Escape at Dannemora Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

David Swat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) are inmates at the maximum security prison in Dannemora, New York. Sweat is given a life sentence for the murder of a sheriff; Matt is given a twenty-five-year sentence for the brutal murder of his former employer.

Forty-nine-year-old Matt enjoys considerable influence among other prisoners and among the prison guards. The fact is that Matt is a very good artist and he is especially good at portraits. He draws portraits of famous people, and also draws images of members of the guards’ families from photographs – and enjoys various benefits for this.

Security guard Jean Palmer (David Morse) even becomes Matt’s friend and has several paintings of Richard at home. In return, Palmer provides the prisoner with various minor services – he supplies him with canvases and paints, and also brings him from the outside and other items that Matt can change in prison for what he needs.

Matt likes the smart guy Sweat, and he patronizes him: he teaches him how to draw pictures for the guards, and, well, helps him survive in the harsh conditions of a maximum security prison.

Both Sweat and Matt are in good standing with the authorities, so each of them has his own separate camera, they are also allowed to work in a local tailoring workshop, where they also pay well.

The sewing shop is run by a certain Joyce Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), whom everyone calls Tilly. She is an overripe, forty-eight-year-old blonde with a fiery temperament and a clear distaste for her life and her work. She lives in that damn town of Dannemora, where, out of 3,900 people, about 3,000 are kept in prison, and the rest of the inhabitants work for this prison in one way or another. She’s been married for twenty years to a dim-witted simpleton, Lyle (Eric Lange), whom she can’t stand anymore.

Therefore, there is nothing surprising in the fact that Tilly has her eye on the young Sweat: she not only feeds him with all sorts of sweets, but also fucks him in the back streets of the garment warehouse, which many prisoners and many prison workers already know about.

David’s relationship with Tilly is watched very closely by Matt. He immediately realized that this relationship with David could be very, very useful. But then Tilly was snitched on by the authorities and David was immediately removed from the workshop, so she can no longer see him.

And then Matt comes to the fore. He and Tilly will have a completely different relationship than she had with David, where she acted in a leading role. Matt is a typical alpha male, and Tilly, who can’t stand “rag” men, is very susceptible to the influence of strong men, so Matt will make her do whatever he and Suet need in order to organize one of the most high-profile escapes in history from a maximum security prison.


In this case, it is really based on real events, which, moreover, happened quite recently – in 2015, moreover, in the same Dannemora prison. What happened there – I will tell in the postscript to this review, so as not to spoil for those who have not yet watched the series. I can only say that in the series everything that happens is set out as close as possible to how it actually happened.

Escape from prison – well, it seems to be a completely obsessive topic, about which, probably, more than one hundred films and more than a dozen TV shows have been shot. But, by the way, among these films and series there is “The Shawshank Redemption”, which takes first place in the Top 250 best films of all time on IMDB, and among the series there is a very sensational “Prison Break”, which, at least until the release characters to freedom, looks very exciting.

Ben Stiller first sat in the director’s chair back in 1994 with Reality Bites, and his track record as a director includes such films as The Cable Guy, Zoolander, Tropic Troopers and the warmly received The Secret Life of Walter Mitty “. This is the first series in his directing career, and he decided to shoot this story as authentically as possible, very close to how it all happened in reality.

To do this, he even received permission to film something inside the Dannemor prison, so that the scenery would correspond to the real locations as much as possible. And here it should be noted that the leadership of the prison gave such permission, despite the fact that the story of this escape is a cruel puncture of the leadership of this institution, and the guards, and the attendants.

For the sake of the same authenticity, both the main characters and secondary characters were selected similar to their prototypes.

The best choice was Tilly, who was played with incredible self-denial by Patricia Arquette, who for this role had to turn from a completely attractive woman into a very unpleasant-looking blurry aunt.

Patricia Arquette (left) and her prototype

Compare with her photo from the 2015-2016 series CSI: Cyberspace.

However, for the sake of truth, I note that in the 2017 film “Curl” she is already like this. And the dimensions are not too different from Tilly from Dannemore Prison Break.

I read in an interview with Patricia that she repeatedly communicated with Joyce Mitchell in order to capture the peculiarities of her manner of communication and behavior.

Here is one of her interviews (English) after the filming of the series.

Well, here is Patricia in 2019 at the Golden Globe Award for her role. Again, feel the difference.

The role of Arquette, in my opinion, turned out to be simply outstanding. And, I repeat, we must pay tribute to her self-denial, because you need to strain very hard so that at least something in this Joyce can arouse sympathy. But whether sympathy, antipathy – the character turned out to be very bright and played by Patricia with a lot of interesting undertones in how she looks imperiously at Suet, how she looks at Matt in a completely different way – like a rabbit on a boa constrictor – and how she communicates with her own husband, which seems to be a pity, but on the other hand, what did he even expect from this marriage, given the circumstances that we will not be told about right away?

There, by the way, a very interesting and non-standard move was made in the series. You watch David, Richard, Tilly and her husband for five episodes, and it seems that you know them well. However, the penultimate, sixth, episode contains flashbacks from the lives of all four, and after that, your perception of these characters in a certain way both expands and changes.

Paul Dano is very good as Sweat. In general, I love this actor very much: he was very noticeable even in the role of a dumb strange teenager in “Little Miss Sunshine”, and what a powerful role he played in “Oil” – he was completely on an equal footing with Daniel Day Lewis himself, whom I I consider the greatest among all modern actors.

Here is Paul (on the right) with his prototype. (From the site of the creators of the series, the Showtime channel.)

Dano is one of those actors who can create a very capacious and reliable image without any special external effects, without violent emotions and facial expressions. It seems to be a quiet boy, who, however, has his own core and without whose determination and perseverance there would be no escape. By the way, Paul also met with David and talked with him before embodying this character in the series.

Benicio del Toro (on the right) is not so similar to his prototype – by the way, as Suet himself later said, he was a kind of fat man and got stuck in a pipe a couple of times because of this, like Winnie the Pooh – but the role turned out just great. A kind of laconic manipulator who knows how to pull a lot of springs inside the prison organism, carefully subordinating Tilly to his will, but at the same time he is not the driving force behind this escape. This Richard Matt only starts the corresponding processes, and smart David will rake up the earth, bricks and shit. Matt will lie in bed drinking rum and waiting to get out.

And it is very interesting to observe how the behavior of these characters changes after the escape. Both find themselves in a completely unfamiliar environment for themselves and both behave differently than expected.

The rest of the characters are also very well chosen. Here is Eric Lange (left) and the real life Lyle Mitchell.

David Morse (left) and the real Gene Palmer.

And Bonnie Hunt (left) as Inspector General Katherine Scott, investigating this case on behalf of the state governor.

The style of what is happening in the series is quite leisurely, however, in my opinion, you won’t get bored anywhere, and the series captures literally from the very first episode. In the process, the action does not sag anywhere, the plot unwinds very systematically, and completely unexpected flashbacks in the sixth episode are a kind of rather sharp disruption of the stereotype, which, moreover, as I already wrote, gives additional touches to understanding the characters.

Well, the ending did not disappoint at all, but, by the way, everything is shown there exactly as it really was.

I really liked it, I watched it with great interest: the production is excellent, and the roles of the main characters are simply outstanding, especially the role of Patricia Arquette, and for this role she received the Golden Globe 2019 as the best actress in a television series.

In total, this series has seven nominations and five awards, including the main prize of the Directors Guild of USA for Ben Stiller.

PS Well, now let’s talk about what really happened there – for those who have already watched this series.

Then, in 2015, two prisoners – the same David Sweat and Richard Matt – managed to make a daring escape by making holes from their cells into a technical corridor.

The same hole from David’s cell

Manhole from the technical corridor

For a long time, every night David climbed into this corridor and removed obstacles to the outer wall of the prison. Matt practically did not help him, he only made a hole from his cell and got out once with Sweat, but at the same time he got stuck in the pipe, and David decided that without Matt he would certainly be more convenient.

Digging under the outer wall or trying to hollow out the wall would take at least five years, and they would inevitably be discovered, but chance helped here: after the cold weather left, the pipe through which hot steam was supplied for heating was completely empty. It was along it that they ran out, sawing two holes in the pipe.

Pipe with manhole

Tilly’s relationship with David and Richard in prison was well known, so she was arrested a few days after her escape. It was useless for her to lock herself up, she cooperated with the investigation and told how she gave Matt hacksaw blades in hamburgers through prison guard Gene Palmer. (In the film, the hamburgers were replaced with minced meat.) However, she denied her sexual relationship with Suet and Matt, saying only that Matt somehow persuaded her to perform oral sex. However, numerous testimonies from other prisoners and guards claimed that Tilly was lying.

By the way, Tilly appeared in her position in the workshops in 2013, two years before her escape.

Those workshops

The story was very noisy: the fugitives were hiding for three weeks and the police operation cost the taxpayers under thirty million dollars. The governor of the state of New York then took control of the case and personally studied the technical corridors through which the prisoners escaped.

Governor of the State of New York inspecting the technical corridor

By the way, actor Michael Imperioli (Chris from The Sopranos) also looks a bit like the governor of the state.

Well, the story ended exactly as shown in the series: Matt was shot dead (according to Sweat, Richard completely went crazy in the wild, so Sweat broke up with him), and David was wounded, but he survived and is now sitting in another strict prison mode.

David after the escape

Tilly is serving her time, but Lyle claims he will wait for her out of jail – despite all this history.


Escape at Dannemora meaning

Director: Ben Stiller Cast: David Morse, Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette, Eric Lange, Paul Dano, Bonnie Hunt, Jeremy Bobb, Michael Beasley, Calvin Dutton, Dominique Colon


Series, USA, 2018, 60 min. miniseries, one season, 7 episodes

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