The sixth and final season of HBO's prison drama Oz
--which aired in 2003--is brutal, passionate, and gritty. Compellingly addictive with taut storylines and superb acting, each of the eight episodes on this 3-disc set nicely paves the way for the series finale, which wraps the show up in a satisfying (and surprising) manner. Often told through the eyes (and voice) of deceased prisoner Augustus Hill (Harold Perrineau, Lost
isn't an easy show to watch. Inmates are routinely raped, tortured, and killed--not out of need, but out of boredom and cruelty. And in a corrupt system where too few bureaucrats actually care about these men's lives, few are willing to do anything about it. Those that do give a damn--Sister Peter Marie (Rita Moreno, West Side Story
), Father Mukada (B.D. Wong, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit
), Dr. Nathan (Lauren Velez), Warden Glynn (Ernie Hudson), McManus (Terry Kinney)--face an uphill battle.
One of the strongest storylines is the ongoing romance between murderer Keller (Christopher Meloni, Law & Order: SVU and Beecher (Lee Tergesen), who's hoping to be paroled. Series creator Tom Fontana doesn't allow their arc to be diluted by any idealistic expectations. The viewer is acutely aware that Beecher is an easy target for annihilation whether or not he is released from prison. The viewer is never quite as certain of Keller's motives--whether they're borne of love and affection, or a selfish need to satisfy his own primal urges. Like Beecher, Alvarez (Kirk Acevedo) is trying to keep his own nose clean in the hopes that he'll be eligible for parole three years down the line. It's easy to understand the almost suffocating feeling he lives every day, knowing that three years may as well be a lifetime when you're behind bars and the target of both your former gang and the Aryan brothers, led by Schillinger (J.K. Simmons, Law & Order: SVU, the Spider-Man films). And Ryan (Dean Winters) desperately tries to save his mentally retarded brother Cyril (played by Dean's real-life sibling Scott William Winters) from being executed.
There are a few subplots that don't ring true, such as the quasi romance between a librarian (Patti LuPone) and one of the prisoners, and an elderly inmate's (Joey Grey) implausible death wish. And for all the constraints the majority of convicts face, some appear to have almost free run of the prison. Still, Fontana has created a vivid, dark world where the occasional acts of humanity are as important as the non-stop chaos that is Oz. While it certainly helps to have seen the previous five seasons of the series to enjoy this season, it's not mandatory. These last eight episodes work fine as a stand-alone piece of drama. --Jae-Ha Kim