Escape at Dannemora: Don't confuse Joyce 'Tillie' Mitchell's mistakes with the monstrous crimes of David Sweat and Richard Matt
Ben Stiller told the past of the main characters involved in the infamous 2015 New York prison escape - in the form of individual flashbacks lined up after the other - and that helps us figure out just who the most sinister among Richard Matt, David Sweat, and Joyce 'Tillie' Mitchell is.
'Escape at Dannemora', Ben Stiller's riveting dark prison break show on Showtime, left fans on the edge of their seats. But Episode 6 did not deliver what fans expected, it delivered something more brutal, but exceedingly relevant. The monstrous crimes committed by Richard Matt and David Sweat were laid bare, and in a twist, it showed their prison employee accomplice Joyce 'Tillie' Mitchell as more than just a woman in love, and no less sinister.
There has been no subtlety on Stiller's part in portraying the deviance of the main characters on the show, and on the brink of its seventh and final episode, Stiller decided to play his cards and strip away any affections viewers might have for the protagonists. The flashbacks in question are fully intended to bring out the heinous sides of Matt (Benicio del Toro), Sweat (Paul Dano), and Tillie (Patricia Arquette) and it is done by acquainting viewers with the crimes (at least in the case of Sweat and Matt) that landed thnem in Dannemora.
In the sixth episode, we are taken all the way back to July 4, 2002, where Sweat, along with his cousin, and a third friend, are being confronted, just over the New York border, by Kirkwood Deputy Sheriff Kevin Tarsia. The trio are suspects in a recent robbery in Great Bend, PA. The face-off ends with the death of Tarsia under barbaric circumstances, primarily at the hands of Sweat. Sweat's mumbling “I’m sorry” to a horrifically injured Tarsia before his cousin fires the final two bullets, is a vapid effort to etch a bit of humanity into the killer. Why Stiller put it in is one of the few questionable moments in a near-flawless show.
After the horrifying murder of Terasia, Stiller takes us to the next story, which is Matt's. Matt has always been a condundrum, an artist with a violent past. But when Stiller introduces you to the extent Matt'sviolence, the viewer is left with the image of a savage who draws..
Matt, and his friend-cum-accomplice Lee Bates kidnap his 76-year-old former boss William Rickerson hoping he'll give them the location of a large sum of money the two believed Rickerson had access to. As the two criminals drive around with the old man in their trunk, Matt stops periodically to beat him up and finally breaks Rickerson's neck with his bare hands, chops up his body and throws the parts into the river before fleeing to New York.
But it is Tillie's story that's the most complicated, and where shades of grey begin to emerge. Stiller paints Tillie as a master of manipulation, leaving us unsure whethere she's just human or something far more sinister.
In Tillie's flashback segment, we see a younger version of her, circa 1993, where she's married to her first husband Kenny. The husband's name in real life was Tobey Jr. who apparently preferred to be left out of the show, but nothing else from Tillie's past was withheld. Back in 1993, Tillie was sewing footwear at an upstate factory, and having an extramarital affair. The said affair was with one Lyle Mitchell (Eric Lange) aka her meek, trusting husband when the events of Dannemora took place.
Tillie is harangued by her colleagues after the affair comes to light, but Tillie is a determined woman with no small sense of entitlement. When her ex-husband Tobey calls her a whore, she turns the situation into something that calls for Lyle taking a punch from Tobey. But is this love? Or just an act of extreme manipulation?
Granted, that is the question viewers have been confronted with ever since the sexually charged love triangle between Tillie, Matt, and Sweat emerged, but it also offers a clear perspective into the character of Tillie. True, no one should be judged by their past, but some things never change, and Tillie was always a thunderstorm of tantrums and meltdowns, ready to play the victim card and squeeze herself out of accountability, and her most loyal weapon is sex.
The real Tillie, even though still incarcerated, hasn't shied away from slamming Ben Stiller's portrayal of her personality, her character, and her contribution to the prison escape that led to a $23 million manhunt and investigation back in 2015 when it happened. "I never had sex with them," said the now 54-year-old about Matt and Sweat, to the New York Post. In real life, Matt was eventually shot and killed, and Sweat was shot and arrested. He is still serving time, much like Tillie, who also told the outlet: "Ben Stiller is a son-of-a-bitch liar just like the rest of the world. He doesn’t care about the truth. All he cares about is making millions off me. He’s an idiot."
Stiller addressed Tillie's remarks: "I was just trying to tell the story in as real and hopefully as entertaining a way as possible without exploiting," he told Deadline. "I’m sorry she feels that way. It can’t be fun to be in prison and I don’t have any ill will towards her in particular."