In a way, the cancellation of "Prison Break" turned out to be a good thing for the show, executive producer Matt Olmstead says — because he and his fellow writers weren't sure they could credibly extend the show beyond this year.
"We did have conversations early on in terms of 'what if,' and they were fairly brief conversations," Olmstead says. "That's why we went pretty much very quickly to this being the last season and how to really play off. The ideas that were tossed around in terms of what could be a season five were pretty thin."
Whatever those ideas might have been, they won't matter, because "Prison Break" — which returns with new episodes at 9 p.m. ET Friday (after a repeat of the last original episode at 8) — will conclude its four-year run on FOX in May. Olmstead, who's been with the show since early in the first season, teased a couple of events in the final episodes, talked about the show's biggest leap of logic (no, it's not Sara's return from the dead) and discussed why the finale might not be the last we see of Michael (Wentworth Miller), Lincoln (Dominic Purcell) and the rest of the characters.
Bringing the show to an end
"We kind of knew all along that this season was most likely going to be our last. … We weren't going to hold anything back and [were going to] use up all the ideas we had and not worry about setting up for a fifth season.
"It was a bit of a luxury in the sense that we had the time to platform the ending as opposed to going on hiatus like some shows have to do, and wait to hear if you're going to come back or not."
Who's coming back?
"The mom character [Kathleen Quinlan as Lincoln and Michael's mother, who's involved in the conspiracy] … she plays a big part in the last few episodes. A lot of secrets are revealed, and Michael and Lincoln are certainly shook in terms of who they are, where they came from. And at a certain point they're wondering is this the truth or are they trying to be divided and conquered, so to speak.
"Then we have a big surprise reveal, which I won't tell you who it is, but a returning character who comes in late in the game when the wheels are coming off. … He's either there to save the day or to hijack the whole thing for his or her own benefit."
"We have these 10 big whiteboards [in the writers room] that we write a lot of stuff down on, and [we] put down a quick list of where we wanted to see everybody [at the end]. It pretty much stayed the same throughout the whole season. No one got erased — we added a couple, but we really executed what we really wanted to do … pretty early in the season. So it wasn't a scramble at the end."
Leaps of logic
The biggest one, Olmstead says, was not Sara returning from the apparent dead, but "Michael getting a tattoo removed overnight at the beginning of this season. Wentworth was developing a skin irritation to having this thing applied to his body constantly. … So we had to figure out a way; instead of him wearing long-sleeved shirts all the time, can we zap the tattoo?
"Since they were working for the government, we kind of fudged it a little bit where he was in a super-secret tattoo removal place 10 miles from South Dakota, but who knows. So we established that and it went away. It was a little bit of a wank. When I look at the other ones that we did … we took a lot of those, but the momentum of the show, I think, accommodated that. This one for me was a little bit tough to swallow."
More to come …
Olmstead talks about the two extra hours FOX ordered and when they might air. "What happened was when we were breaking the episodes, we had a storyline that we didn't know where — it didn't really fit. It kept getting moved along down the episodes as the season went along. Then we had a conversation with the studio in terms of, 'This is really a cool story that we want to tell and it plays standalone, which would be a two-hour.' So they, the studio, and we creatively went ahead and did it for episodes 23 and 24, not knowing for sure where it would air, network or whatever, but knowing that it would certainly in some fashion, because the story for us was really compelling.
"I'm not really concerned where or when it airs. It will be at some point be viewed by the fans and hopefully it will be worthwhile for them. Basically [in] episode 22, which is the series finale … everything gets wrapped up and then in the last act there's a jump forward like four years from now. We show the characters where they are, and some have won, lost; it's bittersweet. And this two-hour that we had in mind, or the next couple of episodes that we had in mind, kind of plays in that middle period, that wrinkle in time. …
"We didn't do it where episode 22 plays like a cliffhanger — like now you have to watch the [extra] episodes — because we didn't want to infuriate the audience in terms of it playing as a completely satisfying ending. It just so happens that these extra two hours also play well."