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Call it compelling con artistry

The story of “Prison Break” lasted four years for viewers but only seven months for its characters -- an insanely short period of time when you consider the whacked toes and hand, the prison murder of a beloved cat, the beheadings, the near-drowning bathtub torture, the countless shootings, explosions and stabbings, the removal of a body tattoo in one sitting, the resurrection of dead people and, of course, the two prison breaks.

When the Fox series ends tonight, all mysteries are resolved in an action-packed two-hour finale. But in a rewarding twist, the show ends softly, with a sentimental montage that moves the survivors four years into the future. As someone who has reported stories about the series since it launched, I admit I had to grab the Kleenex.

Though I confess that “Prison Break” hasn’t always held my attention.

The show’s suspenseful first season, buoyed by the deep love between two brothers, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller:michael_scofield%7Etype:actor) and Lincoln Burrows (Dominic PurcellWentworth Miller:lincoln_burrows%7Etype:actor), made it must-see TV for me. It was a thriller with heart, the story of a younger brother who robbed a bank to get incarcerated in the same prison where his framed brother waited to be executed. Michael had no idea the conspiracy to ruin his brother involved high-ranking government officials -- even the president of the United States. But it didn’t matter. He had a tattooed blueprint on him that laid out their escape plan and origami cranes he used as coded messages to his brother, who always left him paper swans when they were kids. What else did he need besides the help of six other convicts?

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When the second season began, all of them, the Fox River Eight, had broken out, settling scores all over the globe, as they continued to fight the mysterious organization. That year, three of the escapees died and Michael and T-Bag (Robert Knepper:theodore__t_bag__bagwell%7Etype:actor)%2C) wound up in prison in Panama. By the time they escaped from that prison in the third season, the show’s audience had waned and so had my attachment. I missed, for instance, the death of Sara Tancredi (https://CalliesSarah Wayne Callies:dr__sara_tancredi%7Etype:actor).), the prison doctor who fell in love with Michael, helped him escape, and was beheaded by The Company.

I did, however, see her come back to life, because as far-fetched as it sometimes got, I wasn’t able to stay away from the show completely. Three characters and/or actors always drew me back in: Michael, the brilliant and selfless brother who always knew what to do in a pinch; Sucre (Amaury Nolasco:fernando_sucre%7Etype:actor), Michael’s lovable and lovesick cellmate; and, finally, T-Bag, the equally creepy and charming convict.

Michael’s devotion to others and preoccupation with redemption have made for compelling television. No one is more aware than Michael that his actions have saved people, like his brother, but killed others, such as Veronica (Robin Tunney), their childhood friend and lawyer, and Lisa (Jessalyn Gilsig), the mother of Lincoln’s son, LJ (Marshall Allman).

Miller declined to be interviewed for this article. But executive producer Matt Olmstead said Michael’s own salvation weighed heavily on the minds of writers as they debated his fate.

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“When we got to the end, the only real, noble thing for Michael is to have it be that what he did -- the initial act and the ramifications -- were not in vain and weren’t selfish,” Olmstead said. “So, good comes out of it, but he himself would also have to pay a sacrifice.”

But not before Sucre resurfaces to help his best friend one last time and the five members of the Fox River Eight who are still alive, including C-Note (Rockmond Dunbar), the Army sergeant-turned-robber, are brought together again by -- wait for it -- the second person on the show to be resurrected. (And what a surprise that is!)

Originally, Sucre was supposed to be captured in the second season and sent back to prison, but Nolasco’s heartthrob appeal, as well as his chemistry with Miller, pointed the writers in another direction.

“Little by little, Sucre got into everybody’s heart and people fell in love with the relationship between him and Michael as well,” Nolasco said. “It was a relationship that to this day I still adore -- this odd couple relationship.”

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For T-Bag, who was born of both incest and rape and grew up to become a rapist and murderer, it was never about friendship. He forced the escapees to include him in their plans, and later handcuffed himself to Michael. Knepper’s uncanny portrayal of the eloquent and funny sociopath made T-Bag oddly watchable and unwatchable -- as evidenced in a frightening scene in the finale between him and the pregnant Sara.

“He always reminded me of that beat-up dog in the corner that you feel sorry for . . . but you wouldn’t want to get too close to him,” Knepper said. “There were days that I felt really sticky, like a shower couldn’t take care of it. But I’d just work through it. For me, the great equalizer was my kid going, ‘Poppa! Poppa!’ when I got home. It kind of brings you back right away.”

So does Michael’s exasperated admission in the finale, “I don’t want to run anymore.” By then, fans are ready for an emotional catharsis, and boy, does the song “Lay It Down Slow” by Spiritualized get us there.

“We’re not big on montage songs, but it was a song that, for me, tied into the whole thing about Michael’s plight,” Olmstead said. “Which is basically: Lay it on me, I’ll take the weight so everybody else can flourish.”

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The song plays, “If you got pain in your heart, why don’t you share it with me? . . . Lay it down free, lay it down easy, but lay it on me,” and we see some characters thriving, others paying for their sins, and eventually an origami crane. Some of the events along this journey made no sense, but that’s not what you’ll be thinking about when this love story reaches its final moment.

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maria.elena.fernandez @latimes.com


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