(I have tried to keep this simple reading of Prison Break at a simple level. We all know which philosophies and theories one could reference and insert at every other line, I find particularly the connection between Agamben’s homo sacer and Prison Break’s characters a delicious one but this is not a academic paper. I might write of this again but not today. I have not seen season 3 either, this reading encompasses seasons 1 & 2)
As with a whole lot of other shows in the last couple of years, Prison Break, too, is, on the surface level, about conspiracies. The main conspiracy is a variation on the typical idea of a consortium of powerful companies and politicians ruling the world, an old image that has resurfaced in ugly ways, as in ideas of a Jewish World Conspiracy.
Here, the evildoers are called The Company and they are not just your shady powerful politicians, they really are in control of the world, though to what extent is never clarified, at least not in the first two seasons of the show. It starts off with a mistake: the weakest link in the conspiracy has snapped, a death has to be faked and an innocent man, a small time criminal, has to take the rap. The first season of the show narrates the story of that innocent man’s younger brother who fakes a bank robbery in order to get thrown into the same prison where his brother is awaiting the death penalty and to break his brother out.
Here’s where the show gets interesting. While gradually the conspiracy to kill Lincoln Burrows (the innocent man) is unveiled, Michael Scofield‘s (his brother) plans how to break Lincoln out are also unveiled. And Michael, being a bona fide genius, has assembled a complex plan of not only how to break out of prison but also how to escape afterwards. He’s planned alternative routes, complex schemes, involving inmates, mexican drug lords, graves, water pipes, all that shit. He is at the center of a highly complex conspiracy himself, which is absolutely necessary in order to prevail, because The Company has incredible resources.
This sort of genre always involves an opposition that indulges in a little counter conspiracy. However, contrary to what one might think upon reading these lines, Michael is not the stereotypical opposition to The Company, although the existence of such a stereotypical structure is playfully suggested by lines such as “let him be your Oswald”. There is a second enemy to The Company, another organization, wherein rebelling Senators, former members of the Company and all kinds of former agents combine their resources in order to bring The Company down.
Contrary to them, Michael represents the ‘human’ element. Well, he and his fellow escapees. The fact that its about humanism is driven home by an episode with Sucre, which is basically a 20th century take on the famous scene from Les Misérables where Jean Valjean steals the Bishop’s silver. This scene is strongly coupled with social criticism on the one hand and a theme of guilt and redemption.
Michael Scofield has helpers, but they don’t know all the details, they are just pawns in his ingenuous escape plan, which is quite literally written upon his body. The plans are tattooed on his beautiful body. He and his plans merge. Escaping becomes an integral part of himself, it is part of his body. There’s a second interesting thing about the tattoos: even if they represent his way to freedom, they also re-present the system. They depict water pipes, names, locations etc. which belong to the world which, in turn, is ruled by The Company. There are even times, when the system manages to read what Michael’s written on his body and it punishes him for it. And yes, I am carefully avoiding to shout Foucault! at this point. But even though the opposition to the system is inscribed on his body, he appears to be thinking, throughout season 2, that he’s only trying to escape the small conspiracy that has sent his brother to jail, not any larger one. He is content with being left alone. To this end he flees the country, but he has misunderstood the magnitude of the system. The discordian stepping out of the river is shown to be an illusion, because, it appears, everything is the river, and what appear to be banks are just temporary snags. I have not seen season 3 yet (tv-links.co.uk is down) but I suspect that Michael’s way of not attacking the system but trying to evade it will not work. He will have to confront The Company in order to find closure. He can’t possibly destroy it.
Prison Break, especially season 2, has been compared to The Fugitive, that hit show, where Dr. Kimble races across the country, trying to elude the police and find out who really committed the crime he was accused of. However, while looking similar on the surface, Prison Break provides a deeper level. It’s not about this country, nor about Lincoln Burrows, its about the fundamental question of what actions have to be taken once you recognize where you live, what system you live under, how deeply it has inscribed itself onto your body and how dangerous, in the end, it can be. Not for me maybe (white middle-class male) but for my friends, children, neighbors maybe who will have to be sacrificed in order to keep the system running smooth.
Well, still, you might point out to me, what about the mysterious boss and the faking of records and the wag-the-dog-style creation of news and misinforming the public and killing witnesses and convening in shadowy rooms or on boats blablabla. There’s a conspiracy, plainly, and while the fight against the system thing is nice, this fits in with most conspiracy thrillers, only those conspiracy shows who are really down with the system, such as Alias, don’t do that storyline.
The point is, on the one hand, you can’t separate the nation, country, take what you want, from the ‘conspiracy’ here. The conspiracy is total. You can pin it to certain people such as the current president of the US but ultimately, even she (yes) has to answer to The Company. Which makes it less a conspiracy but a total system fucking with all of us. Equally. If world and secret rule are inseparable, the distinction outlives its usefulness. As a journalist wrote recently: nobody rules the world. On the other hand, you they never tell you about the company’s deeds, even after 2 seasons the audience has not the slightest inkling of what the company does. Nobody’s interested in the big conspiracy, the only part of The Company’s misbehaving that concerns the company’s main protagonists is the mistake that put Lincoln Burrows in prison.
So, deep down, it’s not about conspiracies, it’s about freedom. At least the first 2 seasons were. You’ll never know what a show will turn out like after some seasons, after content has been adjusted to the ratings but for now it’s a great show.
Or am I overinterpreting?