With Prison Break back on Monday 10th April for a fifth season, we take a spoiler-free look at the show’s return.
There’s an urgent, genuinely baffling mystery at the centre of Prison Break Season 5. It’s not why Lincoln Burrows has been sent a photo of his brother in a Yemeni prison, seemingly alive and arrested. Nor is it who the assassins are chasing down Sara Tancredi. The mystery isn’t even why the man that seems to be Michael Scofield is now known by a different name. No, the great burning question at the heart of this new season of Prison Break is this: why the hell did the writers think they could tackle ISIL in a daft show about breaking out of prisons?
The plot in Episode 1 of this revival is par for the Prison Break course. Several old inmates are brought together by the rumours of Michael Scofield still being far more alive than anyone assumed. This sets in motion some shady assassin-types, several reunions, expensive prosthetic surgery for one character and a hastily organised trip to the Middle East to get the bottom of whether he is alive or not. The story builds with the worrying feeling that the writer’s big way out of Michael’s death in Season 4 is not going to leave everyone satisfied. (Side note: A moratorium on character death fake-outs would probably benefit television as a medium.)
Things start to get uncomfortable, however, when it is revealed that he’s in Yemen. Here is where the show loses its footing really quickly, because, to put it simply, the team behind it are not talented enough to deal with all the weighty and complex world issues that they willingly take on. Season 1 of Prison Break thrived on a central, silly conceit, where tattoos were the ticket to freedom. It was relatively light-hearted, only occasionally mired by the conspiracy theory fringes. Liberated from that excellent idea, however, Season 2 onwards needed to mine drama from other sources. It seems that, for this new season, the team have turned to the turbulent modern world we live in to keep things tense.
This means fraught drives through ISIL-controlled territory and dodging actors who must be sick of playing Terrorist #3. As this is an inherently dumb show tackling global policy, they also wring tension from a gay man fearing a radical ISIL leader and a woman not wanting to get raped by a now-radicalised school friend, but without any commentary or gravitas. Two friendly Islamic characters keep it just the right side of Islamophobic, but that’s small consolation for the exploitation of real horrors. It’s not that gender, sexuality and world politics shouldn’t be addressed by TV, it’s just that you shouldn’t use it as a quick route to a cliffhanger.
There are other issues. This isn’t a clean break from the previous four seasons and the writers insist on bringing back even minor characters from the once-popular series. The result is something that is already sprawling and convoluted. The showrunners are juggling multiple questions and teasing a wider net of conspiracies that detract from the central interest of how Michael is going to break out this time. It’s a sluggish, often confusing start to a new season.
Perhaps, as the mini-series continues, Prison Break Season Five will reveal a grand plan behind all of its ideas. Maybe there’s an intention to be genuinely subversive, to say something of substance with a wide cast of characters, while still cleaving to the format that made Season 1 popular. After three episodes of Season 5, however, you may be unwilling to stick around and find out.
Prison Break Season 5 premieres at 9pm on Monday 10th April on FOX UK, which is available on Sky, Virgin Media and TalkTalk TV. Don’t have pay-TV? You can also watch Prison Break live and on-demand through NOW TV, which costs £6.99 a month, no contract.