancredi in such a brutal way, and for realsies, was the biggest mistake the producers of this show could possibly have made. Even though they got a fourth season, it was a death blow for the series.

Honestly, I understand their reasons. TV Guide published an "exclusive" report at the time about why Sarah Wayne Callies wouldn't return (available here), and why the Prison Break powers that be killed off her character the way they did. In a nutshell, the original emotional "hook" of season three was supposed to be Sara Tancredi's death anyway, Sarah Wayne Callies was pregnant at the time and decided not to return, plus there was the writers' strike leading to a shortened season of thirteen episodes.

But the upshot was still that Sara Tancredi was supposed to die in season three. What a monumental misstep. Almost any other way of scripting Sara's absence from the season would have been better. Many fans of the show, including me, had too much invested in the Michael/Sara relationship to accept it, and the negative reaction was so extreme that the producers realized quickly that maybe they should be careful of what was said about Sara's death throughout the rest of the season just in case they had to walk it back. Note how later in the season LJ said that he heard Sara being killed, but didn't see it happen.

If you're watching this series for the first time, I won't say anything else about what is coming in season four. But if you want to know about the resolution of the Sara Tancredi situation, here's another TV Guide article.

It's interesting that the biggest problem I had with the first two seasons was that they were too long -- 22 standard episodes -- and had a bit too much filler. This didn't happen in the shorter season three, and the story was indeed tighter and much better focused.

But the death of Sara Tancredi took the heart out of lead character Michael, and that took the heart out of the series. Well, that plus the fact that season three was essentially a repeat of season one. It was especially awful when Linc was deliberately keeping Sara's death from Michael. For the latter half of the season, an obviously suicidal Michael was determined to get Whistler out to save his nephew LJ, but he was only going through the motions. Dare I say it? When Michael has no reason to live, we have no reason to watch.

Best episodes

"Orientacion": which introduces Sona and this season's players.

"Dirt Nap": Where Bellick challenges Sammy, Lechero's second in command, to a fight to the death, and unbelievably, I found myself rooting for Bellick. Later, Michael outwits Sammy and kills him with the placement of a small piece of rebar, which reminded me of the all important bolt in season one.

"Hell or High Water" and "The Art of the Deal": Michael cleverly sacrifices Lechero, T-Bag and Bellick by using their own selfishness against them, and escapes with Whistler, Mahone and Luis. Note how Michael left Bellick and the killers behind in prison this time; he knew and used the fact that Bellick would immediately squeal, and he wasn't about to make the T-Bag mistake twice. Saving Luis, the "basketball kid", brings Michael a karmic reward when Sucre is caught and Luis' father ends up saving the day. I particularly loved the extended sequence in the museum with the metal detector.

The season ends with a lot of set-up for season four: Michael pursuing Sara's killer, Gretchen; T-Bag murdering Lechero and taking over control of Sona; Sucre nearly buried alive for refusing to sell out his friends; and Mahone allying with Whistler and Gretchen. Despite the exciting and enjoyable escape, it is all just a bit unsatisfying.

A long and probably pointless segue about tattoos and wardrobe

Michael spends the entire season in the extreme heat and sweatiness of Sona in a long sleeved tee (gray, then blue, then purple) for obvious reasons: so that the make-up artists wouldn't have to spend four hours a day applying those incredible tattoos. We only see the tatts briefly in one episode, "Bang and Burn." Did we see them at all in season two, except in Mahone's photos? I remember Michael looking at the numbers tattooed on his wrist, but that was it, wasn't it?


And that's a shame. Maybe it's shallow of me, but I have to complain about them leaving Wentworth Miller in a sweaty long sleeved tee for an entire season. Although the tattoos were an important plot point in season one, they became super inconvenient in season two. It's a shame Michael couldn't have come up with a way to apply the tatts that was only semi-permanent and eventually removable. But who knew?

Bits and pieces

-- More codes. This time it was the notes in Whistler's bird book, and we didn't even find out what they meant in the end. After the escape, T-Bag finds the bird book so that it will become a season four plot point.

-- Sucre finally stops trying to get to Maricruz, which is a relief. He realizes that all he is doing is endangering her and their baby daughter, even as he does it again (with Gretchen's certified check).

-- I loved how the "basketball kid" kept playing basketball with the hoop that was painted on the wall.

-- LJ spent nearly the entire season as a hostage, which means we barely saw him. That worked for me. Sorry about that, Marshall Allman.

-- Chris Vance, who played Whistler, is currently playing the villain Non on Supergirl.

To conclude

Season verdict: a split decision. The prison break itself was good enough to warrant three origami roses, but what happened to Sara Tancredi was a killer blow to the series. Two out of four origami roses,

Billie
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Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.

6 comments:

jencat said...

Thanks for this Billie - I literally skipped this entire season once I heard what happened to Sara (being in the UK it was much easier at that point to get a heads-up and not even bother starting to watch the season), so this is the first time I've seen some of this info!

I started watching again with season four when the writing team came to their senses and I honestly it didn't feel like I'd missed anything at all. I really loved season four and it was really the best way to watch it (if you were remotely invested in Michael/Sara anyhoo).

I've just done the exact same thing with Game of Thrones season five - heard too many things about each episode that sounded unappealing and daft (really, more than one rape controversy per series is too many, c'mon) and started straight back in at season six now with renewed enthusisam without feeling like I've missed anything I really wanted to watch (and I can't help feeling there's a pretty significant writing issue if so little of interest happened for an entire season that I haven't once felt compelled to go back and watch any of it at all).

Billie Doux said...

You're very welcome, jencat.

Binge-watching and knowing what's coming makes it a different viewing experience, of course, but I'm enjoying my rewatch more than I thought I would. I still love Wentworth Miller as Michael so very, very much.

Chicago Mike said...

I thought while watching that season three was pretty good. The only part I didn't like was also having Michael wearing the sweatshirts in a Central American prison. It seemed like a cop out and I'm sure they could have done something different than doing four hours of makeup each day. Hollywood right? Maybe it was cut from the budget. It did seem an extreme way to kill off Sara on the show. I thought I also read somewhere that there was some tension between the actress and some of the show runners about her exiting the show due to her pregnancy so maybe someone got made and wrote the storyline while angry.

Gus Brunetti said...

The prison was based on Carandiru, which was a prison in Brazil until about 15 years ago. I lived about two miles away from it. My mother once almost ran over an escaping convict!

It was bad, but not as bad as Sona. The structure was very similar, but there were guards inside it controlling things.

There was a very famous book written about it (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esta%C3%A7%C3%A3o_Carandiru), but there seems to be no translation to English.

This is by far my least favorite season. Everything felt too temporary to be really invested.

Billie Doux said...

Gus, you lived two miles from Sona? That is awesome. Possibly a little scary. :)

Gus Brunetti said...

It was not as scary as it sounds. The prison was smack in the middle of the city. The was a subway station right in front of it (which was very convenient for visiting days) and it was near a business center and two malls. Escapes were not common, and usually through tunnnels.

There's movie called Carandiru that shows it, but it's not very good. I don't know if I'd recommend it. It's about the lead up to the massacre that happened there in 1992, when the governor sent the riot police with orders to open fire. They killed 111 prisoners.

When Carandiru was deactivated, they opened it to the public for a few months before demolishing it. I visited it. It was the heaviest atmosphere I've ever felt. People describe Auschwitz like this.

There's a park and a school there now. Nothing like trees to clear the air in every sense.