The miniseries is in full flower right now, offering major stars willing to commit to six or seven episodes but not open-ended runs. Enter two such projects, both dealing, as it happens, in sexual manipulation: “Escape at Dannemora” – a stranger-than-fiction prison escape story, airing on Showtime – and AMC’s “The Little Drummer Girl,” which expands John le Carre’s espionage novel into a sharply drawn, six-part international thriller.
“Dannemora” feels like the more distinctive tale, even if it unfolds at what initially feels like a snail’s pace, painstakingly recounting the 2015 escape of Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro) and David Sweat (Paul Dano) from the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York. The two are aided by prison worker Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), who, despite being married to one of the guards, had sexual relationships with both of them.
Tilly is the most fascinating character, filled with need and unhappiness, and Arquette fearlessly plays this wholly unflattering role with absolute abandon. Her trysts with Matt in the machine shop – essentially an open secret among the inmates – might be the least glamorous sex ever put on screen, and only become stranger when she moves on to Matt after Sweat is reassigned.
Directed by Ben Stiller with an emphasis on authenticity, “Dannemora” makes clear Tilly wasn’t the only one bedazzled by Matt, with the ever-reliable David Morse as a guard who provides him with protection and privileges in exchange for his remarkable artwork.
The later episodes, focusing on the escape, essentially play like a more protracted version of “The Shawshank Redemption,” with the added proviso that when it comes to prison escapes, one ought to avoid assistance from people who don’t keep secrets very well.
Mostly, the project serves as a showcase for the actors. They provide plenty of reason to watch, but like Matt’s elaborate plan, when it comes to “Escape at Dannemora,” patience is required as well as rewarded.
“The Little Drummer Girl” also features formidable star power, with Michael Shannon and Alexander Skarsgard as the Israeli operatives that recruit a young actress, Charlie (“Lady Macbeth’s” Florence Pugh), to infiltrate a Palestinian terrorist cell in the late 1970s.
The opportunity presents itself when they capture a terrorist leader, one who seduces young European women, before using them to plant bombs – a tactic demonstrated at the outset in horrifying detail.
The tradeoff is that the Israelis must engage in their own questionable behavior to convince Charlie to literally play along, with Skarsgard as the conflicted warrior, whose own seductive powers are brought to bear as he seeks to train Charlie to survive the gauntlet of suspicion she’s destined to face.
Fundamentally, “Little Drummer Girl” probes longstanding questions about battling terrorism, and the extent to which those seeking to thwart attacks are willing to go, even if it means sacrificing innocents in the name of the cause. It’s an exercise in moral ambiguity, in a way that brings to mind not only le Carre’s books but the movie “Munich.”
South Korean director Park Chan-wook exploits the international locales, and the script wisely restores Charlie’s status as an aspiring 20-something British actress, as opposed to the American movie star that Diane Keaton played in the 1984 movie.
Produced in association with the BBC – a reunion with AMC after “The Night Manager” – and scheduled over three successive nights, the miniseries capitalizes on the format to flesh out the characters, without sacrificing tension or pace.
All told, it’s a fitting follow-up. And while le Carre’s works have a long screen history, when it comes to spinning his detailed yarns into miniseries, the spies have it.
“Escape at Dannemora” premieres Nov. 18 at 10 p.m. on Showtime. “The Little Drummer Girl” premieres Nov. 19 at 9 p.m. on AMC.