If Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) can break his way out of a maximum security penitentiary like Fox River, if he can escape the clutches of a Panamanian prison like Sona, then is it really so far-fetched that he can think his way out of a box - even if that box is a coffin?
It's the central question at the heart of Prison Break, the Fox drama from creator Paul Scheuring, which returns April 4 after seven years on ice for a limited nine-episode run. The show's comeback is surprising on a number of levels, including the fact that the lead character - Scofield, a brilliant engineer and escape artist with a penchant for tattoos and origami - died at the end of the original run, via an electrifying sacrifice play made on his wife Sara Tancredi's (Sarah Wayne Callies) behalf. How is it possible that he's still alive, all these years later?
"Well, that's the mystery!" executive producer Michael Horowitz tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Obviously he may have died at the end of season four, and so that's the fun creative box we've had to write our way out of. Paul had a great answer for it. As the season goes on, people are going to figure out how Michael became who he is now, how he got there, and how it all happened."
While the specifics behind Michael's apparent resurrection remain under wraps for now (and remain a central mystery through the season's early episodes), there was no doubt in creator Paul Scheuring's mind that the show could not go on without Miller's protagonist in place.
"There's no show without him," Scheuring tells THR. "We obviously had to bring him back. I thought about a few things. One, we have to bring him back in a fashion that's palatable enough for the audience where they're saying that's cool, and actually making it the mystery of the season: how could this guy come back? Part and parcel with knowing we need to bring Michael back, there had to be an emotional core to the story, and at the end of season four, Michael has died and his wife is newly pregnant. To me, [the new season] felt like the story of a man who died and has been rebirthed, and his whole thing is about getting back to his wife and the child he's never seen."
Do those story details sound familiar? If so, it's by design: just as Scofield's body is covered in tattoos that inform his future plots and schemes, so too is the new season of Prison Break covered in ancient blueprints.
"I started thinking, 'Wait, I know this story. It's The Odyssey,'" says Scheuring. "Odysseus disappeared for seven years after the Trojan War and had to get back to Ithaca to Penelope and Telemachus. It's very much the same thing here. We don't pull any punches about it. Sara lives in Ithaca now, [a mysterious entity known as] Poseidon is trying to stop Michael. This is very much a modern rendering of The Odyssey."
"It's international, it's epic, across oceans, across continents," adds executive producer Vaun Wilmott, weighing in on the further parallels between Prison Break season five and The Odyssey. "Characters have to come back together across huge spaces. That absolutely informed our storytelling, and within that framework, we used the Prison Break model of clues and surprises and messages and coding."
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Another explicit reference to the epic poem comes in the form of the prison at the heart of the new season: Ogygia, an island featured in The Odyssey, where Odysseus was trapped for seven years - the same amount of time since Prison Break was last on the air. In the context of the show, Scofield's new prison home of Ogygia resides in Yemen, on the brink of civil war.
"I don't think Paul was trying to be timely in terms of conflicts in the Arab world, terrorism or anything like that; it just turned out to be timely," Wilmott says of the decision to set much of the show's action in Yemen. "The goal more was to put Michael in an old place, a place of mystery, that feels far away - a place where it's known that the prisons are particularly awful, tough and harsh. That alienness and foreignness was more the choice than anything else. It turned out to be very timely, but originally, just tracking along with The Odyssey, what's an old mystical place?"
"For me, it really was not trying to make a political statement, or anything like that," adds Scheuring. "Getting inside baseball here, I thought, if we're coming up with a new season of the show, it can't be a whole season of Michael Scofield getting the yellow key to unlock the pink lock to get out of the green prison. We've done that before. I think it would've been a disservice to the fans. For me, I felt like the prison escape should almost be the opposite of what you think it's going to be. The rug gets pulled out from underneath you right when you're going to make the escape. Subsequent to that, it becomes a story about getting out of a country, in the vein of Argo. What's the most harrowing stranger in a strange land setting for this, both for Michael in a prison and for [his brother] Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) trying to aid him, but for it to be a country that collapses and falls under control of ISIS? That itself becomes an additional escape situation. That's what I was trying to satisfy, rather than saying anything political about the Middle East, which is the last thing I want to do."
With that said, the fact remains that ISIL plays a large role in the new season of Prison Break, a charged notion to be sure. As a means of balance, Scheuring says the new season will feature heroic characters within the faith of Islam, including one familiar face from the earliest days of the series.
"I wanted to pay proper respect to Islam as a religion, because it can get very vilified in the west and in America," he says, "with a sense that everybody in Islam is somehow a terrorist, which is of course patently absurd. So what would be better than not just introducing some very noble Islamic characters, like Sheba (Inbar Lavi), but also if one of our main characters, C-Note (Rockmond Dunbar), has converted to the faith? We see a nobility in association with that faith. I hope it'll be considered a measured and circumspect view."
Far away from the action in Yemen (which was realized onscreen through weeks of production in the Moroccan city of Ouarzazate), some other familiar Prison Break faces make moves of their own - including Theodore "T-Bag" Bagwell (Robert Knepper), who was Michael's deadliest adversary once upon a time. When the season begins, T-Bag is fresh out of a years-long stint in prison, released by a mysterious benefactor, and given a brand-new prosthetic hand to boot. ("It looks like it's sci-fi, but that's actually prosthetics now," says Scheuring, when asked if T-Bag's new hand signals a turn for the science fiction. "That's what a high-level prosthetic hand looks like now. That's 2017. That's not sci-fi.") Is it the beginning of a path to redemption for the show's most prolific serial killer? It's at least a sign of growth, according to Scheuring.
"One of the fun things about being off the air for the past seven years is that we've all grown," he says. "We've gone on to have kids, and in our careers we've had ups and downs and bumps and scars and bruises. That all comes to the table with these characters. They've all had something happen in the past seven years. They've gained more scars. In the case of T-Bag, here's a guy who's getting released in the world, and on some level, he doesn't know how to operate in the real world. Then a mysterious package comes to him. He looks at it as a calling. 'This is my journey.' A summon from the Gods, saying, 'Follow this. Your destiny lies here.' And in reality, it does. By the end of the season, he becomes more fully human than he's ever been in this series."
Beyond T-Bag, another crucial character returning from the earliest days of Prison Break is Sara Tancredi, Michael's star-crossed soul mate, and the mother of his child. In the years since the final episode of the series, Sara has remarried, and has moved on from her deceased former flame...until she finds out that he's not so deceased after all.
"On one level, this [season] is about a man getting back to the unfinished business of the woman he married, and ostensibly died on," says Scheuring. "Sara is critical as the end game emotionally for him. On some level, re-attaining that love is really the final stroke of coming back to life for Michael Scofield. That's the other half of his soul that completes him, as it were. She's critical in that sense. At the same time, she's a very active character. She starts to realize on her end of the story that she can help solve the mystery. She's critical."
Also critical: the dynamic between siblings Michael Scofield and Lincoln Burrows, affectionately known as "the Brothers" throughout the Prison Break fandom. As was the case in season three, the new season reverses the show's original premise: Instead of Michael trying to break Lincoln out of prison, it's the other way around, with the bruising big brother pounding the pavement trying to rescue his younger sibling.
"They both have this incredible magnetic drive to be together and help each other out of danger," says Horowitz. "As long as you have that [dynamic], then you get these amazing reunion moments and this amazing dramatic tension of having them find each other."
With that said, the Prison Break revival owes more to the first season of the show than any other year, with the creative team actively trying to recapture the lightning that made the journey of Michael Scofield so electric in the first place. The goal, according to Wilmott, is to create a new Prison Break story that satisfies longtime fans of the series, while simultaneously being accessible enough for brand new viewers.
"I certainly think you could watch the new season if you haven't watched the original four seasons, easily," he says. "It lends itself to a closed event series of a simple concept: a brother who is going to find his other brother, who was thought dead. I think Paul Scheuring's idea, which was really smart, was to go back to that first season and what worked so well with the dynamics. What made that first season so sticky in terms of storytelling and narrative? We distilled that to a much shorter order, only nine episodes. Everything is stripped away that doesn't need to be there. All of the things that are quintessential Prison Break from the first season are in this season. There are definitely characters we would have loved to bring back, but hard choices had to be made about who would be included. With nine episodes, you have to have time to service everyone's storylines. You don't want to overload it. In terms of new characters, it was a matter of what's the world and what's the situation. Who are the people that inhabit the Prison Break universe? What are the new iterations of that? Who are the fresh and dynamic people that we can introduce? I think Paul did an amazing job at having a vision for repopulating this world around all of the original main characters."
Indeed, the new season of Prison Break features a wide net of all-new characters, especially Michael's fellow Ogygia inmates. But it's not the setup for an all-new series of ongoing adventures, according to Scheuring.
"A lot of shows have been coming back for limited runs, like X-Files and Full House, and we really embraced that idea," says the Prison Break mastermind. "Wouldn't it be nice to get the band back together for a reunion tour? In the old zeitgeist, when we first came out 12 years ago, you really had to do 22 episodes, and it had to be a series in perpetuity. Now you can have these limited runs and closed-ended stories and limited one-offs. That was super appealing to me as a storyteller. Prison Break is such a single concept series. Hey, break out of prison! That can get very long in the tooth. We had 80 episodes in those first four years. The show was getting a little tired. It was nice to go away for a while, and now that we're back, it's for a tight and concise nine-episode narrative that doesn't have that baggage and mandate to have to go on in perpetuity. I wouldn't have done it if we had to come back with an open-ended story that had to go on for years and years."
In other words, Michael and Prison Break's return from the dead is envisioned as a one-time deal, a true final chapter in the saga of the brothers Scofield and Burrows.
"That's the thought," confirms Scheuring. "I didn't want to lead the audience on. I wanted to give them a one-time, nine-episode movie, as it were. And it wraps up. We're not saying, 'Come back next year!' There are no hanging chads. Nothing like that at the end of the season. This is a self-contained story."
Didier Baverel /FOX
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