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.

First:

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.

And

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.

The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt 5)

Kim,

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 in forth for ever, 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 over looking 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. 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.

The Prisoner, an appreciation (pt. 4)

Kim,

I’ve just watched Schizoid. I didn’t give up on AMC’s The Prisoner. There’s one episode left, and I want to think a bit about where things seem to be going before we get there. I want to make my wrong guesses honestly, I think.

So… The Prisoner seems to have turned pretty firmly in the direction of Mystery Show—the sort of show with a Central Mystery, the sort of show which doesn’t typically survive the Big Reveal. Of course, we went into this show knowing that it’s a six-part miniseries, so it doesn’t have to survive. But it would be nice if the show, after it’s over, sustains further consideration. I’m not sure that’s going to happen.
Anyway. In Schizoid we see two people who look like Six running around the Village. Is this a double? Is this an illusion in Six’s mind? If so, which Six is the real one? One cuts the other in a fist fight, and the implication in that scene is that the one with the cut is the real one, and the cut was caused by the figment who I’ll call Cold Six. Cold Six is on a mission to kill Two (in cold blood), because he’s fed up with Six making threats which are essentially impotent.

Is Cold Six really a figment? Other people seem to see both Sixes in too rapid succession for them to be anything other than both real. But these sightings are only through glass—though windows or in reflections. But in the climax of the kill Two plot, Cold Six appears to vanish rather than merely leave the scene. The kill Two plot is intimately tied to a significant subplot about Two taking a day off. As the UnTwo, he’s jovial, friendly, yet still irritatingly cryptic.

Two has an extended scene with the shop proprietor. They smoke cigarettes, and they talk. In Six’s other life, the one where he wanders around New York and suffers the indignities of corporate America’s national security state, he has an extended scene with an “access guy” played by the same actor as the shop proprietor. There are echoes in the scene with the access guy of an earlier scene with the proprietor, leading us to wonder if these two characters are the same person, and that the access guy has been sent to the Village. In any event, things don’t go so well for the proprietor—it’s never a good idea to interact with Two.

Because of their extended interaction with UnTwo, I’m worried about the cab driver and his wife. I don’t trust them, of course. As viewers we make a serious mistake when we trust anyone in this show. Even Six isn’t trustworthy—at the least, as our point-of-view character, he’s an unreliable narrator. But, in fact, Six is special within the context of the Village. This means we cannot discount the possibility that he’s One of Them, even if he doesn’t currently know it.

And speaking of family, there was another subplot in this episode. While Two is out and about, his son (11-12) wakens the sleeping woman—Two’s wife, 11-12’s mother. They have a day together, she assures him there is someplace else, that it’s not a place for people born in the Village, and 11-12 gets pissed off. She goes back to sleep. So far, I’m not very interested in the sleeping woman subplot. On the one hand it seems like an unnecessary addition to the central story. On the other hand, it seems like it’s possibly an interesting counterpoint—if there’s something in this show that will sustain further contemplation, it may actually be the sleeping woman subplot.

One of the mysteries of the show seems to have been addressed, if not definitively resolved. The gleaming towers Six chases like ghosts in the desert appear to be where he works in New York. At the very end, well after the conclusion of the kill Two plot, Six appears to see the Village from an unlikely vantage, and in the Village he sees an unlikely character.

Ahhhhnnnd…. Speaking of unlikely characters, there’s one more subplot—the question of what’s up with the doctor. She has a brief scene with the UnTwo. She’s been having dreams over the last few episodes, and these are dreams of Someplace Else. UnTwo assures her that there actually is someplace else, and she makes an abortive attempt to go there, or, at least, someplace that’s not the Village. If there is any trustworthy character in the Village at all, I think the doctor is probably that person. She really does seem to have her own problems driving her own agenda. She’s been messed with by Six (apparently mainly inadvertently), and she’s been messed with in a pretty rough way by Two.

There are a lot questions. Will Six escape? Will Two’s son? Will the doctor discover whatever truth she’s suffering for? What is the Village? Where is it? What is its relationship with Six’s other life? Is Six’s ‘real name’ really Michael? Who will survive? Will the Village survive?

This last question is inspired in part by the finale of the McGoohan series and in part by the fact that in this show, the Village seems literally to be falling apart. The ground is falling away from beneath the Village—is this ‘merely’ an engineering problem, or is this something of a psychological problem with the underpinnings of the Village? UnTwo makes the point in his various conversations that the real struggle in the Village is on of the mind—and that it largely takes place in the minds of the individuals within the Village. While true, in its own way, from the perspective of Two, this is only a distraction from the fact that people aren’t allowed to leave the Village, and that they only have individual liberty to the extent that what they want doesn’t conflict with what Two asserts is good for the Village. Can the Village survive if Two doesn’t?

That’s a lot of questions for one episode to resolve. I don’t expect that they all will be. And, in fact, I expect that mainly very little will be definitively answered, and much of what is answered will probably be questions I didn’t even know I had.

(Originally posted as a Facebook note February 5, 2010)

The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt. 3)

Kim,

I’ve watched half of AMC’s The Prison now. Among my thoughts remain this idea that the narrative itself is playing games. I mean, obviously Two is playing games, though they seem to be primarily games of power, with no as yet clearly articulated outcome; Two seems merely interested in maintaining power over the rest of the people in The Village, and in asserting this power over Six. He does, however, seem to need Six to remain alive and vital—he instructs Six’s spy-partner that Six is to remain alive—indicating that the power games are aimed at beating Six in order to get something.

However, Six’s perspective—and ours to the degree we identify Six’s point of view as our own—remains unreliable to me. The end of episode two has Six strapped to a gurney, being wheeled off who knows where, yelling at Two. At the beginning of episode three, this all seems more or less forgotten. How does Six make these jumps from one set of events to another? It’s dream like. Is his experience in The Village a dream? Are his dreams of his conversation with the girl about Summakor memories? Dreams within a dream? Events that take place after the events in The Village?
In this episode, Six is tasked by Two with becoming a spy (is he a spy when he’s not driving a bus?) He notes that the cellular structure of the spying network means everyone is a spy, at least potentially. This is presented as if it were news, but we viewers knew this already, and Six should have as well. There are three sets of secrets in play (that Six eventually knows about), plus at least one more which is the most chilling. There’s the principal in the school. He’s sort of a MacGuffin, though. A red herring to move some of the other plot elements forward, and to allow for some exposition. (“There is no Number One.” This may be the only time the word ‘number’ is used before a number; or maybe I’m mis-remembering it.)

Six’s spying on the principal gives Six and us an opportunity to discover that the spy-partner has a secret, that the child of Two has a secret (these are the same secret), that the doctor has a secret. This discovery appears to give Six some leverage, and the opportunity to rescue the doctor. This adventure, however, proves to be possibly illusory. But possibly not.

Six rescues the doctor and a little girl, but it appears he was set up to succeed. In retrospect, the place from where they were rescued appears to have been an artificial detention area. But if Six hadn’t chosen to attempt a recue, it seems The Village (and Two in particular) would have kept them. The doctor and little girl, for different reasons (legitimate reasons from The Village’s stand point), were actually taken away. Six was allowed to rescue them—in a dream-like sequence where the time line is compressed and the likelihood of capture is leap-frogged—possibly because the game Two plays with Six is more important than the transgressions of the doctor and the little girl. After all, they can always be sent away again. Six has to be kept off-balance, with his power ebbing and flowing at the call of Two.

But, by the end, we find that Two knows his son’s secret, the secret of the spy-partner, that he uses children possibly as young as eight as pawns and as bait (the final secret, of which Six is unaware, and for which Six bears some responsibility—I wonder if this will be a factor in the way the series winds up). We also find that Two doesn’t even let people eat their ice cream.

(Originally posted as a Facebook note December 8, 2009.)

The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt. 2)

Kim,

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 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 episodes 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, 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)

The Prisoner, an Appreciation (pt. 1)

Kim,

I’m running late. The holiday weekend was busier and more eventful than I expected, and I didn’t have time to sit down and watch any of the episodes of The Prisoner. But, I promised you a review, and you’ll get it. In a few parts. Maybe 7. This first one will be some reminiscences of the original series. I’m not going to do any research, so this will be a fairly impressionistic review, since I’ve only seen a couple of episodes since… maybe 15 years ago or so. I’ll make these comments before I watch any of the new show.

The prisoner, the character played by Patrick McGoohan in the 1960’s series, was a recently retired spy, widely assumed by the viewing audience to be John Drake, the title character from McGoohan’s earlier TV show, Danger Man (Secret Agent in the US). Retired is the wrong word, he was in fact resigned. The opening credits, a brilliant all but silent short (though with a very telling clip of dialog), firmly establish this fact with a shot of his ID card being dropped into a file drawer labeled “Resigned.”

There were 16 episodes of this show, and they were, on the whole, somewhat odd. As a viewer now it is difficult to imagine what the US audience in 1968 might have made of this summer replacement for the Jackie Gleason Show, which was a comedy/variety hour. It was odd, but nevertheless, most of the episodes followed a fairly straightforward formula. McGoohan’s character, held against his will in a place called The Village, is called Number Six. All residents of The Village, save a few with nicknames like The General, are called by numbers. Each week Number Two tries to get Number Six to explain why he resigned. Each week Number Two fails and gets canned, and the next week a new Number Two tries again. The rules of Number Six’s captivity, coming presumably from Number One, though certainly from Number Two’s superiors in the organization running The Village, prevent Number Two from doing any lasting harm to Number Six, and certainly from killing him. There were a couple of instances where Number Six was allowed to escape from The Village, to teach the lesson that there is no escape from The Village. These main-run episodes were mildly allegorical and layed out the essential theme of the conflict between the privileges of conscience for the individual versus the trend of society to insist, sometimes violently, on conformity and participation on society’s terms.

As the series progressed, the allegory got heavier, and the plots and scripts got, to be frank, strange. And to say “strange” is saying something, since the context within which they got strange was pretty strange to begin with. The Village set is a real place called Port Marion, a resort in Wales. It’s a fanciful place with cottages reminiscent of Hobbitton, if Le Corbusier had been a Hobbit. The streets have a way of curving back on themselves, the architectural material of choice appears to be stucco-coated concrete, and there’s a stone boat beached above the high tide line. The residents of The Village, save Number Six and the administrative and medical staffs, tended to dress in brightly colored striped outfits with capes, floppy tam o’shanters, and parasols (even the hired muscle). Anyway, toward the end, things got weird. And by the end, you had to turn around, look through a spyglass, and squint to see weird, since by then things had gone so far past weird, it would be nice if there was a different word for it.

In the final episode, really a two-parter, Number Six, in his trademark black sport coat, chinos, and white sneakers, faced Number Two, but not a new Number Two. This was a Number Two we’d seen before. He’s come up with a clever new way to break Number Six and been brought back. And that’s really what The Village wants—to break Number Six. The reason why he resigned is a side light. In fact, it seems likely to me that they accept the reason he gave for resigning in the first place–in the resignation letter we saw in the opening credits of each episode. We don’t know what the reason was, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he did resign, unexpectedly, and, if you will, out of order. He left the system, you see, and The Village is a way of breaking him. Breaking in the sense of breaking a horse. Bring him back into the fold. They don’t want him to be a spy again, but they want him to be a team player. Comparisons with O’Brien’s conversations with Winston Smith would be valid, though I don’t think The Village is a totalitarian endeavor in the Orwellian way of Stalinism or Fascism. More in the Huxley way, I think.

Anyway. In this final episode everything breaks, in the way we usually mean break–to fall apart, or fall out as the title of the final episode indicates. Number Two breaks; other characters previously assumed dead return and they break. Number Six breaks, though not in any way you can anticipate, so my telling you this fact is hardly a spoiler. The Village breaks, or gets broken, or maybe not. Number One is revealed, or shows up, or maybe not. Number Six finally escapes, or takes over, or maybe not. You see, when I say everything breaks, I really mean it. In the final segment of the final part of the final episode, narrative itself breaks down. You see it all, and you see it all pretty clearly, and yet you really don’t know what you’ve seen. And then, in the final scene, as Number Six heads confidently into his future, he turns back, looks right at you, waves the standard-issue Village wave, and something so strange happens that you might not even notice it which breaks everything you think you’ve been through for the previous sixteen hours.

So that’s The Prisoner I remember. This new Prisoner is, as I’ve gathered from a few reviews, different in significant ways. In my remarks on the new one, which I’ll try to post one episode at a time, I’ll try not to let my fondness for the original color my assessment. I’ll probably not succeed, but I’ll try. Be seeing you.