A Show About Upstate New York Made By Summer People
I knew not to trust the recently-concluded Showtime limited series Escape at Dannemora as soon as I watched a scene where someone ineptly tried to pronounce the word “Chateaugay.” They get the vowel sound wrong, using the “a” instead of the “æ,” making it all Frenchy and fancy-like. If you’re working blue, it’s It’s “SHAT-uh-gay.”
Well, I was born and raised near this Chateaugay, a small town in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, and I can say with certainty that the dialect in this show is absurd. Many of the characters seem to have perfected their upstate accents by watching Fargo. As a native, it’s jarring, a constant reminder that funny voices only serve to paint these people as clueless yokels, the kinds of simpletons who refer to Plattsburgh as “the city.”
The classic upstate accent is a rhotic, nasal, shrill thing, nothing like the dialect of the upper Midwest. This show actually features a prison guard who says “Oh, yah!” a la Jerry Lundegaard. The actors and extras don’t always pronounce “sorry” correctly. People on this show don’t even shotgun Labatt Blue while listening to the Tragically Hip or voice strong opinions about snowmobile manufacturers. (Although nobody calls them that. “Snow machines,” please, or “sleds.” Arguing about the relative merits of Polaris and Arctic Cat will occasionally get you stabbed in this part of the world.) In an attempt to depict the townies around which I grew up, Escape at Dannemora reveals itself as the work of the worst kind of imposters: summer people.
I’m not trying to argue that the real Dannemora contains multitudes. The real Dannemora doesn’t even contain a Taco Bell. But this show refuses to even begin to explore the cultural dynamics of a town where inmates outnumber civilians. It purports to be prestige TV, but it’s just pulp. It can’t even get the accent right.
The show’s A-list cast continually does better work than its shoddy source material deserves. Escape at Dannemora dramatizes the story of David Sweat and Richard Matt, two upstate thugs–one gifted with a real talent for painting doe-eyed puppies, the other seemingly gifted of a big hog–who enlisted a civilian sewing-shop steward named Joyce Mitchell to smuggle in hacksaw blades. With those blades, they managed to tunnel their way out of the prison and become extremely wanted men for a few weeks in 2015.
Benicio Del Toro plays Matt with great calculated and seething menace, organizing the escape and pulling accomplices into his orbit. Paul Dano’s Sweat acts subdued to the point of meekness. It’s hard to comprehend how he could be drawn to Matt in the first place. Sweat seems to have a semi-functioning moral compass. Matt is the kind of guy who drinks grape-flavored gin. This incompatibility eventually becomes their undoing.
As Mitchell, an unrecognizable Patricia Arquette emerges as the show’s tragic figure. Terminally unsatisfied with her failing marriage and humdrum life, she carries on affairs with both Matt and Sweat, convinced that they’ll all run away to Mexico and live happily ever after. Mitchell is a delusional patsy, lust-blind and ranting about perceived injustices, unaware of her own moral culpability. You could imagine rooting for Sweat and Matt as antiheroes, but Arquette’s remarkable performance renders her as unlikable as possible. (Spoiler alert: they don’t make it to Mexico.)
The most compelling and flawed character in the whole thing is Dannemora itself. Escaping from Dannemora is futile, since there’s no escape from the boreal forest of the Adirondack high peaks. The prison (officially the Clinton Correctional Facility; everyone just says “Dannemora,” as though the town and the prison are a single organism) looks like a fortified Death Star plunked down in podunk tundra.
Prison labor has mitigated the town’s decline. The New York state inspector general’s report on the situation specifically cites the emphasis on churning out uniforms as a contributing reason for the security lapses that allowed the escape to happen. Somehow this show never reckons with that. We’re meant to see a parallel between the prison and life in Dannemora, but it doesn’t quite click. Famous Director Ben Stiller repeatedly contrasts Mitchell’s existential imprisonment with the inmates’ literal fate. I’m not sure if that false equivalence is more insulting to her or the inmates.
When most people think of the Adirondacks, they imagine ski lodges, or the Miracle on Ice, or maybe 19th-century vaudeville stars dying of tuberculosis in enormous lake houses. Escape at Dannemora could have told a bigger and more interesting story about a hard-ass prison in a remote and freezing part of New York, but it’s just lazy, relying on cheap, inaccurate stereotypes. Ultimately it left me as unfulfilled as Mitchell herself, imagining a different reality, one with better scripts.