Having already won a SAG Award, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award for her role in Showtime’s “Escape at Dannemora,” Patricia Arquette competes in the Emmy derby as the favorite to win Best TV Movie/Mini Actress, according to Gold Derby odds (37/10).
What makes her performance so winning is the complexity of her real-life role as Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell, a prison worker who helped inmates Richard Matt (Benicio del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) break out of the Clinton Correctional Facility in upstate New York in 2015. At various times, she’s villain, victim, vulnerable and fierce, but always a rumbling volcano that keeps TV viewers watching and waiting for her to pop.
It’s hard to root for Tilly when we meet her as she cheats on her husband Lyle by having quickie sex trysts with both inmates on the sly. Then she reveals no fidelity to the U.S. justice system as she conspires to assist their flight, usually betraying a gaze full of secret rage over her meaningless, broken life.
Tilly has a long history of selfish behavior. It’s revealed in episode six that she cheated on her previous husband, too, even gained custody of their child by providing judges with misleading evidence about him, all without noticeable signs of remorse.
But there are several key scenes in “Dannemora” that portray her somewhat sympathetically and help to define Tilly’s character as having much more depth.
At zero hour of the planned prison breakout, Tilly is overcome with hesitation, regret and a panic attack so severe that it forces the inmates to proceed without her help. After a three-week manhunt, Matt is shot and killed by the police, while Sweat is captured and sent to Auburn Correctional Facility.
In another scene, Tilly backs out of a plan to drug her husband’s soda while she’s overcome with guilt and fear. Later, when she’s ultimately arrested at home for her complicity in the prison break, she takes a poignant moment to remind her husband to take the food out of the oven before it burns.
When “Dannemora” reaches its final moments, we see Tilly in prison and the haunted expression on her face reflects the rich diversity of her impactful performance. Tilly and TV viewers inevitably must think: she could’ve made the ultimate escape from Dannemora if only she’d behaved quite differently.
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