(Em)Placing Prison Break: Heterotopic Televisual Space and Place – Angie Knaggs

Your inside is out,
And your outside is in
Your outside is in,
And your inside is out

(John Lennon and Paul McCartney)


Screen geography is a growing trans-disciplinary field that focuses on mapping the cinematic terrain. The ‘spatial turn’ in cultural studies has led to a change in the focus on visual media to incorporate the role of space and place in representational and identity theory. Recent research into film spatiality has engaged in a variety of topics, for example: race,[1] gender,[2] the city[3] and cultural identity.[4] However, attention to televisual representations of space has been nominal – a rare example of this is by Billingham (2000). This paucity is perhaps due to the vast array, and constantly mobile nature, of spaces represented on television. However, film also represents an assemblage of mobile spaces. Television is conceivably more varied in its multitude of consumption spaces – home, computer, mobile phone and public transport – however television is also more distinctive in terms of its relationship with time. Time and space are intrinsically linked, but the immediacy of television makes the analysis of the intersection between time, space and televisuality difficult. Expanding the field, this paper examines the ways in which Prison Break has instantiated and explored the question of televisual spatiality. I focus on how the text disrupts and contests customary notions of identity through the construction of heterotopic spaces, thus focusing the paper on how identity is intertwined with televisual space, place and narrative. I utilise Foucault’s concept of ‘heterotopia’, a site that both reflects and contests place at the same time, to establish an understanding of the nature of the televisual spaces in Prison Break.

The paper turns to the text and moves through the series’ key diegetic spaces methodically, examining the heterotopic nature and the implications of each. Prison Break (executive producers Brett Ratner, Paul Scheuring, Matt Olmstead, Marty Adelstein, Dawn Parouse and Neal Moritz), which premiered in United States on August 29, 2005 (and ran until May 15, 2009), was one of Fox Network’s most successful serialised prime-time television drama shows. The series was a gallant representation of the US prison system that was both compliant in the construction of the institutionalised disciplinary economy of the ‘super maximum’ security prison complex and undermined it. The Prison Break narrative revolved around antihero protagonist Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell), whose difficult personality and shadowy nature makes him a compelling foil for his brother, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), who sacrificed his own freedom to help his brother escape from prison. The brothers, along with six inmates (also known as the Fox River Eight): Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell (Robert Knepper), Fernando Sucre (Amaury Nolasco), David “Tweener” Apolskis (Lane Garrison), John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare), Benjamin Miles “C-Note” Franklin (Rockmond Dunbar), and Charles “Haywire” Patoshik (Silas Mitchell), escape in the season one finale and flee from the law. This paper will examine seasons one, two and three as they unfold through televisual space.

Heterotopia and Prison Break

While it has been widely accepted that Foucault’s accounts of the concept ‘heterotopia’ remain brief, the notion has incited numerous interpretations and applications across the academy. Foucault presents two kinds of spaces, ‘utopias’ and ‘heterotopias’, as emplacements that “have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralise, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect” (2002, 3). Utopias are, as Foucault describes, “sites with no real place” (2002, 3). There are many interpretations of what utopias are, and Foucault does not enter into this debate, but rather concedes that utopias are, at the very least, ‘unreal spaces’ (2002, 3). Heterotopias, on the other hand, are a counter emplacement, in which “real sites … are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted” (Foucault 2002, 3). While ‘utopia’ refers to the inverse of normal society that exists only in our imagination, ‘heterotopia’ highlights those ‘real’ institutions that interrupt the continuity of everyday space. ‘Heterotopia’ is a vast concept, but at its basic level refers to emplacements that both reflect and contest. As Johnson states, “‘heterotopia’ is derived from the Greek heteros, ‘another’, and topos, ‘place’, [and] is used within a broad typology to distinguish these emplacements from ‘utopia’… it is worth noting that heterotopia is originally a medical term referring to a particular tissue that develops at a place other than is usual. The tissue is not diseased or particularly dangerous but merely placed elsewhere, a dislocation” (2006, 77). In a sense, the fundamental narrative of Prison Break requires the audience to understand that several of the main characters have become imprisoned through a similar dislocation of place. Michael purposely crafted a crime that incurred him jail-time in Fox River; Lincoln is set-up and placed on death row for a murder he did not commit and C-Note is a victim of a corrupt Commander. It is implied that these characters are not criminal as such, but rather in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The term ‘heterotopia’ has been applied to various media texts, and while Foucault never mentions television in his discussion of heterotopic space, it nevertheless provides a useful concept to approach television as a site of contradiction. Billingham (2000) examines the fictionalised ‘gay village’ in the British drama series Queer as Folk as an example of Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia. Bury (2005) applies the concept to female fan forums. Elliot and Purdy (2006) have applied the term to the cinematic work of Peter Greenaway, and Dove-Viebahn (2007) applies the term to Star Trek. What these applications have in common is a persistent association with spaces of resistance. The supposition is that heterotopias are sites of resistance against the hegemonic norm of everyday space. Johnson argues that “[a]lthough Foucault describes heterotopia as ‘actually existing utopia’, the conception is not tied to a space that promotes any promise, any hope or any primary form of resistance or liberation” (2006, 84). Heterotopias are fundamentally disturbing places that alter everyday life. Johnson submits that “[h]eterotopias draw us out of ourselves in peculiar ways; they display and inaugurate a difference and challenge the space in which we may feel at home” (Johnson 2006, 84). The heterotopic nature of televisual spaces in Prison Break refracts aspects of contemporary society through the text, unstitching, undermining and transforming quotidian space.

Foucault describes two main categories of heterotopia: ‘crisis heterotopias’ and ‘heterotopias of deviation’ (Foucault 1998, 4). Crisis heterotopias are “privileged or sacred or forbidden places, reserved for individuals who are, in relation to society and to the human environment in which they live, in a state of crisis” (Foucault 1998, 4). Foucault argues that these heterotopias are prominent in ‘primitive societies’, and are spaces for those in crisis: pregnant women, the elderly, the young and so on, who are sent to be ‘elsewhere’ than at home (1998, 4).  Foucault argues, however, that these heterotopias of crisis are being replaced within contemporary society by heterotopias of deviation, “those [spaces] in which individuals whose behaviour is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm” (1998, 4). The prison is the ideal example of such a place. The prison system has developed and evolved within society from an institution which held and executed prisoners to an industrial complex, and as Foucault argues “a society, as its history unfolds, can make an existing heterotopia function in a very different fashion” (1998, 4). The key space of Prison Break is the industrialised prison system of contemporary American society, Fox River State Penitentiary, a cold, dark maximum security prison with high walls, guard towers and row upon row of tiny prison cells. It is a heterotopic site, because as Johnson submits:

The prison and asylum are open-ended, ambivalent and contradictory places, enclosures for both punishing and generating criminals, for both liberating and morally imprisoning the mad. They are ideals full of fantasy, mirroring and at the same time inverting what is outside. Despite the moral intentions, the prison and the asylum become a source of fascination, a forbidden place of secret pleasures, an imaginary landscape (1998, 85).

Prisons are heterotopic spaces because, whilst everyone can enter, through the very fact of entering, one becomes excluded from society. Furthermore, those that find themselves incarcerated within the prison system arrive at a break with traditional time. Criminals do their “time” in their cells, away from society, within a temporal disruption. As Sucre notes to Michael in the Pilot, “Suggest you take seat, Fish. Nothing to do up here but serve time—and nobody gonna serve it for you.” They are no longer subject to regular time, rather they must conform to “prison time”, matching their displacement of space with a displacement of time.

This particular representation of prison space on television in Prison Break is significant because heterotopias are relational: they reveal and reflect that to which they are counter, providing a view of the illusionary other. Bunyan (2005) develops Foucault’s insights into spectacular punishment and argues that far from being an abandoned precursor to the contemporary prison, spectacular punishment is alive and well. The heterotopic site of the prison, according to Bunyan, does not seek to purge the crime, “but rather to mark zealously the body and the mind of the offender with the infamy” (2005, 176). Bunyan argues that this tactical deployment of the spectacle is different to Foucault’s panopticon surveillance model in that it is not the general public who witness the punishment but rather a select audience of external visitors and internal inmates and guards (2005, 176). Those who enter this heterotopic site from outside transgress the boundary between the prison and society forming an utter dislocation of place.

The key audience to the brutality and humiliation of the contemporary prison system are those incarcerated themselves. Bunyan argues that there is a troubled connection between “the enclosed spatiality of the prison, which attempts to absolutely separate the inmate from the outside world, and the corresponding division, in conventional morality, between good and evil” (2005, 177). The Prison Break heterotopic site of the prison turns this correspondence on its head, with the prison constantly being represented as the ‘evil’ place, and those incarcerated within it being constructed as righteous, just and good. Michael repeatedly delivers certain ‘good’ inmates from the evil of the prison system, the judicial system, and corrupt society. Bunyan argues that the modern prison system is designed as a means to forget those parts of our own society that contributed to the crime; in this way the prison allows a suspension of the belief in the good/evil division (2005, 178). Prison Break breaks away from this complacency that is often evident in representations of prisons on television, in shows such as Oz, which often reconfirm this division. Prison Break destabilises the invisibility and repression of this division and the prison system, constructing and revealing a heterotopic site of deviation that acts as a mirror to an increasingly morally complacent public who choose not to know about what occurs inside prison walls.

The spatiality of Fox River is oppressive. Bunyan argues that in prisons,  “the prisoners are confronted at every turn with spatiality closed off by the steel bars or razor wire. They are also absolutely laid open to the scrutiny of the prison guards” (2005, 179). In a sense, the prison guards, with their guns trained on the prisoners, represent the heterotopic boundary encoded into the architecture of the Fox River prison. They symbolise the complete regimentation and segregation necessary to isolate this heterotopic system. The prison guards are the only non-prisoners who have free access to the prisoners and the Fox River guards secure their power over the prisoners, often through physical violence. Thus, when Michael chooses to dig the escape tunnel through the floor of the guards’ breakroom, he is transgressing both the internal prison boundaries between prisoner and guards, and the outer peripheral boundary between the inside and outside.

On the Run, On the Road

However, the heterotopic spatiality of Prison Break extends further than the quite obvious use of the deviant prison space. Foucault argues that, “the heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several sites that are in themselves incompatible” (1998, 5). In the finale of Prison Break season one, after their daring escape from Fox River, the escapees are forced on the run across the United States of America. In Western culture, the road has practically always existed in some form, however it has undergone important changes as we have developed: from footpath, to wagon trail to carriage track to graded highway and multi-lane asphalt freeways. At first it was used by villagers and tribal groups to access local sites, gradually developing into a connecting grid of trails that provided access to different villages and groups. However, from the 19th Century, our obsession with mobility, resulting from the processes of industrialisation, urbanisation and capitalism, has transformed roads into sites of constant mobility and travel. In reconstructing the heterotopic space of the road, Prison Break, rather than interrupting normal space, simulates a common experience of place in the non-place of space. Auge (1995) has argued that post modernity has lead to a radical reworking of ‘place’. Place, Auge argues, is being replaced by ‘non-places’.

The multiplication of what we call empirical non-places is characteristic of the contemporary world. Spaces of circulation (freeways, airways), consumption (department stores, supermarkets), and communication (telephones, faxes, television, cable networks) are taking up more room all over the world today. They are spaces where people coexist or cohabit without living together (1995, 110).

Non-places are marked by their mobility and transience. Thus the road heterotopia is the transit of all places in a non-place. The road juxtaposes a single real space with the incongruous spaces through which it traverses. Johnson argues that for Foucault, “the heterotopian space par excellence provides a passage to and through other heterotopias… suggesting a relational aspect of these spaces; they form relationships both within the site and between sites” (2006, 80). In this sense, the road not only leads to and through different spaces, it incorporates them as well.

Foucault argues that for a space to be heterotopic it must not be freely accessible, and, in many senses, the road is freely accessible to all who want to travel on it. However, it is not the hard surface on which vehicles travel that is heterotopic; rather, it is the road mobilised in the act of journeying that is heterotopic. In Prison Break, the road is a space of purification from everyday life. This sense of abandonment is what sets this type of road journey apart from our everyday commute on the road. Thus the road can be both an everyday space as well as a heterotopic space. The road is also a heterochrony in that it breaks with traditional time through its constant state of temporal ‘chroniques’. For the individual, to go on the road is to begin a journey during which time is transient. It is dislocated from ‘normal’ time, which is particularly evident when the road traverses different time zones and travellers must literally reset their watches. In Prison Break, each character’s quest provides an encapsulated chronology to the road trips undertaken, and in this sense, ‘road time’ is ephemeral and uncertain.  Thus, the road in Prison Break is an ‘other’ space in which the characters can compensate for their own personal downfalls. In this sense, while the road can exist as a heterotopic space of both deviation and crisis, each character is also, through his individual quest motif, utilising the road to work through his crisis of masculinity, or the breakdown of his family. The road is ‘no where’; it is no place in particular. It is a place of no place. It is a space that is connected with all the sites of the landscape but is not a site in itself.

The road, as a televisual dramatic principle, links a small group of scripted narrative television drama series. Alvey discusses Route 66 (1960), one of the first example of a television road text, and argues that, “as with most road texts, Route 66 is a tale of both search and flight, and as a serial narrative characteristic of American commercial television, its central meaning lies not in some finite goal at the end of the road, but in the discoveries made along the way” (1997, 146). This serial was followed eagerly by The Fugitive (1963-1966), Incredible Hulk (1979-81), and Knight Rider (1982-86). Television road serials and road movies share many generic markers. Road television series are not films, and thus do not fit neatly into the road movie genre; however, perhaps we need to reconfigure this genre into a larger culture of the road that incorporates the distinctive use of the road as a story-telling device and thematic trope.

It is the quest motif that broadly links texts together in the expanding road genre and as Corrigan argues, it “propels the usually male characters along a road of discovery” (1991, 143). The Fox River Eight, as they are known, embark on individual learning experiences, each leaving the familiar behind through the transformative process of mobility through space. For example, Tweener meets Michael as a fellow prisoner of Fox River after receiving a five-year prison term for stealing a baseball card. Tweener is sexually harassed by T-Bag and is later raped by another inmate called Avocado (Daniel Allar). In desperation, Tweener castrates him with a razorblade and turns into a prison informant in exchange for leniency. In his post-escape journey, Tweener relearns his own humanity when making a connection with a young student, Debra Jean Belle (Kristin Malko) whom he joins on a road trip to Utah from St. Louis. She allows him to steal her car, despite knowing that he abused her trust. Tweener is later apprehended by an FBI Agent, Alex Mahone (William Fitchner), but refuses to give Scofield’s location away, and misleads the police to Debra Jean’s house, where he apologises to her, thereby undoing his betrayal of both the Fox River inmates that he informed against, and Debra Jean. The road, for Tweener, was a superior perspective, keeping him from wandering into dangerous, unmarked space, such as the side of the road, where Mahone eventually guns him down in cold blood.

Corrigan argues that the post-war road movie phenomenon finds its generic consistency in the converging of four features that connect the genre to the post-war culture in the United States. First, road movies are a response to the post-war breakdown of the nuclear family unit, which disempowered the male subject (Corrigan 1991, 145). Second, “in the road movie events act upon the characters: the historical world is always too much of a context, and objects along the road are usually menacing and materially assertive” (Corrigan 1991, 145). Third, Corrigan argues that the road movie protagonist enthusiastically identifies with his or her vehicle, which “becomes the only promise of self in a culture of mechanical reproduction” (1991, 146). And finally, in a masculine centric genre, the road movie constructs an escapist fantasy that defines the road as a resistant space.

In the first episode of season two, Lincoln’s childhood sweetheart, lawyer Veronica (Robin Tunney) finds Terrence Steadman (the man Lincoln supposedly killed) alive in an estate in Montana, proving Lincoln’s innocence; however, agents from arrive and kill her in order to keep Steadman hidden. Michael’s romantic interest, Sara (Sarah Wayne Callies) overdoses on morphine following Michael’s escape through her prison clinic, and is arrested by the FBI immediately following her recovery. She spends most of this season separated from Michael. Thus, all the characters involved in this on the road cat-and-mouse game are male, and Corrigan argues that “the contemporary road movie… responds specifically to the recent historical fracturing of the male subject” (1991, 138). Corrigan expands on this argument; “as a genre [that] traditionally focused almost exclusively on men and the absence of women, the road movie self-consciously displays the crisis of gender, so central in stabilizations of any genre, around the seemingly peculiar and historically recent proliferations of the threat of male hysteria” (1991, 143). Thus, the road becomes a figurative space in which male identity is limited to the space and place of the road.

Michael and Lincoln remain a tight knit narrative pairing throughout season two, and their relationship is typical of road movies. As described above and by Corrigan, “they [road movie protagonists] are people with male buddies, usually a pair whose questing will only be distracted or, at best, complemented by the women who intrude from time to time” (1991, 144). However, while from different backgrounds and cultures, C-Note, Abruzzi, Sucre, Lincoln and Mahone all seek to be reunited with their families at the end of their journeys. Even T-Bag, in his own psychopathic fantasy, seeks to be reunited with an old flame and her family, even if this means holding them hostage at gunpoint, and Haywire relishes the role of a substitute son when he invades the home of an elderly blind woman. Cohan and Hark submit that the road movie “has as much to do with representing modernity, its historical achievements as well as its social problems, as it does with reiterating masculine fantasies of escape and liberation” (1997, 3). Thus, in a way, the genre is defined by its uncomfortable dialectical positioning of “conservative values and rebellious desires” (1997, 3). Thus the road, in Prison Break, functions as an alternative, masculine space where isolation from general public space permits various transformations amongst the Fox River Eight and those that seek them. However, the text also imagines an ultimate reintegration of the fugitives back into the dominant culture.

Corrigan (1991) submits that the road narrative is a response to the post-war breakdown of the family unit, which in turn results in the destabilisation of the male subject. Prison Break responds to this decline of the family by focusing on the reunification of the family, thus re-instituting the patriarchal structures broken down by the institutional incarceration of the men.  Each reunion quest is impeded by various obstacles along the way. For example, in ‘Otis’, Michael and Lincoln try to rescue his son (L.J) from a courthouse in a daring escape plan; however, Mahone intercepts them and Lincoln’s son is sent to a detention centre in Arizona, even further away from Lincoln and Michael. Lincoln’s son is later set free in a trap set by The Company to capture Lincoln. Although Lincoln and his son are able to escape, they are later arrested while on the road in ‘Unearthed’. Lincoln’s father saves them, and L.J is sent away for safety. Thus Lincoln’s quest to be reunited with L.J leads to their forced separation. Willis argues in that “road movie protagonists, even if they travel in small groups, are usually isolated and solitary… but their journeys are inevitably social… whatever [the protagonists] relationship to a community, it is structured in and through a reciprocal gaze” (1997, 287). Thus, the masculinity constructed through the space of the road in Prison Break can be viewed as a reflection of the non-masculine space, off the road, that represents the end of the narrative for each character: the patriarchal family unit, a form of hegemonic masculinity.

In Prison Break, the road is a symbolic space for the redemption of the family, but it is also a wholly masculine space encapsulated in the constrained environment of the cars, trains and buses used by the Fox River Eight to further them on their quest. It is the space off-road that then defines the space on the road, and in the case of the fugitives, the domestic environment of the home, a female space, is a space in which they are wholly uncomfortable. Haywire enters the home of an elderly blind woman and pretends to be her long-lost son, grabbing a knife menacingly when she begins to suspect something and calls 911. C-Note watches his wife and child through the window, while T-Bag holds his ex-girlfriend and her two children hostage, first in their home, and then in the basement of his childhood home, the abusive domestic space responsible for his deviance. In the episode ‘Scan’, Michael, Lincoln, T-Bag, Tweener, Sucre and C-Note reunite from their separate journeys to retrieve the money buried in Utah by Westmoreland. The group put aside their differences to work out where the money is buried, since half of the map has been destroyed. They locate a house that was built over the burial site as part of a new residential suburban neighbourhood. The suburban-ness of this place emphasises the domesticity of this female environment. The group pose as a work crew from the electrical company and the unsuspecting housewife lets them into her home. The invasion of this domestic space is further emphasised by the physical ground-breaking and permanent transgression of the boundary between the female domestic space and the male space outside of domesticity. Due to his incapacitated state, T-Bag is put in charge of the woman (Jeanette), whom he flirts with and propositions, and later her policewoman daughter, whom he leers at and finds threatening. When the policewoman arrives, Jeanette tries to escape. T-Bag holds a hammer to Jeanette’s head, saying, “Don’t say a word, you old whore. Or I’m gonna cut your throat out” and says to Michael, “She’s our only way outta this, pretty.” Thus, the domestic space transforms from an entry-controlled space that the men con their way into using charm and charisma, to a threatening space of captivity that they have to violently exit. The situation escalates when the policewoman fights off T-Bag and the domestic space becomes a threatening environment for the men, who subsequently flee the scene, with the money, back onto the road. Corrigan submits that “[t]he road movie embodies the endless potential of future space, outer space, and a past that is continually fleeing. The car becomes the only promise of self in a culture of mechanical reproduction… boundaries disappear in a car and with them the sanctions, securities, and structures of family tradition” (1991, 146). In a sense, representations of mobility replace ‘being’ with ‘becoming’, that which is future space, and reinforce a separation between the masculine mobility of the road and the domesticity of the sedentary, female place, which is at once attractive and threatening because it both defines and opposes the male road space. Thus, mobility as a centralising theme of road-based masculinity and control over large non-spaces is being juxtaposed against mobility as a reaction against the hegemonic norm of familial responsibility and domesticity. It is very hard to distinguish the ways in which the masculine element catalyses these changes in the feminine space from the ways in which the feminine space changes the journey and the road space. Prison Break thus celebrates the search for the masculine subject through spatial anxiety due to unstable familial spaces.

Borderlands, Bordercrossing

At the end of season two, each of the characters’ quest narratives enters a new phase that leads them individually ‘south of the border’. Season three of Prison Break came at a time when ‘borderlands’ was a national issue, with President George W. Bush mandating a massive, reinforced wall to be built on various parts of the US-Mexico border in response to growing moral panic about border-crossers. Fregosa argues in that “[c]apital may be borderless in the globalized economy, yet the nativist social order of the United States responds to economic uncertainties by reinforcing the boundaries of national belonging through racial, ethnic and sexual exclusion” (1999, 170). Within this panicked state, the border is a boundary line between nations that are ‘different’ and need to be kept separate. Those that transgress this border are demonized because they are attacking the sanctity and integrity of the border. In the Prison Break imaginary, the border and representations of the remaining fugitives as border-crossers re-inscribe the racialised and xenophobic boundary of citizenship and the nation-state of the United States.

Each of the fugitives crosses the border in his own way. T-Bag, Bellick and Sucre each fly into Mexico. Sucre catches a private flight into Mexico in a light plane, which Mahone and Border Security order to be shot out of the sky. When the pilot realizes they won’t make it, he hands Sucre a parachute and instructs him to “pull the cord and pray”, launching Sucre off into the Mexican desert with few or no supplies. T-Bag and Bellick arrive separately on the same commercial flight and arrive in Mexico as American tourists. Sucre’s Americanized-Latino experience is far from the American-in-Mexico package tour. He is forced to travel on dodgy non-English speaking third world buses complete with the stereotypical chickens on the roof. Despite his Latino heritage, he is eventually kicked off this local form of transport for not paying. Even in Mexico, Sucre cannot get a break, until he meets a kind older man who offers him a place to stay for the night. While T-Bag and Bellick are staying in air-conditioned tourist hotels, Sucre has immediately assimilated into Mexican culture through his appearance and language. Despite the local people’s innate trust in Sucre, he actually steals the Good Samaritan’s car in order to continue in his journey to meet his fiancé Maricruz at the airport. Maricruz, who does not appear to speak Spanish, arrives in the same Americanized-tourist way as T-Bag and Bellick, which indicates her ‘otherness’ within Mexico despite her Latin appearance. Bellick catches up to Sucre and Maricruz on a farm in Mexico. The disrespectful and disdainful manner in which Bellick enters the house and threatens Sucre continues the American-in-Mexico stereotype central to this border-crossing sequence. For Sucre, crossing the border was a kind of homecoming, for he easily blends in with the local people, who treat him with respect. But for Bellick and T-Bag, crossing the border was an act of transgression, whereby the rules of ‘home’ no longer apply within this ‘other’ space. Within this consequence-free environment, Bellick strikes up an unlikely alliance with Sucre to track down T-Bag and steal his money. This kind of partnering would not be acceptable within the borders of the United States, where Sucre is an immigrant fugitive and Bellick a former officer of the law; however, in Mexico Sucre and Bellick have equal power.

While Mexico is portrayed in Prison Break to have a high tolerance for misbehaving Americans, when T-Bag kills a local prostitute, he transgresses the limit of what is acceptable behavior for a tourist and the police hunt him. He then escapes to Panama as a fugitive from the law in Mexico. Sucre and Bellick follow him in a bid to steal his money. Michael and Lincoln meanwhile have had to abandon their plans for exoneration and have sailed directly into Panama. Sailing into Panama is not typical transport for either tourists or locals, and thus constructs Michael and Lincoln as transient outsiders. Michael, Lincoln, T-Bag, Sucre, Bellick and those that chase them all congregate in Panama which has had a unique place within the cultural imaginary of the United States since it built the Panama Canal in the early 1900s. The canal has made Panama a space that people move through on their way to somewhere else. It is the road and rail gateway to South America and links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Thus, while Panama is a sovereign state with its own territorial boundaries, it also exists as a third space, a space in-between other spaces.  It is a space that incorporates that which is real and that which is imagined.

In Prison Break, Mexico is an ‘other’ space, a transgressive space, but Panama is a trans-border space where characters and previous storylines are inverted. In the third season, Lincoln is on the outside and Michael is incarcerated. Michael finds himself in SONA, a Panamanian prison run by the inmates and guarded only from the perimeter since the violent riot one year before – a sharp contrast to the ordered close contact surveillance of Fox River. A private operative kidnaps those closest to him in order to force Michael to break another operative out of SONA. Furthermore, T-Bag is shown in the end of season three to have kindled a relationship with a Panamanian prostitute who helps him escape from SONA. T-Bag treats this woman with affection, and, as he returns to the United States following his escape, she is very much alive and holds no apparent negative feelings for T-Bag. Thus, in Prison Break, Panama seems to be this imagined ‘wonderland’ of opposites and inversions. Throughout season two, Michael and Lincoln discuss getting on a boat in Panama and sailing far away, but realistically, Panama is portrayed as a contradictory place which is not America, but also not the cowboy land of fugitives and outlaws imagined by the brothers, who do not sail away into the sunset.

The border, much like the prison, is a place that is away from regular space. Barrera argues that, “the border has been theorised as a heterotopia that becomes a trope – the trope du jour – of the “post modern condition” (2003, 166).  Barrera submits that post structuralist theory has appropriated the border space, replacing “the synecdoche of the nations it divides with a metaphor of liminal spaces and the co-existence of symbolic systems” (2003, 176). That which is ‘South of the border’ becomes a fantastical place, morally distant from the popular imagery of the United States. These borderlands in Prison Break are heterotopic sites of deviation and crisis. They are literally the places between other places: they connect all other places, but are themselves, non-places. Borderlands represent the juxtaposition of here and there, of them and us, and of safe and unsafe. This space, while often imagined as being free and accessible, as depicted in Prison Break, is not a freely accessible public space. There are visa and entry requirements, which the characters do not meet, that lead to Sucre, Michael and Lincoln having to do whatever they can to avoid the various checkpoints that regulate the borderlands. In this sense, while borderlands are open and freely accessible, they are also exclusionary. These borderlands are carefully constructed enclosures that expose and compensate for the neurosis surrounding unfettered bordercrossing into the United States. In this sense, Prison Break is constructing the United States from its borders, creating a space of illusion that exposes the real spaces of the United States. Thus, as societies’ needs and anxieties evolve, so too does the border.


How, then, are we to think about televisual spatiality? What can Prison Break tell us about it? Foucault’s account of heterotopias, however attractive, remains provisional and at times a bit baffling. Soja describes Foucault’s analysis as “frustratingly incomplete, inconsistent, incoherent” (1996, 162). It is also quite significant that Foucault only refers back to it so briefly, never returning to it in any persistent manner. This ambiguous treatment makes the social relevance of heterotopias unclear and inconsistent, threatening the internal coherence and external implications of this analysis. However, the concept of heterotopia reflects and connects with Foucault’s wider questioning of the intricacy of resisting power structures. As Johnson argues,

[I]t is an attempt to think differently about, and uncouple the grip of, power relations: to overcome the dilemma of every form of resistance becoming entangled with or sustaining power. Heterotopias in this way light up an imaginary spatial field, a set of relations that are not separate from dominant structures and ideology, but go against the grain and offer lines of flight or … ‘a passage which is an enclosure’ . (2006, 87)

Thus, as a heterotopic text, Prison Break makes polyphonic representations of spatiality that offer us no resolution, but they do disrupt conventional notions of place, race, gender, nationality and identity by making a break with conventional chronology and external space. Thus, just as Michael burrowed underneath the symbolic home of his heterotopic gatekeepers, so too, these representations of heterotopic spaces disrupt and contest customary notions of identity associated with nationhood, family, gender, and penality. This reveals to us the manner in which identity becomes intrinsically intertwined with constructions of televisual space, place and narrative.

I have focused my attention here on how identity is intertwined with televisual space and narrative, contending that television is a conduit between all represented spaces and that, as a heterotopic text, Prison Break’s spatiality disrupts conventional notions of space, race, gender, nationality and identity. However, this research has wider implications. Cultural studies has changed its visual media focus, incorporating the role of spatiality into representational studies and identity theory; however, while there is a growing interest in television locations, spatiality as a cultural construction is largely under theorised and seldom examined in television studies. I have suggested that this gap in the body of work is perhaps due to the intersections between time and space within television being so transitory, which renders the analysis of the junctions between time, space and televisuality tricky. I believe that it is unnecessary for television studies to play catch up with screen geography – cinematic space is quite a different space from television space and it holds a quite different position within society.  Foucault talks about the cinema (as a physical space, but also the diegetic world on screen) as a heterotopia. Television does not have the same sort of spatiality – it is not a physical space in the same way that a movie theatre is, while the viewer can only see one on-screen space at a time, they can always choose from multiple representations on multiple channels. While the viewer cannot watch two channels at once, the acting of viewing television brings together here and there. In this sense, because of television’s unique time-space relationship, applying cinematic theory to televisual space does not make sense. However, the scope of film geography studies reveals the importance of this area, and its research potential for television theorists. If television is to join this ‘spatial turn’, then we need to expand our understanding of the relationship between space, place, time and televisual representations.


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Cresswell, Tim, and Deborah Dixon, eds. 2002. Engaging Film: Geographies of Mobility and Identity. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.

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Television Shows

Oz. Creator Tom Fontana. HBO, USA. July 12, 1997 (1997-07-12) – February 23, 2003.

Prison Break. Creator Paul Scheuring. Fox Broadcasting Company, USA. August 29, 2005 – April 17, 2009.

[1] Natter (2002).

[2] Aitken and Lukinbeal (1997); and Cresswell and Dixon (2002).

[3] Brunsdon (2007); Clarke, (1997); Donald and Gammack (2007).

[4] Zonn and Winchell (200); and Massey (1994).