I Am Not a Number!: The Prisoner

Whenever a story pits an individual against an amorphous authority, it’s bound to be described as Orwellian or Kafkaesque. Seldom, however, does the intelligence of the work in question really merit these designations. The Prisoner is one of the few cases wherein the comparisons are definitely worthy. And for that matter, few shows since could fairly be considered “Prisoneresque.”

In my opinion—and I’m glad to say I’m not alone in this—The Prisoner is one of the finest TV shows of all time. It’s a very high water mark, to which elaborate recent creations such as Lost really don’t measure up (and the remake of The Prisoner I shall stick in a box with Highlander 2, the American version of Life on Mars and a few other Things That Should Not Be).

Refresher Course: Patrick McGoohan, following the massive success of Secret Agent/Danger Man, teamed up with writer, producer and director David Tomblin to create a show in which a prominent spy (possibly John Drake, his character on Danger Man, possibly not) resigns suddenly, is drugged, kidnapped and relocated to a bizarre and idyllic seaside resort called the Village. At the village, he is assigned a number (Six) as are all other citizens, and most episodes revolve around him trying to rebel or escape, while the chief administrator, Number Two, tries to break his will and get Six to give up the details about why he resigned. Named and/or recurrent characters are very few. Number Two changes in almost every episode, and subsequent Number Twos feel simultaneously familiar and foreign, individual in approach yet consistent with the others in intent and information. INFORMATION! INFORMATION! Pardon me. Residents of the Village live under constant surveillance. They are either prisoners or guards, but seldom is it clear which is which.

I love, love, love the dialogue on this show, especially the maddening vagueness and circular reasoning of the villagers. Conversations in the Village seem pleasant enough, but rarely give away anything definite.

An excellent example, here:

Cab Driver: Where to, sir? Ou desierez-vouz allez?

Six: Take me to the nearest town.

Cab Driver: Oh, we’re only the local service.

Six: Take me as far as you can. Why did you speak to me in French?

Cab Driver: French is international.

Six: I suppose it’s a waste of time asking the name of this place.

Cab Driver: As a matter of fact, I thought you might be Polish perhaps, or Czech.

Six: What would Poles or Czechs be doing here?

Cab Driver: It’s very cosmopolitan. You never know who you’ll meet next.

I should take a moment here to praise Patrick McGoohan himself, without whom The Prisoner would never have happened. Actor, director and (later two-time Emmy winning) screenwriter, McGoohan perfectly mixed charm, intelligence, defiance and more than a little manic energy into Six. He was offered, and turned down, the roles of James Bond and Simon Templar, and though he would have been excellent in either, I can’t say that Sean Connery or Roger Moore could have played Number Six. Connery was sexier and Moore was more suave, but neither could approach McGoohan in intensity.

The Village itself is either in Lithuania or Morocco or outside London or none of these places or all. The actual exterior shots are of Hotel Portmeirion in Wales. One of the coolest and most peculiar details of Village life is Rover, the massive, asphyxiating balloon used as a police force. Rover is in some ways like a Dalek; it’s terrifying because it’s so far removed from humanity. Rover reminds me of what Jean Sheppard in A Christmas Story refers to as “mysterious and inexorable official justice.”

There are, I think, a few basic story types in The Prisoner. One is a Village-centered social commentary. Well, the whole show was social commentary, but it figured more heavily in some episodes than in others. I’m talking about episodes such as “Checkmate,” “It’s Your Funeral” and “Free For All.” The second type is a little more surreal, focusing on some gadget or technique to alter Six’s consciousness and sense of self. This category would include “The Schizoid Man,” “The General” and “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling.” The third type, especially present toward the end of the series, is all-out bugfuck crazy-sauce episodes.

The Best and the Worst: One of The Prisoner‘s great strengths is its ability to balance situational absurdity and emotional authenticity. Feeling legit while looking impossible, in other words. The really out-there episodes risk falling off this balance. In the case of “Living In Harmony,” the imbalance results in one of the series’ most creative efforts. This episode, for the most part, recreates “Arrival,” the pilot, as a western. It transfers from one time to another beautifully, in the manner of The Seven Samurai into The Magnificent Seven. Contrast this to “The Girl Who Was Death,” arguably the series’ weakest episode. It’s fun, what with the Rube Goldberg Machine of Constant Peril setup, but feels more like the kitschy kookiness of an episode of Batman than The Prisoner.

All of which brings me to “Fall Out,” the series finale. I have heard that McGoohan wrote it 48 hours before shooting began. “Fall Out” combines the three types of stories I mentioned, adds a sort of cultish senate, and mixes in a fair amount of LSD. If you take it literally, wanting a rational explanation for what transpires, you will hate this episode. It will feel like a betrayal of the whole series, en par with the endings of Battlestar Galactica and Lost, but weirder than both, combined. It only works if you take it as an artistic restating of the themes of the show. Not that it is about espionage or physical prisons, but that this is a story juxtaposing the struggle for self-definition in the face of impersonal social orders and bureaucracy. It’s about identity, which seems so fragile, but is capable of surmounting incredible adversity, compared to hegemony, which seems monolithic and powerful but is in fact made of weak components.

The last few episodes are not coherent and plausible storytelling; they’re abstract. And that will please or infuriate the viewer depending on whether they like their stories to end without ambiguity, or if they prefer an armchair psychoanalytical approach. If you favor the latter, you might find the penultimate episode, “Once Upon a Time,” to be Freudian as a motherfucker (pardon the expression) and “Fall Out” feels as though Jacques Lacan co-wrote it. I think either reaction to the finale—love or hate—is reasonable. It’s tough not to feel a little cheated if you expect the riddles to be answered.

Speaking of riddles, who do you think Number Six really was? Why did he resign? Where was the Village? Prisoner fans pore over the clues and debate the details with ferocity sometimes equal to Sherlockians or Ripperologists. What are your thoughts?

Be seeing you.


Jason Henninger is not a number. He is a free man.

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