Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here.
Welcome to the fourth installment of Recurring Episodes. This week, it’s not TV, it’s HBO, with Oz, the first hour-long original drama to air on the premium cable network. Spoilers abound after the jump.
The Show: Oz, which ran from 1997-2003 over six seasons, is the story of Oswald State Penitentiary, a prison in an unnamed state that resembles New York but acts as a stand-in for America as a whole. The first hour-long original drama to air on HBO was created by Tom Fontana, a writer most well-known for his previous work on Homicide: Life on the Street and St. Elsewhere, two of the most critically acclaimed dramas of the 1990s and 1980s respectively. The show follows an almost impossibly large cast of characters, from prison administration—Warden Leo Glynn (Ernie Hudson), psychiatrist Sister Peter Marie Reimondo (Rita Moreno)—to a varied group of inmates, and everyone in between. Oz is about the prison as a whole, but focuses predominantly on the experimental unit Emerald City, conceived of and run by the academic-leaning Tim McManus (Terry Kinney), and its inhabitants, including central characters Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen), a former lawyer convicted of vehicular homicide while drunk; Kareem Said (Eamonn Walker), a Muslim leader in jail for burning down a warehouse; Simon Adebisi (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), a devious and psychopathic African murderer; and Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau), the wheelchair-bound former drug dealer who serves as the show’s moral center and, in its voiceover and segue pieces, its narrator and Greek chorus.
In its first eight-episode season, Oz seemed primarily politically motivated, couching opinions about the problems with capital punishment, infringement upon prisoners’ rights, and other hot-button issues in bloody storylines involving the show’s criminal element and its correctional facility personnel, often showing the similarities between the two. While the first season was powerful, and concluded explosively with a riot in the season finale led by Said, it was not particularly indicative of the direction the show would take in the future—that is, to say, a bloody, densely-plotted soap opera of sorts full of double-crosses, murders, and the most highly-concentrated cast of hideous and horrible villains ever collected on television up to that point, and maybe since—including the aforementioned Adebisi, white supremacist Vern Schillinger (JK Simmons), and the devious double-crossing Irish crook Ryan O’Reily (Dean Winters), along with many more who came and went as the series kept its run going.
Why Oz? As the first HBO drama, Oz would be important even if it were not such a landmark show, if only for the path it paved in expanding the standards of what could be shown on television, from brutal violence to full-frontal nudity (both male, obviously in a prison, and female) and language. It also changed the game in terms of storytelling, in its beginnings and occasionally throughout an incredibly experimental show in terms of both its content (what it was about) and its means of storytelling. The aforementioned Greek chorus aspect of the show, with Harold Perrineau’s Augustus Hill narrating the thematic connections of all the plotlines in each episode in a number of strange and darkly humorous ways is only one of the show’s major innovations.
Beyond that, Oz, especially in its second, third, and the first half of its fourth seasons, is a lot of dark, bloody fun. With its continuing and interweaving plotlines, Oz became a soap opera for guys, with seasons and single episodes and even portions of episodes ending on cliffhangers that make the show the kind where a season on DVD can go quickly by in a marathon sitting.
It is also a show that went downhill very quickly after a certain point. The season finale of the first season was the perfect conclusion to its politically-motivated run, compellingly presenting a situation in which the viewer can root for anyone or no one. The fourth season, the first to run sixteen episodes instead of eight, was divided into two parts. In the eyes of many fans, the conclusion of that first part of the fourth season is where the show should have ended, a perfect conclusion to the more soap-oriented direction the show had taken after the first season with the death of the show’s most iconic character.
The Episode: “You Bet Your Life” takes its title from the game show Groucho Marx hosted in television’s early days, mentioned in the show’s opening narration by Augustus Hill as he brings focus to the theme that will unite all of the show’s interweaving storylines in this particular half-season finale: gambling. Each plotline’s main players will make a gamble, and as Augustus cleverly notes that unlike on Groucho’s show, the prisoners and guards of Oswald State Pen really do bet their lives.
The season’s most prominent overarching story has Adebisi slowly but surely taking over Emerald City after the experimental unit’s creator, McManus, is fired and his replacement, Martin Querns (Reg E. Cathey, owner of one of the coolest voices in screen history), allows him to deal drugs and do whatever he wants with the unit as long as there is no violence, without repurcussion. By this eighth episode, Adebisi has had his enemies in the Latin and Italian gangs removed from the cell block and replaced with more black inmates, and has consolidated his power by joining forces not only with all of the black criminal leaders, but with Said, the leader of the Muslims in Oz, as well. What is paradise for the villainous Adebisi, though, is not so for the rest of the prison’s population, and Said has a plan to bring him down even while planning to save his black brother in the process.
Like any soap opera worth its salt, though, Oz saves that big payoff for the end, instead paying off the season-length plots of some of its other major and minor characters:
- Warden Glynn, who had been running for lieutenant governor of the state alongside the state’s governor (Zeljko Ivanec, every bit as villainous as any one of Oswald’s prisoners), steps down from the campaign after his friend’s son, a former prison guard, unsuccessfully attempts to assassinate the governor. When he returns to his normal duties, he finds how out of control the prison has become in his absence.
- Detective Johnny Basil (Lance Reddick), undercover as a Jamaican drug dealer in an attempt to curb the narcotics operations inside the prison, finally reaches the end of his rope and confesses his crimes committed while undercover, including the murder of another prisoner who had threatened to expose him.
- The two likeable old guys of Emerald City, Bob Rebadow (George Morfogen) and Agamemnon Busmalis (Tom Mardirosian) get happy endings, at least to this portion of the season, when Rebadow recovers from brain surgery and Busmalis finds a new pen pal.
- Sister Peter Marie decides that she will indeed remain a nun, even though the sociopathic Chris Keller (Christopher Meloni) had made her doubt her vows.
All of this, though, is simple table-setting for the big payoff, which is over-the-top television at its best. O’Reily and Keller, stuck in Emerald City where their whiteness puts a target constantly on them, decide to take matters into their own hands to try and get things back the way they were before, joining forces in a plot to amp up the violence in Em City and bring the clamps back down on Adebisi and Querns. They kill an inmate and manage, through a series of quick maneuvers, to frame one of Adebisi’s lieutenants, both the violence and his lack of control over it slowly inching Adebisi out of Querns’ good graces.
Meanwhile, Said learns that Adebisi has been videotaping all of the sex, drugs, and debauchery going on behind the white curtains of his cell. In order to get access to the videotapes, he asks Adebisi if he can move into Adebisi’s pod. Adebisi agrees, though he knows that Said has come to destroy him. In one of the scenes leading up to the end, Adebisi says as much, and gives Said the videotape.
Said passes the tape on to McManus, who shows it to the warden and, in one fell swoop, Querns is gone and McManus has his old unit back. It seems the end of the show and the season, everything returned to normal, but only then to the real fireworks begin, as Adebisi, learning he is to be transferred out of Em City as he did to many others, pulls a blade and attacks Said, saying his prayers behind the white curtains of the cell. They struggle, Adebisi saying that giving Said the videotape was a test of his loyalty—a test he failed.
The camera then moves outside of the cell, observing only the white curtain blocking the action as the sounds of struggle continue. Finally, a red bloodstain begins to spread on the curtain, and Adebisi emerges, standing as if triumphant for a moment before falling down, dead. Said emerges, victorious but bloody, and something in his eyes says that something within him has changed, that he is no longer the Allah-fearing Muslim leader he once was, using violence only as a means to an end. It is obvious in the final shots that there is some of Adebisi in him as well, and that’s how the show ends.
It’s not TV, its NSFW!
That’s also how the series should have ended, one could argue. While Oz had killed off many a prominent character before, including the lead actor in the show’s pilot, and would kill off many more, it never recovered from the death of Adebisi, who as the prison show’s greatest villain was also its heart and soul. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje began the show as a background player, standing intimidatingly behind other more prominent black gangstas in the show’s early stages, but even by the end of the first season he was one of the show’s biggest draws, matching wits with the show’s other master manipulator, Ryan O’Reily, again and again. He could play over-the-top evil amazingly well, and that would have been enough for this or any show using him in such a way, but he could also give Adebisi a heart when he needed to.
Without his presence, the show lost focus. His death, the final part of a great half-season finale, would have been the perfect end to the show’s run. Were there strong episodes and plots once he left? Of course there were. But would they have been improved with a little bit of Simon Adebisi?
You bet your life.
Odds & Ends: In order to keep this writeup a semi-reasonable length, many characters and actors received short shrift, and some of the plotlines of the episode in particular and the fourth season in general did not get their due. What should be known, though, is that throughout its run Oz featured in recurring roles many great actors, many of whom have gone on to do wonderful things both on television and in film. The Law & Order franchise, in particular, featured a number of Oz players (Chris Meloni, Dean Winters, JK Simmons) in roles far different from the prisoners they played.
Not enough can be said about the interplay between Eamonn Walker and Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje in this episode and throughout the fourth season of the show; two heavyweights of acting and physical presence rarely share the screen so well.
Any television show on a long run trying to introduce new major characters would do well to take a lesson or two from Oz; new players were always easily integrated into existing storylines and getting important ones of their own. The setting had something to do with that (new prisoners coming in, others leaving—usually in a bodybag—all the time) but the show’s writers and actors pulled it off well on top.
The arm being tattooed in the show’s iconic title sequence is that of creator Tom Fontana, and, yes, it’s really being tattooed.
Next Thursday, May 19 – Batman: The Animated Series, Season 1, Episode 3: “Heart of Ice”