Trust us: Judge Bill Gibron does not want to go see the Wizard.
Our reviews of Oz: The Complete Second Season (published February 3rd, 2003), Oz: The Complete Fourth Season (published July 20th, 2005), Oz: The Complete Fifth Season (published August 3rd, 2005), and Oz: The Complete Sixth Season (published September 5th, 2006) are also available.
"Clemency. That's a fancy word for mercy. You see, the Governor can commute a death sentence. He has the power to just pick up the phone and say no. But to me, the only time the Governor shows clemency, is when he don't make that call. 'Cause life in prison without parole is a shi*load worse than death. Death is parole. Death is the real mercy."—Augustus Hill
They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. But frankly, it seems strange that such a passive proverb would be so readily accepted. After all, the heated notion of retribution is spiked with certain inalienable bitterness and ire. There is nothing frigid about it. Something like "payback is a bitch" is much better, providing the right amount of venom in the vexation. But here too is a downside. The seriousness of the sentiment is somewhat undermined with the inclusion of that female-dog dig. "'Vengeance is mine,' sayeth the Lord" is a tad too arcane for modern mindsets, and the idea of erasing one's debt from the Big Book of Karma is a lot of New Age nonsense. Maybe the older version of the Good Book, the one with Moses's paw prints all over it, was right: when it comes to settling scores, "an eye for an eye" is succinct and simple. It illustrates the problem while cementing the proper responsorial.
For the prisoners and politicians, administrators and agitators in and around the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary, life revolves around two things: manipulation and reckoning. Getting one over on each other seems to be the easy part. The system is set up, both internally and externally, to predispose the weak and unprepared for the will of the strong. But as Season Three of HBO's groundbreaking drama (new to DVD) begins, the scene is set, and is ripe for some revenge. Battle lines have been drawn between warring factions, and outside interference has thrust a wedge of anger inside all hearts. Thus the fuse is lit, the powder keg is prepared, and the fireworks are about to begin. Living well may be the best form of revenge, but this is prison. This ain't no easy existence. The only form of righteousness here is the sword, the fist, and the iron claw of corruption.
Facts of the Case
Taken directly from the previous review for Oz: The Complete Second Season:
Oz is a strange amalgamation and concentration of the one-hour drama into the nighttime soap opera format with a liberal sprinkling of multi-part serial. Each season contains one or two main story arcs played out over the course of, on average, eight episodes. Then there are individual dramas and incidents isolated to the one-hour format itself. And still there are larger, broader canvases, created and controlled to slowly play out successfully and completely from day one to the final episode.
This can make starting at the beginning of Season Three frustratingly complex. As a form of criminal Cliff's Notes, here is what happened "last season (2)" on Oz.
The name of the series is derived from the Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary, located near an unnamed Northern urban metropolis. Inside Oswald, or "Oz" as it's known, is the Emerald City Experimental Unit (also called "EM" City). Founded under the principles that treating prisoners humanely will result in successful rehabilitation, such commonplace problems as rampant overcrowding or a lack of services do not exist in "EM" City. Prisoners are given such luxuries as access to computers, cable television, and mandatory psychological and drug counseling. All cells have glass walls and there is the constant presence of guards. This does not mean that Emerald City is filled with only good little boys and behavior. Far from it. Over the course of Season Two, the following issues have arisen which hold over and influence Season Three:
• Ten months after the riot and investigation, Emerald City is
reopened with a few major changes. Prison cliques are now organized and housed
according to affiliation. They are also given seats on a prisoners' grievance
committee to hopefully prevent another violent uprising.
In Season Three, the following new storylines are explored:
• Episode 1: "The Truth and Nothing But…"
• Episode 2: "Napoleon's Boney Parts"
• Episode 3: "Legs"
• Episode 4: "Unnatural Disasters"
• Episode 5: "U.S. Male"
• Episode 6: "Cruel and Unusual Punishments"
• Episode 7: "Secret Identities"
• Episode 8: "Out o' Time"
After two seasons' worth of backstabbing, conniving, sexual abuse, power plays, chess-like strategizing, and gross misunderstandings, Oz as a series and as a storyline was about ready to implode. After witnessing riots and deaths, the destruction of dignity and the disregard for life, it was time to either fold up and give in, or pay the piper for all the sins of the past. The log of legitimate injustices was overflowing. It was time to get the balance right. The Hughes storyline—the idea of a young man returning to the site of his father's death to discover his killer (and exact a little revenge)—underlines this theme perfectly. Season three was about to get to the bottom of things and right wrongs still simmering from hours/years before.
From the boxing matches that basically boil down to racial/sexual power plays to the simultaneous fall and rise/rise and fall of Adebisi and McManus, the time for an ethos repo man was upon the series. People had to pay for what they had done, for the secrets they had kept or let spill. For the bodies lying bloody in the dark recesses of EM City and all the future corpses being contemplated. For the lives they have destroyed and the loved ones left behind. For corrupting the notion of a model prison for rehabilitation into a State-authorized gangland territorial rumble, Oz had to be revisited and retooled. In season three, revenge was the answer.
Creator Tom Fontana has always claimed that Oz is a show about manipulation, about a domino effect in which one person, conned by another, must find a way to exact or demand a similar swindle from the next. Fontana also understood that only so many scams could be run and rerun until the pot boils over and tensions reach maximum density. Up until Season Two, events in Oz went mostly unpunished. The gangs ran roughshod over each other and, while it was contemplated, payback was always slow in coming. But not in Season Three. Fontana saw it was time for a catharsis, to shake up the very core of each character in Oswald and to see exactly what they were made of.
Walking through the eight great episodes here, it is hard to find a single major player not affected by the wave of retaliation and need for moral cleansing. Yin and Yang are in full effect within the walls of EM City, and no one is immune from the confrontation of consequences. Take Sister Peter Marie. Thanks to one too many intimate talks with Keller, her sense of sexual self is reawakened and she decides to leave the nunnery. What happens? Her beloved Victims Program implodes under a failed experiment in ego and eagerness. Or what about Nappa, the big Don, here to set things right in Oz? He is given his worst nightmare—the "gay plague" AIDS—and then is meant to live a life in exile, away from the power he craved and cared for and in among the perverts he despises. Even Vern Schillinger faces elements of blame: for the piss-poor raising of his child, for his son's rejection of the Brotherhood, for the resulting friendship with Beecher. From McManus' wanton love life coming back to bite him in his jackrabbit ass, to Allah's wrath visited upon both a power-hungry Said and Khan, metaphysical bills are coming due all over Oz, and convict credit reports are worse than ever.
In its third season, Oz really amped the thrills and plastered on the chills by making everyone an assassin and anyone a victim. One day, a favored character is in everyone's good graces. The next he is tied up and stabbed hundreds of times. Such is life in even the most modern penitentiary, and Oz version 3.0 never lets you forget that. Indeed, while the soap opera elements do continue to rear their recurrent storylines throughout this radical, rough series, the focus here is more about crime and punishment than interpersonal melodramatic issues.
The third season is, in essence, Oz in its prime. After a couple of confused seasons, the series now understands the parameters under which it is working. The characters have been fine-tuned and the narratives polished, and it all hums like a well-oiled engine. Events are not forced but fall wonderfully into place. Actions no longer need massive setups or expositional framing to enforce avenues of anger. By the time we meet Andy Schillinger, or witness Howell attacking McManus for inferring she is a lousy lay, we can sense the consequences and anticipate the response. The good thing about Tom Fontana, creator of this crackerjack show, is that he always avoids the obvious conclusion. We think Andy will be just another version of his Dad. Turns out, all the boy wants is a male role model he can respect. McManus, accused of horrible personal and biological treatment of those around him, reacts in a stern, self-righteous manner…until he realizes that he is guilty. Perhaps not of harassment itself, but of the abysmal way he's treated all the women in his life. What keeps this series from drowning, not only in its squalid setting, depressing dynamics, and cornball cliché is this bucking of convention. If Said was always righteous, Keller a creep, and Adebisi a thug, things would grow old quickly. By inviting invention and quirk, along with cold-blooded reality, Oz stays solid and sensational.
It needs to be said again that this show is incredibly well written and directed. From Fontana and the rest of the writers to guest directors like Steve Buscemi and Chazz Palminteri, the level of creativity is extremely high. And the fantastic performers make it all work. The acting in Season Three is exemplary, especially in those characters that previously seemed one note or flat. Eamonn Walker's Kareem Said, usually stuck with one of two facial gestures (guarded consternation or impatient egotism) expands his range and makes the fallen Muslim leader into a truly tragic (anti)hero, flawed and fragile. J.K. Simmons, stuck with perhaps the most thankless role as ever-present evil entity Vern "Nazi Bastard" Schillinger, finds a way to channel inner peace and strength into the beginnings of a well-rounded, though royally messed-up, individual. One can't get enough of Chris Meloni as the manipulative, macho Keller, even if his spat with lover/obsession Tobias Beecher (Lee Tergesen, turning the psycho on and off at will) leaves him underutilized this season. Augustus Hill redeems himself, getting to do more than narrate the events happening in Oz through a veil of ironic self-referencing. In the role, Harold Perrineau shows incredibly range and depth. Even Dean Winter's Ryan O'Reilly has gone from a forever pissed-off poseur, always talking bigger than his balls can carry him, to a toned-down version of his bombastic self. He shows real emotion and a sense of inner doubt (especially toward his brother Cyril). From B.D. Wong, who gives Father Mukada a friendly compassion mixed with calm efficiency, to Rita Moreno's Sister Peter Marie, who can sell you on faith and professionalism in every scene she is in, the impressive acting chops of the entire cast make this show really come alive. And they also keep you interested in a show that is not afraid to hurt, harm, or even kill off these wonderful, original individuals for the sake of realism.
It's hard to pinpoint a good or bad episode here. Unlike Seasons One or Two, Oz: The Complete Third Season works well as a whole, drawing you in from the very beginning of the first episode, "The Truth and Nothing But…," and keeping you in a thoroughly entertained state of suspense all the way to the moment when Adebisi gets his Christmas "present" in episode eight, "Out o' Time." Sure, you could argue that the whole sexual harassment angle smacks of attempts at being "up to date" and "timely," but the truth is that it really does grow out of the person McManus is. Hughes' efforts to find his father's killer don't have a huge, revelatory moment, a time when Father Mukada, like a shrouded Sherlock Holmes, announces his brilliant deductions. No, the whimpering resolution is more practical, and therefore better than some kind of detective who done it. Definitely, there are times when events seemed to be pushed a little for the sake of a sensational bit of story (Nappa's AIDS affliction, Kosygin's quiet killer routine) but there is really never a false note in the whole season.
The best compliment that can be paid to a show like Oz is that even with its grim violence, its anti-social view of life on the inside, and the overwhelming stench of undignified incarceration, you still want to come back for more even after you've been put through the mill for the hour previous. Sure, there is a lot of male nudity. Yes, the show can be very exploitative at times. No, it doesn't seem to care if irredeemable individuals are championed while the humble and humane constantly fall. Oz understands that the best dynamic is one based on the universal human need to be in control of oneself and feel a sense of honesty, even amongst the most heinous of society's scum. And it relishes revenge, in all its toothsome forms.
You would think by now, with two successful and well-received sets before this one that HBO would understand how to put together a season of Oz properly. It should be simple. Well, they don't cheat the public or anything (other studios leave episodes out, releasing them in non-consecutive greatest hits sets). But they just can't seem to get the visual and contextual material right. If you have cable and have watched this show—or better yet, digital programming or a dish—you've seen Oz look great and grungy. One thing is also true: you'll notice the flaws in the 1.33:1 full screen transfer right off the bat. The picture is muddy and unclear. The telltale grain of compression and pixelation is everywhere. Elements like surfaces and walls lack detail and there is very little contrast. In some ways, Oz looks like a soft-focus fashion shoot rather than a gritty, true-crime show. It is darkness that really does the image in, and unfortunately Oz is one shadowy series. At least the sound is special. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix gives you the feeling of being immersed in the action, with wonderful ambient cues in each channel and a perfect blend of dialogue, dimension and depth to create an excellent aural atmosphere.
But again, HBO comes up short on the extras. While what is offered here is commendable, fleshing out the package, it falls short of what many fans would consider obvious additions. First, there is only one commentary. The Chazz Palminteri-directed "Unnatural Disasters" gets the narrative track treatment from Chazz and Oz creator Fontana. These two guys really love the show and get along very well. There is insight into some of the directing and filming challenges, but mostly this is a backslapping lovefest with Fontana fawning and Chazz joining in with occasional accolades as well. It makes for a great listen, but we don't learn a lot about the issues within and/or surrounding the show. There must be more to making a season of Oz than writing and filming it. The discussion never gets around to anything really "behind the scenes." Instead, we stay surface and insular.
The deleted scenes, however, do add a little insight into the show. Several of the snipped sequences (one guesses for mostly time or clarity's sake) allow us to witness a flash or detail that would have exposed an individual or strengthened a subplot. While no one is asking for seamless branching to get these lost moments back into their respective shows, there could at least be some comments (oral or written) as to why they were excised.
Adebisi—gun in hand, look of lunatic alarm in his evil eyes—makes a wonderfully evocative image as a representation of and cliffhanger for the end of Season Three: the ultimate angel of death and destruction with the ultimate mechanical extension of said power poised in his extended arm. Indeed, from the start of episode one in this third go-around for the series, this may be the image that Oz has been striving for, the ultimate moment of manipulation and revenge combined into one frightening façade. Unlike the lurching, scattershot approach found in Season One (when the show was still discovering its legs) and the bumpy, occasionally overreaching nature of Season Two, Oz: The Complete Third Season is an example of perfect chemistry gelling to create compelling, inventive television.
It is also an example of how liberating…and addictive revenge can be. Competition is one ideal in which individuals use strength and strategy to overwhelm one another. Control ads the factor of manipulation and domination to the mix. But it is in the realm of retribution, in that infinite space where all actions have reactions, all sins find condemnation and all wounds fail to heal, but instead slowly burst open and endlessly seep, where the state of payback dwells. And what is beyond such circumstances? What comes after the injustice and the passing of metaphysical judgment? Amazingly, it's the same thing that brought that inquisitive dead cat back—satisfaction. Indeed, it's the reason for seeking the settlement of scores in the first place. Only problem is, for the characters in Oz, the debts keep piling up and the books will never be 100% balanced. Good thing the dramatization of such a struggle for ethical and epistemological equilibrium makes for such wonderful small-screen entertainment. Oz: The Complete Third Season epitomizes a good show turning great—and a lesson in the sweetness of revenge.
The Court finds Oz: The Complete Third Season not guilty and it is free to go. The cast is remanded back to "EM" City since they are so completely realistic in their portrayal of prisoners and their keepers. HBO is censured for offering such an imperfect image and bonus package.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
• 22 Minutes of Deleted Scenes from All Eight Episodes
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.