When I began Prison Break I expected many things, the least of which was a main character who was decent, sweet, and downright good. A good man who was interesting, compelling, and fascinating (and played by Wentworth Miller, to boot). It was everything I’d ever wanted served up on a silver (iron?) platter. Now, Michael goes through various changes throughout the following seasons, but I’m here to dissect the character of Michael Scofield circa season one, and find out a) what makes him tick and b) why he quickly became the best-written protagonist I’ve ever seen.
One of my favorite things about Michael is this: flip his character qualities, and he could easily be a villain.
He possesses many traits often attributed to morally shadier characters: cunning, manipulation, intensity, charm, ruthlessness. He knows how to take advantage of people and situations. He’s a genius. He has all the qualities of an excellent villain or antihero, but he is neither of these things. Instead he’s the kind of guy who’ll have your back in a dangerous situation, and you could happily bring him home to your parents.
He’s also an excellent example of my aforementioned ‘reversal’ hack – his negative traits are usually just downsides to his positive ones. Let’s have a look.
- He wants to help everyone. In fact he’s so caring that his psychiatrist ruled it as a legitimate mental problem; the result of his neglected upbringing. Before his incarceration, Michael spent huge amounts of money giving grants, scholarships, and helping people wherever he could. This is a wonderful trait because not only does it make Michael an immediately sympathetic ‘good guy,’ it comes with plenty of pitfalls. For example, his refusal to help another inmate – and the inmate’s subsequent suicide – weighs so heavily on Michael that he refuses to turn away another inmate in trouble. An inmate who happens to be a snitch who nearly ruins the entire escape plan Michael has worked so hard to set in place. Not only does it make us care about Michael more, but it actually gets in his way. He also falls in love without meaning to, which provides him with an unexpected set of emotional obstacles.
He’s a lover, not a fighter – but he will fight, if he believes it’s for the right reason.
- He’s a genius – but not a necessarily troubled one. Michael has low-latent inhibition – a psychological condition that forces him to view the world in details rather than whole parts. As his psychiatrist tells the prison doctor Sarah, Michael can look at a lamp and not see the lamp. Rather, he sees every piece of the lamp, from the materials used to the screw to the wattage of the bulb. Those with average or below-average intelligence often fall into mental illness or sensory overload, but this is what enables Michael to create his intensely elaborate escape plan and make split-second decisions. The writers could have chosen to give us a genius who broods in his own angst, but they chose not to. It causes Michael problems and places him in dangerous situations, but he doesn’t sulk, wallow, or listen to dramatic violin music in his downtime. He does what he came to do because he can do it, without any unnecessary emotional drama. (That isn’t to say there is no emotional drama involved, but rather than identifying as ‘someone with low-latent inhibition,’ Michael simply plans and acts without any of the annoying traits we often see in fictional geniuses with psychological conditions.)
- He is focus personified. Sometimes he gets so focused that he forgets to let anyone else in on his plans, no matter how crazy they are. His focus is both a blessing and a curse – his plan would never work without it, but it also means he leaves others in the dark. His obsessive, detailed nature also gets in the way of his relationships with other people. He believes he has planned for every single variable, and ignores Lincoln when Lincoln assures him that prison is nothing like Michael’s previous desk job, and there’s no way to prepare for every variable. Michael is brilliant, but he’s not infallible, and his focus on one goal sometimes blinds him to surrounding factors.
- He is highly emotional but extremely level-headed. Michael is a rational, logical person, but everything he does is driven by emotion; and we see him struggling to maintain his level-headedness throughout the season. He’s usually very good at it – he’s able to remove his own comforts and wants from an equation in order to make the situation work – but he’s not superhuman. He never once raises his voice or loses his cool – until the season finale, when the tension is high and he ends up shouting multiple times as things go wrong. Not only is a cool head a good quality, but it means when the character gets heated and shows it that readers (or viewers) will know things are REALLY bad.
- He has been frequently abandoned but he refuses to abandon anyone. This is a quality that gets me every time, without fail. Michael’s father left when he was young, his father died, and his older brother was often absent; but he is completely driven by his determination to rescue his brother no matter what the cost. In fact, when he first hatches his plan to free Lincoln, he doesn’t even have proof of Lincoln’s innocence. He only has Lincoln’s word.
- He’s not a jacked-up action figure. He’s not a superhero. His abilities are in his ability to reverse-engineer all situations, and to do what needs done. The guy can’t even run well. It’s not his physicality that enables him to crawl through hundreds of yards of tunnels or save others from prison riots – it’s his desire to do the right thing and his ability to think of a solution. In fact, the only time his physicality enters the picture is as an obstacle; when T-Bag takes a shine to him immediately after his incarceration and nicknames him ‘Pretty.’ Michael looks like an easy target, unlike most main characters today featuring washboard abs/muscle-bound arms/barrel chests/etc. etc. (Not that I’m complaining about those in the slightest, but it’s nice to see that the show didn’t feel ‘buffness’ was a prerequisite for their main character.)
- He can handle violence and injustice toward himself, but not others. If he sees injustice he tries to correct it, even if it has nothing to do with his current plan. He is ruthless, but it’s a ruthlessness tempered by his principles. He will go so far and no farther. As the saying goes, ‘Do no harm but take no sh*t,’ and that’s very much Michael’s unofficial motto.
- He needs to lie constantly while in prison, but he tries to keep his honesty intact. Lying becomes a constant part of his daily life while inside prison, but he still sticks to his code of ethics. If he makes a promise, he keeps it; no matter how unwieldy or problematic keeping that problem becomes. He schemes, tricks, and manipulates – but he does his best to tell the truth when he can, and he would rather leave bystanders in the dark than lie to them. Hence his oft-repeated phrase, “The less you know, the better.”
- He’s funny, but not blatantly so. Michael maintains a quiet, understated sense of humor; by turns gently teasing, self-deprecating, or sarcastic. Not only does it help keep him focused, but he uses it to put those around him at ease when tension escalates. He also uses it as a deflector – infusing true remarks with just enough levity to make people disbelieve what he says.
Michael Scofield is highly principled, extremely giving, and carries a strong sense of justice. He only wants to save his brother, but he’s very willing (sometimes against his better judgment) to help anyone he can along the way. He never lets himself brood for very long. When he has to manipulate someone, he tries to smooth the situation over and remedy it as well as he can. This is a large part of what makes him the best-written protagonist I’ve seen on television – no matter what he’s forced to break, he will do his best to fix it. Because, at his core, that’s what Michael is – he’s a fixer.