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Religious Themes in Prison Break by Brendan O'Regan

I'll admit I started to watch Prison Break because of the considerable hype that preceded the series. I'm not a great fan of prison dramas but I was hooked after a few episodes.

Though there were the usual prison drama clichés (the sadistic guard, the failed escape attempts, the wise old long-term jailbird) and some rather unsettling violence the characters were extremely well drawn and there were many tense moments and intriguing plot twists. At the centre of this was the main character Michael Scofield, (played with dogged intensity by Wentworth Miller - pictured left) a young man who was trying to be moral, but also trying to break his brother out of jail. The brother, Lincoln, was on death row, apparently for a crime he didn't commit (though he was no paragon of virtue), framed as part of a dastardly conspiracy that reached the highest levels of the American political establishment - surprise, surprise!

Scofield was visually distinctive because of his earnest demeanour and shaved head, but mainly because he had a map of the prison tattooed on his body! This was a crucial feature of his well-planned escape attempt - central to the plot developments of Series 1 (original jail break), but fading in importance as the show moved into Series 2 (escapees on the run) and not at all relevant in Series 3 (back in jail, in Panama). But Scofield was morally distinctive also - he was driven by a single minded sense of justice in striving to free his brother, but wanted as far as he could to do this in a moral way. Frequently we saw he had a soft spot for weak and vulnerable prisoners - e.g. allowing a young man to join the prison break in Panama in Series 3. There were many instances of where he tried not to hurt people, and where he felt bad when people did get hurt inadvertently because of his actions, as happened often (e.g. a young prisoner he refused to help in Series 1). This came to a head in Series 2 (Episode 11 - "Bolshoi Booze") when he knocked over an old man in a shop raid when on the run after the successful prison break. Overcome by guilt for all the harm he has caused, he went to confession ("first time … in a long time") and wondered if he wasn't letting the end justify the means in all that he had done. Yet when the priest asks him to surrender to God he was reluctant.

This wasn't the first time that there was an overt religious reference or scene. In Series 1, one of the worst jailbirds, gangster John Abruzzi started seeing visions of Jesus on the walls of his cell. Maybe it was a stain but it was certainly Jesus-like and behaved mysteriously. It seemed that Abruzzi became a changed man, but the writers didn't seem to know where to go with this and the change didn't last long.

There wasn't much religion in Series 3 in which many of the main characters, along with some new ones were locked up in an appalling jail in Panama. Despite this savage environment the walls were covered with religious artwork, which acted as a curious backdrop to the vicious events unfolding. It was never clear why this was so, and this motif never really influenced the characters' behaviour. A more unsavoury "religious" element was that a prostitute who regularly visited the jail's criminal kingpin arrived on all occasions disguised as a nun.

Despite being a moral show in many ways, there were unsettling elements. Apart from the graphic violence, strong by TV standards) it was somewhat unnerving to find the most awful of criminals becoming almost likeable, or at least enjoyable, characters as the show grew on its audience. Worst of all was T-Bag, a murderer and child molester. He provides many of the shows lightest and darkest moments, but even he got humanised as we learned of his abusive upbringing. At one stage in Series 2 he released two hostages, untypical of him, and we got a rare glimpse of just a flicker of goodness. But there was no sentimentality and he continued to do evil. Many times Scofield had qualms of conscience about being responsible for this villain's escape and made efforts to have him recaptured to ensure the safety of others.

Then there's a strong revenge theme - even Scofield seems in danger of succumbing to this towards the end of Series 3 after his girlfriend has been brutally murdered by Gretchen, a female villain. Yet, when he had a chance to shoot this nasty woman he still hesitated until the chance was gone, so there's hope yet. Earlier he had tried to persuade his brother not to take revenge on the man who killed their father - once again events intervened before a decision could be made. Thought it has lost some of the intensity and verve of Seasons 1 and 2, there was enough going on in Season 3 to maintain a high level of interest. Series 4 promises to be less prison bound, which should open up the story to more possibilities. I'm hoping that the moral and religious themes will still figure in an intelligent, responsible and and respectful way.