Thursday, August 25, 2016

Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 2

Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 1
Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 2

The Meaning

Writing about the Jewish slaves in the Exodus narrative, George Morrison said, “It took one night to Israel out of Egypt, but forty years to take Egypt out of Israel.”[1] Freedom is not a matter of location or title or legal declaration. Freedom is not something we can give ourselves, but can only be found in Christ. Though the writers of Prison Break never went that far, they came close.

All of the characters of the story are in prison whether they find themselves behind literally bars or not. Michael Scoffield, for example, is a prisoner to wanting to be a savior. Once he discovers his brother is innocent, he goes to the extreme of imprisoning himself in order to break his brother out. In each season, Michael feels guilty for his failures. The victims of "T-bag," he feels, are on his hands. He, personally, did not save those victims. He is to blame. Had he figured out a way to prevent Bagwell from breakout with him, they would still be alive. Likewise, when Michael and Lincoln finally arrive in Panama, Sara is on trial and he plots how he might save her. He is a slave to this. Early in the series we discover that Michael suffers from low latent inhibition which feeds his empathy towards those who suffer.

Lincoln is no different. From the time he was a child he acted rashly and without thought. He was in constant trouble and prison. This created a fractured relationship between him and Michael. While Michael always had a plan, Lincoln is quick to act. He is more of a bull in a china shop than a thinker. Yet Lincoln is no killer until season 3 as his character becomes very dark and non-remorseful. Lincoln is a man who is never in control. Though he is strong, he controls nothing. The one time he is innocent, he is declared guilty. He involvement in the case was due to his need to pay off mounting debts. Lincoln is portrayed as being strong enough to fight five men at one time, yet he cannot win a single fight. He, even as a free man, is a prisoner.

Sara Tancredi is also a prisoner. At first she is portrayed as a sacrificial, empathetic doctor who is the daughter of the Illinois governor who works at a local prison out of the kindness of her heart. Yet we discover she is a drug addict. She has used her position as a doctor to steal drugs for herself. The escape of the "Fox River Six" fuels her drug addiction until Michael wins her heart again. Her love for Michael does not cure her addition, it replaces it. Her affection for the escaped convict with questionable morals causes her to make poor and dangerous decisions herself. She is the Harley Quinn of the story and she too is a prisoner who cannot escape.

All of the other characters are the same. Theodore Bagwell was sexually abused by his father and pursues true love only to revert to violence when women do not return the favor. There is a brief moment of redemption for him when he refuses to murder his "true love" and her family and instead lets them go free. In season 4, Bagwell summarizes this overarching theme when he states (as a free man), "We are captives of our own identities living in prisons of our own creation."

Bagwell eventually takes on the persona of Cole Pfeiffer, one of the best salesmen for Gate. After it all falls apart, Bagwell asks an undercover FBI agent if such a lifestyle fit him. Bagwell was starting to believe that he could move away from crime, yet in the end he doesn't. Its a fantasy for the murderer to believe he could ever be free. He, as he said himself, is a captive of his own identity. Cole Pfeiffer was a myth.

Alexander Mahone is another great example. He is introduced in season 2 as a self-confident FBI agent assigned to catch the fugitives. Yet as his story unfolds, we discover he is a man riddled with guilt. He is a workaholic who obsesses with each case. A previous case proved to be detrimental to his mental, emotional, and spiritual health. One fugitive proved impossible to capture until finally Mahone secretly murdered the man and literally buried him in his own back yard. That guilt ruined his marriage and explains his involvement with the Company who organized his role as the lead investigator to capture the Fox River fugitives. Mahone, a free man, "manages" his guilt by taking strong, addictive pills to numb the pain. He eventually lands himself in Sona, a dangerous prison, where he must take even stronger drugs.

John Abruzzi, eventually killed in season 2, is a prisoner to his pride and power as a mob boss. Even as an escapee he insists on taking revenge on the man who turned him in. His wife protests yet he refuses and his stubborness leads to his death. Brad Bellick is a prisoner to wealth who cons prisoners while working at Fox River. When fired he chases the escaped convicts in pursuit of the $5 million. Through his entire narrative, he proves himself to be a man without a moral compass willing to sell anyone out for security and personal benefit.

The same could be said for virtually all of the major characters. Whatever side of the prison bars they are on, they are in chains. This does not imply, however, there is no redemption in the show, it is to say that imprisonment defines us all.

Regarding redemption, there are two ultimate options the show offers and neither are the right answer. The first is death. Both the deaths of Abruzzi and Haywire, the mentally disturbed escapee, are portrayed as liberating. Haywire was in pursuit of Holland and is told by Mahone that jumping to his death will get him there. His suicide is portrayed as liberating. While the rest of the convicts are running, Haywire is resting. C-Note, too, tries to commit suicide in order to protect his family though he ultimately fails. Such an act is viewed as heroic. Bellick's death is also heroic because of its sacrificial nature. In each of these cases, the characters do not find freedom until they find death.

The second source of redemption is hope rested in a faith in mysterious chance. Over and over again when their backs are up against the wall, the brothers tell each other that they "gotta have faith." At best, their faith is in luck which continues to be on their side. There is no God in the worldview of Prison Break. He is rarely mentioned and never a serious part of the narrative. So when the brothers mention "faith," they are not speaking of providence, but are trusting in a faceless and nameless force. There is no real freedom, let alone hope, in that.

This is why there is no real resolution to the story in the end. Yes the convicts and other characters are "justified" (to borrow a Christian term) when Scylla is finally recovered and the Company distroyed. Even with their acquittal, the show had established that they are prisoners even without the threat of imprisonment. Michael, the main character, is the closest thing the story has to a savior and even he falls short as he remains in bondage all the way to the end. Even his sacrificial death is not that of a spotless lamb. Perhaps this is why there must be a Season 5.

In the end, however, Prison Break puts a mirror up to human nature. We are all in bondage regardless of our "rap sheet." The only hope to freedom we have is a savior - a real one - that is not, himself, in chains. Michael Scoffield is not that Savior. Jesus is who, though like us in every way, was without sin, without bondage and therefore, can alone set us free.
You know we spend so much of our lives not saying the things we want to say . . . The things we should say. We speak in code, we send little messages; origami. So now, plainly, simply, I want to say that I love you both. Very much. And I want you to promise me, that you're gonna tell my child . . . that you're gonna tell my child how much they're loved everyday. And remind them how lucky they are . . . to be free, because we are. We're free now, finally. We're free.
-Michael Scoffield, final words

For more:
Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 1
Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 2
Christianity and the Small Screen: The West Wing
Christianity on the Small Screen: The Office
Christianity and the Small Screen: "Smallville"
Christianity and the Small Screen: Fox's "House, M. D."
Christianity and the Small Screen: NBC's "Crisis"
Christianity and the Small Screen: FBI Files   
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