The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt. 2)


I’ve watched the first two episodes of AMC’s The Prisoner and have some thoughts. Rover is a lot more intimidating in this series than in the original. I was hoping to avoid very many comparisons with the original, and I’ll still try. But the first episode was rife with references, and the spine of the plot for this episode invites such comparisons.

Six wakes up in a desert, a craggy waste. Dusty sand falls off his clothes when he stands. I mention this only because it appears to be a motif, appearing in the second episode as well. Just about the first thing that happens to him is he encounters someone we come to know as 93, an old man dressed in black blazer with white piping, chinos, and white sneakers. Viewers of the original series will instantly identify him as Number Six, though the actor is not Patrick McGoohan. He’s being chased by armed men with dogs who Six, carrying 93 to a conveniently located cave, manages to elude. Is this merely the plot convenience typical of the fortunate hero, or does it indicate the unreliability of the hero’s point of view? Once in the cave, Six and 93 have a conversation. I found it difficult to hear what they were saying, but I don’t get the impression that the actual words people say are terribly important in this show. In any case, 93 dies, and Six buries him in the desert. Six makes his way to The Village, and what appears to be the main plot of the series begins.

The plot of the episode is Two’s efforts to find 93. Six appears to stymie these efforts, though at the end of the episode Two is attending a public funeral for 93 in The Village’s cemetery. Again, did Two find 93, does he only have an empty coffin and is merely pretending to have found 93, or was the whole 93 story an effort to entangle Six in something Six would otherwise have fought against? As Two remarks in another context, “It doesn’t matter if I believe it, it matters that Six believes it.”

Along the way Six becomes acclimated to The Village functioning. There’s a bit of fun surrounding wraps as the food of choice in The Village, though in this episode and the next we see Two eating much more elaborate fare. There a scene where Six buys a map of The Village which includes a nice sight gag as he unfolds the map to seemingly impossible size. This scene echoes a similar scene in the first episode of the original series. The original series’s opening sequence is referenced in a scene where Two interviews Six, and Six slams is fist on the desk upsetting a cup of tea.

As the episode progresses we see scenes of Six’s life before The Village, and that Six is apparently amnesiac. Within The Village, there is an effort to get him to understand that there is no other place than The Village. Six’s efforts at escape are grounded in both his desire to not be kept against his will (to escape simply because he’s there), and to get back to where he comes from (and this is in part to prove there is someplace else). Residents of The Village appear to accept the idea that there is no other place. In a major departure from the original series, Two keeps a family in The Village: an apparently catatonic bed-ridden wife and a teen-aged son who asks about Six’s assertion that there is another place, wondering if it could possibly be true. There are some in The Village who seem to support 93’s assertion and efforts to escape, and Six befriends one of them in the first episode. She dies in an explosion at the cafe where she works.

But what do we have? Six has vague memories of another life, dreams, and visions of two towers in the desert (always just over the next dune or the one after that). Within The Village, Six appears to reject simple human kindnesses, and harbors positive animosity toward Two and anyone who he thinks works for Two. However, as viewers we know the cab driver Six might trust a bit is an agent of Two, and we should expect the doctor Six spends a lot of non-theraputic time with is an agent of Two–she’s a figure of authority, after all. In the second episode, almost at the end, the man presented as Six’s brother is revealed to not be–right after Six accepts him (at least tentatively). Although Six always insists he is not a number, he never insists on being called by his name.

Six’s memories of his earlier life are vague, and the most detailed ones come in dreams. Dreams are notoriously slippery things, and the content of them–even of recurring dreams–can be affected by the concerns of the day. So the fact that the woman in his dreams is clumsily asking why he resigned doesn’t mean I think that’s what actually happened before Six woke up in the desert–it might not even have happened until after the events in The Village, since Six’s memories seem so slippery. As viewers we have an unreliable narrator operating within a situation designed to induce paranoia. We are privy to information Six is not, but we don’t know what it means–on the one hand it is patently absurd that The Village is the only place (where are the steel mills for making Two’s hand grenades, they’re in a desert so where does the food for all those wraps come from, and on and on?). On the other hand, children appear ignorant of the larger world which must sustain The Village. Six found the ocean, and then lost it again. It’s as if the landmarks (including an enormous ship’s anchor) moved when he blinked.

The world of The Prisoner is different from how it appears after the first two episodes. This much I feel confident to say. I sympathize with Six, but that doesn’t mean I have to accept his view of things. I don’t accept that The Village is the only place, and I don’t accept that The Village is a good place, and I consider all the residents of The Village to be as untrustworthy as Two. This is despite the fact that both 93 and the cafe waitress die, and we viewers see them dead–93 is buried, and the waitress is last seen in a body bag. If they do represent a real resistance, I think it is a resistance built into the design of The Village, and they’re still playing a role–willingly but at the same time unwittingly. I consider Six to be unreliable, which I never considered McGoohan’s Number Six to be–even at the very end when everything fell apart. I always trusted Number Six to be, essentially, on my side.

I’m looking forward to the next four hours of this show.

(Originally posted as a Facebook note December 3, 2009)

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