Seven years after its cancellation, Prison Break has returned to Fox for a fifth season. It’s easy to forget how big of an impact the first season had on the pop culture landscape of the time. The story of the enigmatic engineer, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), and his determined plan to free his brother, Lincoln (Dominic Purcell), from jail before his execution had viewers on the edge of their seats, eager to decipher Michael’s plan, the conspiracy that put Lincoln in jail, and the intricate tattoos that covered every inch of Scofield’s chest. It was high concept
It was high concept ratings gold, bringing Fox success that the network hadn’t seen in Summertime numbers since the heydays of Ally McBeal. Video games, interactive attractions, international adaptations, and even an extremely ahead of its time mobile-only spin-off followed. The show never retained the zeitgeist buzz of its first season, but it held onto a loyal fanbase for three more years. Even so, news of a new season still surprised many. How do you recapture that magic and not wear the premise thin – especially when the previous season ended on what seemed to be a definitive climax – the apparent death of Michael?
For Prison Break‘s producers, the inspiration for the new season came from one of literature’s most classical sources, The Odyssey by Homer. Even if you haven’t read the ancient Greek epic, the chances are you’re familiar with its story: King Odysseus of Ithaca’s return home following the battle of Troy, a decade-long journey of adventure and peril where Odysseus and his men deal with the cannibalistic giants of the Laestrygonian tribe, the witch Circe (who turns half his men into pigs), the allure of the Sirens, and the wrath of Zeus himself.
Back on Ithaca, his wife Penelope and son Telemachus are left to deal with the wannabe suitors who fight for her hand in marriage, under the assumption that Odysseus is dead and the kingdom is theirs for the taking (this ends terribly for them). It’s impossible to overstate the cultural impact Homer’s Odyssey has had on thousands of years of literature, poetry, drama and modern methods of storytelling. Everyone from James Joyce to the Coen Brothers have taken their share of ideas and themes from The Odyssey. Now, Prison Break joins their ranks. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, executive producer Vaun Wilmott explained the epic’s influence on the show’s structure:
“Characters have to come back together across huge spaces. That absolutely informed our storytelling, and within that framework, we used the Prison Break model of clues and surprises and messages and coding.”
This season, which takes the form of a nine-episode limited run, wears its influence on its sleeve. Michael Scofield, and indeed the show, have been absent for seven years, much in the same way that Odysseus was in captivity for seven years on the island of Ogygia. The word “Ogygia” appears in code, accompanying a picture of Michael that Theodore ‘T-Bag’ Bagwell (Robert Knepper) receives upon his exit from prison, signaling him and Lincoln towards a prison in Sana’a, Yemen.
Michael’s wife, Sara (Sarah Wayne Callies), meanwhile, believing her husband to be dead, is living with her son in her own Ithaca, albeit the New York one, and she, unlike Penelope, has accepted a suitor, a new husband named Jacob (Mark Feuerstein). From its very beginning, this new season of Prison Break establishes itself with that most classic of literary molds – the hero captive in a far-away land, and the mourning wife who hopefully awaits his return.
Seeking certainty, but not before a spot of grave-digging, Lincoln heads to Yemen to find the source of the letter. This geographical shift is new territory for Prison Break, and something the show-runners are aware of. They deny any specific political reading into the choice of location, saying “The goal more was to put Michael in an old place, a place of mystery, that feels far away — a place where it’s known that the prisons are particularly awful, tough and harsh”. The show’s executive producers have tried to reassure concerned viewers, saying they
The show’s executive producers have tried to reassure concerned viewers, saying they “wanted to pay proper respect to to Islam as a religion, because it can get very vilified in the west and in America”. An established character, C-Note (Rockmund Dunbar), has converted to Islam, and there will be new Muslim characters who help our heroes. Still, it is tough to overlook the social relevance of such a choice, particularly now as Yemen is in the midst of a famine, a civil war, and the recent US military raid ordered by Donald Trump.
In Yemen, Lincoln and C-Note discover Michael’s fake identity is Kaniel Outis, a notorious ISIL-affiliated terrorist. When Michael and Lincoln finally meet, Michael claims not to know him, setting up the major hook of the rest of the season. The name “Outis” is an ancient Greek translation for “no-one” or “nobody” and was often used as a pseudonym. Meanwhile, back in America, T-Bag is offered a state of the art prosthetic hand to replace his lost one, funded entirely by a mysterious benefactor who identifies himself only as “κανείς”, the Greek word for “Nobody”. Tying this back to The Odyssey, when Odysseus disguises himself to trick the Cyclops, he says his name is “Nobody”, a trick that disguises his notorious arrogance, thus demonstrating his exceptional cunning and intellectual prowess. Michael Scofield, infamous worldwide for his astounding escapes and staggering intelligence, has had his identity deleted from the internet, and so, to the world, he is now Nobody.
We’ve yet to see how The Odyssey will influence the rest of the season – Will there be new interpretations of the Sirens, the enchantresses who sang sailors to their deaths against the rocks? How about Circe’s porcine pranks, or the storms of Zeus? We already know that there will be a character named Cyclops (played by Amin El Gamal), which promises scenes of battle and betrayal – so what else is in store?
Whatever the outcome, it’s exciting to see a proud genre show like Prison Break use one of the most iconic stories in literature for its own particular style of storytelling. The Odyssey ends with a bittersweet victory for Odysseus, his family and the kingdom of Ithaca – it remains to be seen if Michael Scofield’s journey will resolve itself in peace.
Prison Break continues tonight with ‘Kaniel Outis’ @9pm on FOX.