Monday, October 20, 2014

Prison Break's Riots, Drills, and the Devil - How to Write Tension

Yesterday as I was laid up in bed with a nasty cold, I decided to finally get around to rewatching one of my old favorite shows: Prison Break. I was introduced to it just as the first season was airing, way back in 2006, and I was instantly hooked. It's a tense, thrilling, devastating show about the American prison and legal system, governmental conspiracies, brotherly love, and the consequences of our actions. It is almost entirely made up of things I love. (And a few things I hate, but we'll get to that later.)

Admittedly the first season of the show ended up being the only one worth watching, a fact that still disappoints me, but I am happy to go back and watch through twenty-two episodes of freaking phenomenal television. There's not a single episode in there that isn't tense, engaging, and absolutely brilliant. But within those episodes there are a couple that rise above even that high standard and have become the standard against which I judge all dramatic writing.

Yup. My standard for good dramatic writing - writing that keeps the reader hooked, continuously raises the stakes without falling into melodrama, and that manages to develop the characters simply by showing how they react to certain situations - is a two-part episode from season one titled, "Riots, Drills, and the Devil." It's so good.

But before I can drag you all through exactly how and why this episode is amazing (which it is), I should probably give you some background. The show Prison Break, which aired from 2005-2009 and was only good from 2005-2006, is about, you guessed it, a guy breaking out of prison. 

Our hero is Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), a seemingly well-off, cultured, intelligent man who we see in the first few minutes of the pilot hold up a bank with a gun and get himself arrested. He then proceeds to get himself the maximum sentencing at a local prison: Fox River. As the pilot unfolds, we start to understand why he's decided to get himself put in jail. He's going to break out, and he's going to bring his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) who is on death row, with him.

That's the show in a nutshell, but there are a lot of nuances to it. For startes, Lincoln's in prison for killing the vice president's brother - a crime the he strenuously claims he did not admit. He insists, and Michael agrees, that the evidence against him was manufactured by some opposing force or conspiracy. And, it turns out, he's right. But by this point in the season (just six episodes in or so) we don't know why.

Michael, meanwhile, is more than just a smart man who loves his brother. He's a freaking genius who is obsessively and a little weirdly close to his brother. Michael, who grew up with Lincoln as his primary parental figure after age eight, has strong abandonment issues, a keen analytical mind, and a blueprint of the prison tattooed on the upper half of his body. He's got this.

And, in a weird way, that's why the show works. Because the premise of the show isn't that Michael has to figure out how to break him and Lincoln out of prison before Lincoln is executed. Before the season even started, we're told, Michael figured out the plan to the most minute, ridiculous detail. He found out what other people were imprisoned at Fox River and who he could ask for favors or who he could blackmail into helping him. He planned the entire escape route and set an ambitious time schedule. Hell, he even figured out a way to make sure that his cellmate wouldn't rat on him for the escape attempt.

So the tension in the show isn't about wondering if Michael can break them out of prison, it's wondering what's going to happen that Michael hasn't planned for. In other words, the actual breaking out stuff is mostly handled. What's left is the human element. And that's where this episode comes in as one of the best I've ever seen on television.

Okay, so that's the setup for the show. Here's the setup for the episode. Michael and his cellmate Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) have already dug through the wall behind their toilet. If the toilet is in place you can't see anything, but there is in fact a giant hole there. 

The next step is that they need to drill through a giant wall of six inch concrete that's between them and an access tunnel that will lead to the next part of the escape. Unfortunately, Michael's plan requires them to do this at times when no one will notice that he's out of his cell, and since this is prison, that time is extremely limited. He has to drill through the wall in the next 24 hours or else they won't escape on time (as in, before Lincoln is executed).

That's the basic premise of the episode. In order to know where to drill, because there are other pipes back behind that concrete wall that lead to less friendly pipes that might be full of explosive gas, Michael has set up a sketch of the devil, taken from his tattoo, that will show them the exact points to drill through in order to upset the tensile strength of the wall. Because Michael is a crazy brilliant engineer and also a little crazy.

But, again, it's hard to drill seven precise holes in a wall with an eggbeater if you're constantly having to come back to your cell for headcount. What's a con to do? Well, the only way to stop the count is to get the whole prison block put on lockdown, where the guards lock their cell doors and leave them all to stew for a few days. Sucre and Michael figure that if they can do this, they can finish the wall and continue as scheduled. Only that means they have to figure out a way to agitate the prisoners into getting put on lockdown.

The key? Break the air conditioning and everyone will be so hot and grumpy that they'll get riled up. Problem solved.

And, to a large extent, it works. That's what's so great about this episode. Michael breaks the air conditioning and the prisoners get riled up (because it's freaking hot and they live in a place with no windows), so the guards put them on lockdown. His plan works. But because he's Michael and because this show is brilliant, he forgets about the human element. Yes, the guards put the block on lockdown. But then the prisoners turn it into a full fledged riot, storming the guards, taking the guard booth, and unleashing anarchy in the prison for two full episodes. In other words, Michael gets exactly what he wants, and the consequences are ones he is not prepared to deal with.

What makes this episode really amazing, though, is that the hits just keep on coming. Because of setup we saw in previous episodes, Lincoln was, at the time the riot broke out, meeting with his lawyers and discussing the conspiracy against him. The lawyers leave and go to check out an other lead, but that means Lincoln is being escorted back to his cell when the prisoners come through. His guard (Michael Cuditz) is a rookie who's just trying to do a good job, and Lincoln likes him. But as the only guard not locked away from them, the prisoners decide he's the perfect target and swarm Linc to get him.

The guard ends up prisoner of T-Bag (Robert Knepper, in the role that made him a critical darling), and dragged through the prison as a token of the prisoner's power. T-Bag shoves the guard into an unused cell so that he can have his way with him (T-Bag is a convicted rapist and murderer, so this is not at all surprising), only to find a giant hole in the wall. Because it's Michael's cell. So now T-Bag and a guard have seen the hole and know about the escape. Crap.

John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare), the mob boss that Michael is blackmailing into helping him, discovers T-Bag and the guard in there and is enraged to find that T-Bag immediately wants in on the escape. More than that, he's prepared to scream their plans to the whole prison if Abruzzi doesn't count him in, and he'll kill the guard to sweeten the pot. Michael, of course, is horrified to find that T-Bag knows, and even more horrified by the idea of him killing a cop, so he just insists that the cop stay alive. They'll figure something out. Besides, as long as they have a hostage, prison SWAT and the national guard aren't going to come in after them.

On top of all of this, Michael finds out that Dr. Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies) is trapped in a room of the infirmary during the riot. She's in danger of being pulled out and abused as a symbol of the prisoner's power (as well as because she's pretty much the only young woman in the whole prison). Michael, who knows that all of this is his fault, decides to go rescue her. He'll go, Sucre will keep drilling through the wall, and Abruzzi will watch T-Bag and the guard.

Obviously that is not what ends up happening.

So now we've got like four different, vitally compelling and tense storylines. Add onto that the fact that Lincoln is now being targeted by a contract killer from within the prison (as setup in previous episodes). The guy plans to use the prison riot as a distraction so he can kill Linc and have it look like an accident. And outside the prison walls there's tension too. Lincoln's lawyers, Veronica (Robin Tunney) and Nick (Frank Grillo) fly to Washington DC to follow up on a lead and find themselves in the crosshairs of a conspiracy much bigger than they thought.

Oh, and LJ (Marshall Allman), Lincoln's son, is watching the news about the riot on television, freaking out about his father and uncle being in there, when he comes to blows with his stepfather over issues that have been building all season. Also the Warden (Stacy Keach) and Governor Tancredi (John Heard) nearly come to blows over how the Warden is handling this, and the fact that Dr. Sara Tancredi, the Governor's daughter, is trapped inside. Meanwhile conniving prison guard Bellick (Wade Williams) tries to use this as the perfect opportunity to overthrow the Warden as head of the prison.

There's kind of some stuff going on. And all of it is crucial and tense and compelling and, this is the key bit, completely related to everything else that's going on. No single storyline is unrelated, and everything that happens in the episode happens because Michael needed some more time to drill. That? That is good writing.

Screw it, that's actually amazing writing. Because while this would be fantastic writing on its own, it's made even better by the fact that all of this serves pretty much as backdrop for some stunning character development in every single storyline. By this point we know who all of the major players are (so far) and these two episodes serve show us more about who these characters will become by placing them in stressful and unusual situations and letting them go.

Because the stakes are so high for everyone, and because these episodes afford the opportunity for characters who've never worked together to interact, we come out of it knowing a hell of a lot more about everyone, and not in a way that feels trite or manipulated or involved a single flashback. We didn't need flashbacks or exposition. We just needed to see how the characters interact.

I'm not going to go through all of the characters and explain their development, because that would take forever, but just let me point it out with T-Bag. These two episodes are really where he became one of the main characters and a force to be reckoned with. Up until this point we knew next to nothing about him. 

In these episodes alone we come to find out that, yes, T-Bag is racist and perverted, but he's also a gifted public speaker who can rally an entire prison block around him - dude would have made an amazing politician. We find out that his character is the product of incest, and that his parents are screwed up on a level that no other character can touch.

More than that, though, we spend time with T-Bag, and we really get to know him. We sit in that jail cell with just him and a guard for chunks of the episode. And all he does is talk. That's all he has to do. He sits in that jail cell and has a nice friendly conversation about the man's children and his wife and what it must have been like to see his baby girl go off to prom. It's one of the most unnerving scenes I know of. Then, when the riot is done and they no longer need a prisoner, T-Bag holds back until the others go by, then shanks the guard in front of everyone. By the end of these two episodes, T-Bag has established himself as the single most dangerous person in the whole prison, and also essential to the escape. It's just plain brilliant writing.

Now, caveat time, I don't think everyone should just troop off and watch Prison Break. It's really really really not for everyone. It takes a strong stomach and a soft squishy stuffed animal to get through most of the episodes. So, no, you probably shouldn't watch it unless you already know that you like this kind of thing.

But I do think it's worthwhile to examine shows that know what they're doing and do it very well, like this one. "Riots, Drills, and the Devil" may not be an episode with universal appeal, but it does demonstrate perfectly how to write complex drama that never lags or stops or fails to deliver. The kew to that, in a nutshell is this: consequences and character development.

The whole theme of this episode is consequences. Because Michael broke the AC, all of these things happened. But it's also deeper than all of that. Because Michael decided to save Lincoln, a lot of things happen that would not have otherwise ever happened. In fact, when you look at the show, it's arguable that Michael should have just let Lincoln die, and everyone's lives would have been better.

So clearly consequences make for a compelling story. Also necessary, though, is that through the development of these consequences our characters find more of their true personalities being revealed. For example, this is the episode that we discover that Michael does not, in fact, think of the plan before all else. He's willing to scrap the plan for a little while in order to save a woman who's just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We also learn that even though Lincoln is generally resigned to dying in his execution, he's really not okay with dying anytime before then. Character development. It's important.

Like I said above, I don't think Prison Break is a perfect show. There are some things in here that bother me, like the utter lack of interesting, non-damseled or fridged female cahracters, and the fact that the show is bizarrely white for being set in a prison. But these are minor quibbles when compared with how awesome a job the show does at, well, pretty much everything else.

Basically, if you want to write a drama, figure out how to give it stakes and figure out how those stakes and the actions your characters will take to overcome them will affect every other character in the story. We do not exist in a bubble - all of our actions are interconnected. If you want to write and write well, you need to remember that.

Also, any nightmares you have about being chased are probably good fodder for scenes like this.


  1. I remember Prison Break, and yes, I remember the first season being markedly better than the rest. (I did find things to like in season 2,* but by the end, as you put it for Supernatural, I was watching it so as not to let the bad guys win).

    * Most especially the part where is in a restaurant that's robbed, and talks down the robber, after which the staff and customers cover for him and help him evade the police.

    T-Bag holds back until the others go by, then shanks the guard in front of everyone.

    And then describes it as taking one for the team, which was the most creepy line in the whole thing for me.

    There are some things in here that bother me, like the utter lack of interesting, non-damseled or fridged female cahracters

    And "amazingly," unlike Orange is the New Black, it didn't get a stern telling off from any critics about it.

    1. C-Note in the restaurant, even.

    2. C-Note is one of my favorite characters, actually. He's so complex, and it's really compelling to see a character like him who is neither a totally good guy nor a bad guy really. He's very grey, and I love that.

      T-Bag on the other hand is a tour-de-force of acting and the scariest villain I've seen in a long long time.

      I kind of want to do a threeway comparison sometime of OitNB, Prison Break, and Oz. Just prison everywhere.