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The seventh episode of Showtime’s Escape at Dannemora concluded the show’s retelling of a real-life 2015 prison break in upstate New York, and the subsequent manhunt for escaped convicts Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano). While the facts depicted in the finale are unambiguous — Matt and Sweat are recaptured, while corrections officer Joyce ‘Tilly’ Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) is arrested for assisting their escape — the final scene is a character beat left open to interpretation.
Having spent several episodes chronicling Tilly’s sexual affairs with both Matt and Sweat prior to their escape, the show ends with Tilly as an inmate herself, catching the eye of a young guard. It’s a moment of role reversal that leaves viewers to wonder what, if anything, Tilly has learned from her choices.
“We’ve always said that the show is like a ’70s film, and one of the things that means to me is an ending that is ambiguous and powerful and surprising,” writer and executive producer Brett Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter. “The idea in that scene was that Tilly has all these different facets to her: There’s the woman who just does what she wants, but then there’s the woman who feels caught and defensive and like she’s a victim.”
Johnson explained that since the bulk of the finale finds Tilly in “victim mode,” he and co-creator Michael Tolkin wanted to wrap up on a more ambivalent note. “She’s in that mode of feeling ‘I was manipulated, I didn’t do anything really wrong,’ and so we wanted to have the final moment be a reminder of that other part of her. The part that did what she wanted. And what is she going to do when she’s alone and she’s not with her husband, and there’s this young man who we know is her type? We don’t answer it, we don’t say she’s always going to be the same, but that’s the idea behind it.”
Arquette, too, saw the scene’s ambiguity as crucial. “Each person had a different feeling about what that scene was, and what it meant, and I think that’s good,” she said. “I don’t think every take I did involved the same thought process either.”
For more concrete clues about Tilly’s motivations, Arquette suggested viewers look to the season’s penultimate episode, which flashed back to Tilly’s younger life while simultaneously chronicling the violent crimes that landed Matt and Sweat in jail. “One thing you learn about Tilly in that episode is that this isn’t the first time she has triangulated relationships, and cheated, and then found ways to excuse her own inappropriate behavior,” Arquette noted.
That early ’90s storyline finds Tilly cheating on her then-husband with Lyle (Eric Lange), then manipulating Lyle into taking a punch from her husband in order to ensure she gets sole custody of her son, and ordering the confused young boy to call Lyle “daddy” from now on. Though it should pale in comparison to the acts of physical brutality committed by Sweat and particularly Matt, the moment is incredibly hard to watch and was hard for Arquette to film.
“It’s like stabbing someone in the heart,” she said. “It’s really such a vicious, brutal thing to do to your child, and to your ex-partner. It’s chilling.”
Along with Tilly, corrections officer Gene Palmer (David Morse) served time for assisting Matt and Sweat’s escape, and is shown in the finale being interrogated by the state inspector general (Bonnie Hunt).
“I felt that the key to him was in that scene,” Morse said. “What I liked about [Palmer] is he really thought he knew better than anybody else. I’ve worked in prisons, and I knew a lot of these guys, and I know how manipulative they can be. This is a guy who spent all his life in prison, and they still got to him.”
For Lange, the finale marked an even more significant turning point. Through most of the show Lyle has been a doting husband, loyal to the point of being willfully blind, but the revelation of Tilly’s affair with Matt and Sweat forces a rare moment of honesty between the couple.
“We’ve seen him hear things, and ignore things, and defend her, and finally it all comes out,” Lange said of a scene where Lyle visits Tilly in prison after her sentencing, which changed significantly on the day of filming.
Facing the prospect of years behind bars, Tilly asks Lyle “Are you gonna wait for me?” clearly taking for granted that he will say yes. In the script, Lange revealed, Lyle was meant to say yes, but in the final episode he stays silent.
“On the day of, [director] Ben [Stiller] was like, ‘What if he doesn’t say anything?'” Lange recalled. “It gave him some dignity back, and it left her really wondering what has she done, and what has it cost her.” This moment of resistance was important for the character, though Lange acknowledged that it bends the truth.
“I don’t know that the real Lyle has the same opinion,” Lange admitted. “He still claims that it all didn’t happen, to some extent. But I always viewed him as the emotional center. This tabloid sensationalized story is going on, this tornado of stuff, and in the middle of it is this one man who’s getting his heart broken.”
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