What The Prisoner Demands

The Times Literary Supplement recently dropped an essay/multi-title book review by Julian Baggini on morality and ethics. (Baggini uses the two words interchangeably. Is this normal in such high-brow discussions?)

I was reminded of The Prisoner by a couple of paragraphs deep in the essay.


Many moral philosophers are at work in this space, trying to show that even if we can’t tidy up every inch, there are more or less rigorous ways of muddling through. One central issue that has preoccupied them for several decades is the possibility that there may be more than one set of legitimate moral values but that these sets might be inconsistent with each other. For example, there is a moral value in individual liberty and also in being bound to a community. Both might be equally reasonable forms of life but to choose one is to reject the other.


Tom Koch treads similar ground in Ethics in Everyday Places. Koch argues that we can’t always avoid “the queasy, inchoate feeling that arises when you’ve done everything right but know you’ve done something wrong”. For Koch, this is the consequence of the conflict between individual moral agency and the demands placed on us by employers, insurers, professions or the state.

Years ago I wrote a five part series of blog posts about The Prisoner, mostly about the AMC reboot, but with plenty of consideration of the original series starring Patrick McGoohan. I’m thinking mainly of McGoohan’s version here. The Prisoner extensively works themes of the mutual duties of the individual and society.

In reading this essay, and those paragraphs in particular, a thought about The Prisoner I hadn’t previously had came to me. The Prisoner is a strange show open to many, sometimes contradictory, allegorical interpretations. Among the most frequently seen interpretations is that, in the final analysis, Our Hero did not, in fact, destroy and escape The Village.

For whatever reason, somehow it never previously occurred to me that Our Hero might not have entered the village as a result of resigning and subsequent kidnap. He might have always been a resident. Or, maybe more sharply, The Village where the events of The Prisoner take place is a more intense version of the ordinary world, the world where we all must live.

In this reading, Our Hero–known throughout the series as Number 6–is, indeed, The Prisoner.

Historically, one of the very common assumptions about The Prisoner is that it is a loose sequel to Secret Agent (aired as Danger Man in USA), and that Number 6 is possibly (probably?) a continuation of that program’s main character, John Drake. There are episodes of The Prisoner which support this interpretation, of course. There is plenty of on-screen evidence that Our Hero was a spy, formerly working on behalf of Western powers, and that The Village we encounter is especially designed to debrief agents with special backgrounds. Additionally, there are strong hints that The Village serves this purpose for “both sides.” This aspect of service to both sides suggests the allegorical idea that The Village we see is a special case of a more general system. In this view, the purpose of The Village is to sustain the system, the network of players, rather than to serve the idiosyncratic  interests of the players.

The general system is the real world. In the real world each of us has to make our best effort to navigate often conflicting societal demands, where we have to be uniquely ourselves and to subordinate the nearly continuous insistence that we owe the world everything that we do to our own actions when we choose, and how we choose, to acknowledge and support those demands.

Our Hero is the prisoner. When he resigns, one of the first explanations given in the show is that it’s a matter of conscience. This is often seen as a literal issue–he was a spy, didn’t like what his spying was about, and left the job. Then he was taken to The Village in order to clarify the matter more satisfactorily, at least in the minds of The Village’s overseers.

In the allegorical interpretation which popped up for me recently, Our Hero resigns. For a matter of conscience, he resigns. I accept this explanation. His conscience demanded he resign; something about his relationship with the world demanded he stand as himself. Something changed. He realized something, and he had to change.

He is The Prisoner, he is Our Hero. He chooses himself, at least in the timeframe between when he decides to resign and does so. For that time, he chooses himself over the demands of his social network. Then he prepares to travel, to undertake a new life. He will be enmeshed in a different set of obligations. These will be obligations of his choosing. Did he not choose the obligations from which he just resigned? In any event, those plans are waylaid when he is abducted, and brought to The Village. He is drawn back into the forms of his old social network, yet he resists. In The Village, he resists the unwelcome demands of his keepers. In The Village he suspects everyone. In The Village he also protects other people. He enmeshes himself.

The demands of conscience are inescapable, as are the demands of society.

Our Hero is The Prisoner.

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