I’ve just watched this entire HBO series in a month. It’s set inside a maximum-security American prison where liberal reformer Tim McManus has built ‘Emerald City’ – a jail within a jail designed for rehabilitation results. Em City is relatively relaxed. The cells are made of glass, prisoners can wear their own clothes, watch TV, work out in the gym and undergo confidential counselling sessions with nun turned psychiatrist Sister Pete – a necessary plot device in a world where people are conditioned very quickly to conceal their true thoughts and emotions. McManus, Sister Pete and chaplain Father Mukada are breathtaking in their persistence, plugging away for compassion and change within some of the most violent recidivist criminals in the US. The environment is so defined by lost hope and casual cruelty that the successes, when they come, are all the more well-realised and realistic. Gangster inmate Miguel Alvarez, having blinded a Latino guard, trains a guide dog for the blind man and, in a nice touch, coaches it to respond to bilingual commands. It shouldn’t work – but somehow it does.
It’s a charged and violent environment with an endless stream of graphic murders: stabbings, immolations, hangings, electrocutions, even crucifixions. An ambitious new drug dealer inmate lasts all of two scenes before getting his face burned off by the Sicilians. Not a day passes without a major incident; fear and tension coalesces in the air, the alarm klaxons ring out like office phones. Style reflects content. The show is heavy on atmosphere with a score like the creak and tolls of sunken ships. You can taste the paint and the sleepless hours. It’s the most intense viewing experience I’ve had with TV – there are scenes where I actually felt my heart rate increase, and it wouldn’t come down until some moments after the episode ended. (There is a little comic relief from the eccentric inmate Agamemnon ‘The Mole’ Busmalis, a bank robber who is always trying to tunnel his way out of the prison complex. Knocked back for privileges by the warden, Busmalis protests: ‘I’m very well behaved.’ ‘You dug a tunnel and escaped. Causing me considerable embarrassment.’)
Underneath the violence is the grinding hopelessness of men growing old in captivity while relatives die, wives file for divorce and connections to the out are severed, one by one. The show is narrated by Augustus Hill, a drug dealer and cop killer who’s lost more than most in his conviction: during the commission of his arrest, he is thrown off a roof by police, and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He speaks directly to us, and provides the thematic basis for each episode. He introduces the characters as they arrive, with a roll-call style rap of prisoner number, name, conviction and sentence against a bright and hazy backdrop of the crime – lit like a true memory, exposed and striated. During the first season he structures episodes around the concepts of health, sex, death and faith (there’s a lot of religion in Oz). Once the explanatory stuff has been set out and big ideas established, Hill’s narrations become esoteric, drawing on Norse mythology, the life of Napoleon, and the story of Orpheus. Hill’s not always coherent, but he’s always interesting. The show’s writers seem to have researched every aspect of prison life and place the Oz story in the historical context of doing time. (Did you know, for instance, that in medieval England criminals were locked in cages suspended in the air… hence our expression ‘jail bird’). Hill also weaves sociological points into the stories. The show takes place almost entirely in Oz but through it we get a reflection of the wider world – America refracted in cracks and shards.
We are introduced to Oz through a new inmate, Tobias Beecher. Most of the prison population are hardcore criminals with extensive tribal backup. Beecher is an educated litigator and family man from a privileged background. He is also an alcoholic and drunk driver, who is sent to Oz as an example when he runs over and kills a child. Without criminal connections or street skills, Beecher flounders in Emerald City, and is quickly enslaved (‘pragged’) by Vern Schillinger, head of the Aryan Brotherhood. Beecher performs the same role that McNulty did in The Wire. He’s a recognisable figure who leads the viewer into a scary and unfamiliar role. McManus: ‘His is a cautionary tale.’ If you think that prison is just for poor people or black people… think on.
The first series is a succession of painful humiliations for Beecher: he’s forced to lick Schillinger’s boots, to tear up photographs of his family, to eat legal documents for another prisoner’s appeal he’s working on, and to have a swastika tattooed on his backside. Schillinger also rapes him repeatedly, and gets him to perform at the prison variety show in drag. The scene is pure black comedy as Beecher takes the stage in full dress and makeup and almost floating with heroin. When he actually starts singing, in a lost and grieving voice, the laughter dies down, and the inmates watch his performance in a thoughtful and absorbed silence.
After this incident, the antidrug Schillinger kicks him out of their cell, and in a final indignity, forces him to leave into the general association area in a Confederate t-shirt. That is it for Beecher, who snorts a line of PCP, smashes the acetone wall with a chair, causing a shard of glass to puncture Schillinger’s left eye. Even angrier after a spell in the hole, Beecher corners Schillinger in the gym, beats him senseless, ties him up and takes a shit on his head. In one scene we see Beecher in solitary confinement, crushing his glasses. Whenever glasses are crushed, it is always symbolic. Hill narrates this scene:
If you listen to the poets, they’ll tell you that a big, bad event in someone’s life changes them. If you lose the woman you love or your legs, you suddenly find a kind of beauty inside yourself. That’s what they say, the poets. Truth is, you don’t. After a big, bad event, you only become more of the person you already were. It’s after a big, bad event that you find out the real person you always were inside.
Beecher is a civilised man reduced to violence… or a violent man liberated at last from the constraints of civilisation. ‘We always stick up for the underdog,’ Hill warns us. Beecher has started a war of attrition and counterrevenge, and combines a readiness for violence with legal and psychological trickery. He kills an Aryan-sympathiser guard using only his fingernails. Beecher’s worst point comes when he arranges the death of Andrew Schillinger, Vern’s son, sent to Oz for a racist murder very much like the killing of James Byrd in Texas, 1998. Andrew is a confused drug addict with a childhood bombarded with Nazi propaganda, and Beecher ends his life for the sins of the father.
And despite his evil ideology and countless horrific acts, there are sympathetic things about Schillinger. J K Simmons puts in a seamless performance as the Brotherhood boss. There is a underlying melancholy to everything Schillinger says and does. Much of the character’s menace comes from his drawn, pouchy face and pale, sunless eyes. When he is reunited with his surviving son, Schillinger’s face broadens in a grin that makes him look handsome. It’s an expression of uncompromised warmth and happiness, it crosses his face for maybe a second – and we never see it again. Agreeing to enter a reconciliation programme with Beecher, Schillinger says that ‘I just want a little joy in my life.’ He’s a sad man ageing behind bars.
But of all the characters (and Oz is very much an ensemble, I have barely covered it here) Beecher undergoes the most dramatic change. He’s a rational man entering what is in many ways a pre-rational society where the population has backslid to tribe, God and honour-based violence. If you wanted to be really pretentious about it, you could cast the Beecher/Schillinger feud as the conflict between Enlightenment reason and romantic blood and soil reaction. It’s a shame Augustus didn’t explore that in one of his soliloquys.
But the writers do not undo civilisation and just leave it there. Beecher wants to get his humanity back. He screams himself awake from nightmares of his original crime in which he doesn’t see the body of a child smash onto his windscreen but his living Oz self, bearded and feral. In the end, Beecher’s downfall is triggered not by his running battle with Schillinger but his love affair with Chris Keller, a charming and complex sociopath (a mesmerising show-stealer from Christopher Meloni). But there is a prospect of an honourable life for Beecher even if the rest of it is spent in prison.
I came late to this remarkable show and, like I say, have barely begun to do it justice. It’s not just the evocation of human degradation and the rise and flicker of humanity in humanity’s darkest places. Tom Fontana has tapped into something in contemporary man that is fascinated with prison. The jailhouse is a dark and heady pulse in our culture. The Shawshank Redemption became a surprise blockbuster and enduring classic while no stand-up routine is complete without a joke about prison rape. Samuel Johnson said that every man thinks worse of himself for having not been a soldier. In the same way, I think every man asks himself: ‘Could I survive this?’ Confinement fascinates us because to a greater or lesser extent we’re all unfree, struggling for a perspective beyond the barbed wire, waiting on quarter and parole where life will finally begin.