The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt 5)


Well. I’ve made it to the end of AMC’s The Prisoner. It took me three months to do what you managed in a week. Please forgive me, as this post is about 3,500 words. As a miniseries, six episodes and out is a good way to go, but I’m less than satisfied with the conclusion of the story, and with the episode which contains it. “Checkmate” sees Our Hero, Six (now firmly identified as Michael, a spy of some type–seemingly an employee in a private sector corporation, but possibly under contract to a government), suffering through Two’s machinations and winding up in an unexpected stance at the end.

I’m no longer convinced that comparisons between this series and McGoohan’s are generally unfair and unreasonable–there are too many echoes of the old throughout the new. In particular, I think it’s fair to respond to the new show by contrasting with the old the resolutions to its central conflicts offered by its final episodes. To begin, I want to note that one of the aspects of McGoohan’s show that gave it the legs to remain a viable property for revisiting 40 years later is the fact that McGoohan’s Number 6 really is Our Hero, and not just a lens though which to view a narrative. He is a staunch individualist with somewhat libertarian leanings; these leaning were heightened by the stifling nature of The Village’s society. McGoohan’s Number 6 was not, however, motivated purely by his own personal outrage at being confined and constrained by The Village. We saw in his actions throughout the series indications that other people were important because they were people and not as tools in his conflict with Two, and that had he become aware of The Village in a less visceral way, he would still have bent his considerable powers on its destruction. This perspective views The Village of the original series as a literal (though fictional) place where characters interact.

There is also a metaphorical conception of The Village of the original series which runs through McGoohan’s version. This metaphor is along the lines that The Village is society, our society (or any society, really), and that the conflict depicted in the show is an allegory for the constant negotiation we as autonomous actors make in our role as members of society. McGoohan’s Number 6 isn’t really interested in destroying society, though he does destroy The Village. Rather, he is interested in making sure, to the uttermost, that the individual is not subsumed by societal duty except by uncoerced choice. I think Number 6 believes altruism and self-sacrifice are good, honest, and legitimate, but that society has no right to demand these things at any time, nor even to expect them in every instance.

At the end of the original series, Number 6 becomes identified with Number 1 (who is presented as a raving lunatic), has destroyed The Village, and has escaped the ruins with other survivors. Then he makes his way to London; he returns to his flat with the ubiquitous servant who has been seen shadowing each Number 2, but now shadows McGoohan’s character. And how to refer to this character? He is out of The Village now, so calling him Number 6 seems inappropriate. Despite the servant now serving him, Number 2 is wrong both for the fact that The Village is gone, and that Number 6 has never accepted the legitimacy of the role of Number 2 no matter who fills it. It seems clear to me that calling him Number 1 is wrong for these reasons as well, and for the reason that within the context of the symbolism of the show, being Number 1 is shown as undesirable (look out for Number 1, indeed). The final shot of the series is Number 6 entering his flat through the front door, which opens and closes automatically in the way the front door of his residence in The Village did. He is a man reentering society, certain of his own identity, but his name should be of no importance to us. Has he escaped The Village? And what does it mean to escape The Village? These are the questions the series leaves us to wrestle with.

The final two-part episode of McGoohan’s series is a pretty convoluted work of television, with jarring imagery and sound design, a lot of activity that’s difficult to keep track of, and a very heavy dose of symbolism. However, through it all, and all the way to the end, a legitimate interpretation of the show and the characters is that Number 6 is, sincerely, but in a way difficult to pin down, on the viewer’s side, and that even if he is defeated in the end that we did well in trusting this character and his point-of-view. And have no doubt that the possibility of his defeat and the nature of such a possible defeat are unresolved questions at the end of the final episode of the original series.

I feel like the AMC version does not do well with the notion I would put at the heart of The Prisoner, that in the negotiation between the individual and society, society is the junior partner–that the duties of society to the individual outweigh the duties of the individual to society. In the ultimate analysis, the scale may rock back and forth forever, and the weight may be nearly immeasurably on the side of the individual, but that’s where it is. It may be telling of the differences between the two shows that I call the first McGoohan’s and the second AMC’s, thereby pointing up the difference between the individual and the corporate.

The final episode of the new show is, in its own way, as jarring a work of television as is the final episode of the original. However, the jarring nature of the new episode doesn’t leave the viewer wondering, “what happened, and what does it mean,” so much as leaving the viewer wondering, “what happened, and how is what seemed to happen even possible?” At the end of the series, rather than breaking Two, destroying The Village, and returning to the larger world with an expanded view of things–resolving in both a material and metaphorical sense the conflict at the heart of the show–Six is shown to be utterly bifurcated. Michael assumes a position of apparently additional power in the corporate world from which he flamboyantly resigned early in the series. Six, in a remarkable departure from the original series, assumes control of The Village after Two stage-manages a scene of nearly incredible self-pity culminating in suicide.

These are two separate conclusions to the intertwined stories of our point of view character’s lives in The Village and the outer world. It appears they are mutually exclusive, yet both true. Throughout the series, we have been led to understand that Michael and Six are the same person. The powerful implication has been that Six is in The Village as a prisoner because of something he did in his life as Michael. We see what appear to be flashbacks to Six’s life as Michael, and (conditioned by a lifetime of watching television) we expect that we will see some event that caused his resignation and exile.

However, along the way we have been given hints that Six may not be sane. For this leave aside the constant effort by residents of The Village–especially and most aggressively Two’s efforts–to convince Six that there is no other place, and that he belongs in The Village. No, for this I’m talking about the flashbacks themselves, Six’s vision of the gleaming towers in the dessert, and some of the actual edits in the episodes. Most notable in this final category is the end of the episode where he is strapped to a gurney and being wheeled into a hospital ward, raving at Two. The next episode begins with Six out and about, with no mention of the medical intervention; none at all.

Because Six appears to remember Michael, and for most of the series Michael seems to have no real knowledge of Six, an easy assumption for viewers is that Six’s life takes place after what we see of Michael’s life. Six has dreams of Michael’s life, and in only a handful of instances–even in the final episode–does Michael get even a glimpse of Six’s, though the edits do sometimes have Michael waking from what may be a dream of Six’s live in The Village. However, contrary to convention, until the finale, the series carefully allowed for the possibility that Six’s life actually pre-dates Michael’s. There were also the possibilites that Six’s memories of Michael were delusions, or (more generously) dreams, or the other way around. As unlikely as it seems, there was always the possibility that, in fact, The Village really is the only place–despite the appearance of new residents in The Village, despite the impossibility of The Village developing the necessary technology and infrastructure to exist as we see it (where does the food come from? how about Two’s hand grenades?). But, The Prisoner is a science-fiction show, and always has been, so the possibility of a Dark City style reveal couldn’t be ruled out.

But that’s not what we got (whew, that would have been profoundly unsatisfactory, I think). What we did get, something altogether strange in my experience, is the fact that both versions of the character are contemporaneous, that they are, somehow, both real, and are the same person, and that they both survive and appear to accept where they are and the role they’ve been assigned to play in each place. I want to note another possibility, consistent with what we are shown, but with zero internal support from the show. It is possible that both Michael and Six are delusions of some never-seen third party. I don’t like it as a possibility, there’s no reason within the show to argue it, and there’s no reason to think that this is what the show’s creators had in mind. However, since the ultimate secret of the show relies on deeply subjective perceptions of reality, the possibility of such an interpretation of the show cannot be totally discounted–but nearly totally, so I won’t mention it again.

Anyway. It turns out that The Village is a state of mind. Unlike in the original series when this was true in a metaphorical way pointing to the relationship between the individual and society, in this show it is literally true. Six encountered a number of people in The Village with doppelgangers in Micheal’s life. The taxi driver in The Village is shown to have a counterpart who is the personal driver to a mystery man. The mystery man is a doppelganger for Two, and is revealed to be a high-level Executive in the corporation from which Micheal resigned. He introduces his wife, a doppelganger for Two’s wife, a doppelganger even down to the sleeping woman motif. Significantly, there is no doppelganger for Two’s son (who also commits suicide in The Village’s bar after murdering–mercy killing?–his mother).

The driver takes Michael to the Executive’s apartment for an important interview, and Michael’s story exhibits disjointedness similar to Six’s, though not for the first time. Michael’s story, through the first four episodes, had seemed pretty straight forward. He worked at a place where he monitored and reported on people, decided he didn’t like it, and resigned in a pretty splashy way–he painted his resignation on the glass wall overlooking one of the decorative stair cases in his office building. He met a girl, and she turned out to be some sort of plant to lure him back into the company; she seemed to have a change of heart about her job, stayed the night, and the next morning when Micheal was out getting fruit he saw his apartment explode, apparently killing her (echoing a scene in the Village from the first episode). In the fifth episode, the disjointedness in Michael’s story becomes obvious. He sneaks back into the company offices, during off-hours (somehow off-hours for a company charged with spying on people all the time), in a way which seems implausibly easy, and encounters his first doppelganger–the shopkeeper in The Village appears to be the same guy as the security access management guy at the company. Michael uses a quote from Six’s life in The Village to overcome the security guy’s objection to letting Michael back into the building. Michael has a disorienting experience in the office, and then looks out the window and sees Six in The Village. There’s a cut to Six in The Village, who sees the ghostly towers, and we realize that the glinting spot we have long seen on one of the towers is the office where Michael is standing, trying, and failing, to get Six’s attention.

In the final episode, during the important interview with the Executive, Micheal appears to experience dissociations. These are intercut with the storyline unfolding in The Village. What is going on in the important interview and what is going on in The Village are also doppelgangers. The Executive is attempting to convince Michael to stay with/return to the company by explaining to him what The Village is. Meanwhile, Two is setting the pieces in place to trap Six into accepting his role in The Village. The Village, says the Executive, is another layer of the mind–there’s the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, and, as discovered by his wife, other layers of mind, of which The Village is one, and it is a layer where people can be repaired of their flaws. Assume for the moment that the Executive is reliable. This is a remarkable layer of mind, since it appears to be literally a shared space. In this way, The Village is kind of like World of Warcraft–out there, somewhere in objective reality, is a real place everyone can literally get to but only through the power of their minds. Pretty heady stuff. This should not be confused with the idea of a collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is collective in the sense that everyone shares unconscious architecture and archetypes because all humans are human–it’s kind of like saying there’s a collective circulatory system. We all have a circulatory system that’s pretty much the same for everyone, and that has similar predictable effects on everyone, but we don’t literally share the same set of arteries and veins. Similarly, we don’t all share the same unconscious, like some sort of mental waterworks where we can go into, move around and then literally pop up in someone else’s mind.

Anyway, it seems that the broken parts of people’s minds can be brought into the layer of mind called The Village. And the job of the corporation is to monitor people for signs of brokenness and intervene, making sure these parts get to, and stay within, The Village. The Executive’s doppelganger, Two, appears to be ruthless in fulfilling his role in this scheme. However, being in The Village doesn’t seem to have done the Executive’s doppelganger any good; he remains fragile in his role in The Village–though ruthless with the other residents, Two has his wife and a child in The Village. But when Two loses these people, his obsession with obtaining Six’s acceptance of a role in The Village becomes self-destructive.

And The Village appears to be unstable, always a worrisome prospect, but especially so for a realm which is a layer of mind. Throughout the series we have seen sinkholes forming in various places in The Village. People fall into these holes and they don’t come back. The holes open up with greater frequency as the series progresses, and their existence appears to be tied to the state (and fate) of the sleeping woman. Two’s wife in The Village, it seems, must sleep to maintain The Village, though this is a great burden on Two and their child. The child takes the amazing step of killing the sleeping woman, though this does not kill the Executive’s wife. The Executive’s wife, however, apparently cannot remain the sleeping woman if her doppelganger in The Village is dead. It seems there must be a conduit between The Village and the outer world, and, it seems, this conduit must be a sleeping person in both places.

Two, with the heightened drama of dreams, has set his trap well. He has lined the scene with baits, and has stage managed the baits’ locations and entrances so they believe not only that they aren’t bait, but that they are freely doing what is best. So the driver begins a chant linking Six with One, and the doctor–suffering from dreams of a terrible alternate life–takes a way out of her trauma which allows her to survive as the dreamer for The Village (where dreams are illegal) and frees her love, Six, to… to do, what, exactly? And Two eats a grenade.

In the outer world, the Executive leads Michael to the doctor’s doppelganger, a woman whose life experiences have traumatized her beyond the help of this world. But, you see, she has a place where she can have her brokenness repaired. The Village. All Michael has to do is… I don’t know, hold her hand or something. Additionally, for some reason, Michael has to return to the fold, and take the center seat in the monitoring pod in the office building, or it all won’t work out OK. But everything does work out OK; Michael takes the center seat, looking dour; the traumatized woman gets soothed by the doctor being permanently sedated in The Village; and Six, sitting in the dessert, mutters to himself and the sedated dreaming doctor in an effort to convince himself that he can make a better place of The Village.

But is the Executive reliable? Probably, since the story he tells makes sense, at least some sense, of all we have seen, and presume Michael has experienced. But how can what he says really make any sense? A portion of someone’s mind can be excised and sent, like a pizza, to a place where other minds are embodied to either heal flaws in the original person or isolate the flaws from the person. The story makes this a fact–this is how the world of this show is, it’s not a metaphor or an allegory.

And that’s fine; it’s crazy, but it’s consistent, and so it’s fine as far as I’m concerned. I expect there are some who will find the crazy story unacceptably crazy. That’s fine, too. It’s a TV show, and nobody is obliged to like or dislike it based on someone else’s say-so. But what I find unsatisfactory about the episode is that it was full of telling–there was a lot of expository dialog. There was no ambiguity, just confusion. It’s weaker television than it could have been. What I really found unsatisfactory, though, is the way the ethic of The Prisoner has been abandoned.

Six, unlike Number 6, is always motivated by his personal plight. His threats to Two that he will destroy Two and The Village arise from his personal grievance. His resignation from his corporate job appears to be purely a personal distaste with what the company was doing. Two is insistent on the goal of subsuming Six to The Village. For some reason, Six is special, though there is nothing in either Six’s life as Michael nor in his character or characteristics in The Village, to indicate that his specialness to Two arises from anything special about Six or Michael. (Of course, we find out that Michael works for the Executive, who wants Michael to return to and rise within the ranks of the company, and this apparently translates into Two’s need to firmly embed Six in The Village hierarchy.) Why Michael is specially singled out for promotion is unclear–he doesn’t seem special–though we can speculate that it might be related to his decision to resign.

Michael is just a corporate flunky, and Six is only on his own side in his conflict with Two and The Village. Neither of them is a hero deserving our trust or loyalty, and when they fail it is an unambiguous failure. Contrast this with Number 6’s ambiguous success. Both Michael and Six end up exactly where they don’t want to be, and they end up there because they’ve been out-maneuvered by those with the real power in the power structures they want to leave. But we don’t care. At then end of the day, the failures of this pair don’t elicit any sympathy, because nothing they did gave us any faith that we could rely on them–not that they were reliable narrators, or had to be reliable narrators to gain our trust. What we needed was a sense that they were on our side, that they were motivated by concern for other people, and though, at the end, they got backed into a corner where they had to choose to fail in their efforts to get what they wanted, we still don’t feel like they were motivated in their choices by a deep abiding concern about other people. We feel like they resigned themselves to the role they’d been pushed toward from the beginning. The individual was always subjected to the roles of society, and they didn’t have the self-understanding they needed to make the self-sacrifice. There wasn’t really a self there to be sacrificed. They were just trapped. Not Prisoners, just prey.

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