Escape From The Accents of ‘Escape At Dannemora’

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.

You can’t escape at Dannemora, you can only hope to contain it

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.

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Daniel Cohen

Daniel Cohen is a software developer who lives in Syracuse, New York. He has written for Yard Work, The Guardian, and Maura Magazine.

3 thoughts on “Escape From The Accents of ‘Escape At Dannemora’

  • January 4, 2019 at 4:34 pm

    I caught about 40 minutes and had no interest in seeing more. The production values sucked. And, it took me a while to recognize Arquette and Dano.

  • September 14, 2019 at 9:44 am

    I grew up across the lake and was excited to see the Hollywood version of that accent. Arquette’s midwestern caricature was just distracting and wrong. It’s a tricky one to get though. I lived immersed in it and can barely muster an passable version myself. I had to go watch an interview with the real-life Lyle to hear dat sweet music to moiy ears.

  • February 6, 2020 at 9:57 pm

    Daniel, exactly what I thought when Arquette started speaking – she’s doing Fargo, not the North Country. And did you hear Dano pronounced Chazy? It made it sound like he didn’t know anything at all about the area, which maybe he actually didn’t. But I bet the mispronunciation wasn’t on purpose. Jesum Crow, but the frogs got their accent down perfectly.
    Being from south Plattsburgh and having lived in the SW desert for a couple of decades now, I watched the movie to see the beautiful green again and wasn’t disappointed.


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