The Prisoner

I recently finished watching The Prisoner, a British TV show from the late 60s. It’s pretty good. I’m going to ramble on about it for a while, most of which won’t be too spoily (at least, not until I get to talking about my interpretation of the ending).

Where am I?
In The Village.

The protagonist and title character, having just resigned from his secretive job (presumably with the British government), is gassed as he hurriedly packs up his things. He wakes up in The Village, a small coastal community at some unknown location, with no means of contact with the outside world nor apparent means of escape. He is being held here against his will, along with some unknown number of the other residents. There is no sure way to tell, as he learns from experience, who are the prisoners and who work for his captors.

What do you want?

His captors have extensive information about his life, but they want to fill in the remaining gaps in their knowledge. Particularly, they want to know the reason why he suddenly and unexpectedly resigned.

Whose side are you on?
That would be telling.

The motivation behind his captors remains a mystery. Are they the enemy, plying his mind for all the secrets he must’ve learned during his job? Are they allied with the British, worried that he may have had ulterior motives for his sudden resignation? Are they some third party? Are they truly interested in why he resigned, or is that only the first step in getting more information out of him?

We want information. Information. Information.
You won’t get it.
By hook or by crook, we will.

Whatever their reasons may be, they’re determined, they have seemingly limitless resources (they run the entire village, after all), and they have numerous tricks up their sleeve. They try to offer him power within The Village in exchange for his cooperation (see “Free for All”). They try tricking him into giving up his information (see “The Chimes of Big Ben”). They try mind control (see “A, B, and C” or “Living in Harmony”). They dangle the possibility of escape in front of him in order to snatch it away and crush his spirit (see “Many Happy Returns”). They even try robbing him of his very sense of identity (see “The Schizoid Man” or “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”).

Who are you?
The new Number 2.

No names are used in The Village; instead, all people there — prisoners and captors alike — are referred to only by their number. Number 2 is in charge of The Village and is head of the town council (which is merely a puppet under Number 2′s control). It is Number 2′s job to get information out of the protagonist, one way or another. Yet it is clear that Number 2 is not the one calling all the shots. In almost every episode, someone else has taken the place of the previous Number 2. The person in charge isn’t happy with the lack of progress his Number 2s are making, and Number 2 is always apprehensive when answering the big red phone.

Who is Number 1?
You are Number 6.

It’s certainly worth noting that, since the number assigned to a person seems to correspond with their power or importance in The Village, the protagonist is known as Number 6. (By comparison, most of Number 2′s underlings have two-digit numbers, and the grunts typically have three-digit numbers.) Whoever Number 1 and the rest of his captors are, they clearly desperately want to know the motivation behind Number 6′s resignation.

I am not a number! I am a free man!

Number 6 refuses to comply with Number 2′s demands and stubbornly maintains his individuality, surrounded by a Village where automatic, unthinking conformance with the rules and regulations is held paramount. But even though Number 6 successfully defeats all attempts to get information out of him, he is nevertheless continually unable to escape from The Village himself. Surveillence is everywhere, there’s no way to distinguish the prisoners like himself from his captors or those collaborating with them (see “Checkmate”), and the Rover stands as an ever-present threat to stop him if he goes too far or steps too far out of line. Indeed, as the series progresses the frequency of Number 6′s escape attempts decreases dramatically, although he continues to be a thorn in Number 2′s side (see “It’s Your Funeral” or, my favorite episode, “Hammer into Anvil”).

Even though Number 6 refuses to bow to his captors, neither is he able to escape The Village and gain freedom. The conflict is clearly symbolic of the struggle of the individual to retain his identity in the midst of a society continually pressuring him to conform. (Gee, I wonder why anyone would be thinking of that during the 60s.)

SPOILER WARNING: Details of the last two episodes follow.

As the series draws to a close, his captors become increasingly desperate to break Number 6. One of the previous Number 2s returns to do the job, and seeing as how his superiors are openly threatening him in his office with a Rover (until now only used against Number 6 or other prisoners trying to escape), they’re clearly demanding results, or else. Number 2 responds by applying the procedure of last resort, Degree Absolute. Number 6 is heavily drugged and taken to an underground room where he is forced to relive episodes throughout his life, from childhood all the way through to The Village, with Number 2 playing the roles of everyone he encounters. Every time, Number 6 is pressed with the ever-present question, “Why did you resign?”

Bordering on surreal, this penultimate episode of the series (“Once Upon a Time”) shows that the conflict that dominates the series is symbolic of the aforementioned individual v. society struggle that takes place throughout our lives. And characteristically, Number 6 refuses to give in, or even to say the number 6 and acknowledge his place in The Village — an extension of his refusal to wear the badge identifying him by number in any of the episodes. In the end, Number 6 prevails, and Number 2, under extreme stress and having had the tables turned upon him, only finds escape in death. When The Supervisor (Number 28) enters the room after the time alloted for the procedure has elapsed, Number 6 demands to be taken to Number 1.

The final episode (“Fallout”) picks up here, as Number 2 is led to a chamber further underground, and the surrealism gets turned up another few notches. With All You Need is Love playing in the background, Number 6 sees The President and committee behind the Village; committee members dressed in masks and white robes, and The President in a British judge’s garb. Number 1 is represented by a metal cylinder with a blinking green light. Number 6 is throned, and The President explains that they are impressed with his strength and determination, offering him the presidency and control of The Village. Before he is asked to accept, two other prisoners who have not succumbed to the captors are brought forward for trial. The first is Number 48, an extreme anti-establishment character, runs around the chamber singing Dry Bones while helmeted guards chase him. The second is none other than a resussitated Number 2, revealing that he was himself originally a prisoner but had not resisted his captors for very long. But in his death he has been reborn and has turned against The Village, spitting on Number 1′s cylinder before being dragged back out of the chamber.

Number 6 is offered power over The Village and his freedom, as apparently The President and the committee have acknowledged that Number 6 has beaten them. He accepts, but each time he tries to address the committee they stand up and repeatedly shout “I!” drowning out anything Number 6 has to say. Clearly, the committee has not surrendered to Number 6 at all; instead, this is their last attempt at conquering him, by subsuming his individuality into the collective. Number 6 demands to see Number 1 yet again, and goes to yet another lower level where Number 48 and Number 2 are being held. He climbs the spiral staircase into Number 1′s control room (the coincidence to the lighthouse in “The Girl Who Was Death” is surely not coincidental) and finds a masked, robed figure sitting at the controls. Number 6 unmasks him to reveal a gorilla mask, and unmasks that to reveal a man who runs around the room laughing maniacally. Once again The Village has deceived Number 6; there is no one person in charge of everything; Number 1 does not really exist. (Thematically, of course, this has to be the case, otherwise the story has just been that of one individual against another.)

Number 6 realizes that this will be his last chance to escape from The Village. He fights the guards at in this lowest level and breaks Number 48 and Number 2 out. Together, they shoot their way back through the committee chamber (a marked change from Number 6′s refusal to wear a gun in “Living in Harmony”), and Number 2′s Butler drives them out of The Village as the remaining captors and prisoners evacuate before Number 1′s cylinder — revealed to be a rocket — launches. It apparently turns out that The Village had only been a few dozen miles away from London, and it’s not long before the four of them are free.

But has Number 6 truly gained the power and freedom that The President had offered him? I believe not. The Butler continues to follow Number 6 back to his home. The Butler had began following Number 6 ever since he had begun to prevail over Number 2 during the Degree Absolute procedure. In effect, The Butler goes with whoever has the power in The Village, so his continued presense suggests that although Number 6 may have prevailed over his captors, he has not yet, nor can he, ever fully escape them. Additionally, after Number 6 drives off, The Butler enters Number 6′s home, and the door opens automatically with the mechanical hum characteristic of all doors in The Village. Since every other time Number 6′s home has appeared in the series it had a normal, manually-operated door, this is further proof that Number 6 has not fully escaped. Finally, one of the last shots in the episode is of Number 6 driving down a straight stretch of road — the same shot as that shown in the opening sequence of every episode! There has been no lasting change, no final escape; instead things are still much the same as they were before.

So what does it all mean? Who won? Although it has been evacuated, Number 6 didn’t destroy The Village like he had threatened to in one of the earlier episodes. (And we never see where that rocket did go off to….) Yet even though Number 6 may not have fully escaped, as vestiges of The Village still remain around him, neither have they been successful in their attempts to break or control him, and Number 6 continued to fight them until the end. Ultimately, the individual cannot destroy or completely escape the society around him, although he can exist within it without losing everything that makes him an individual. After all, Number 6 spends more than a year in The Village without any sign of giving up or losing his determination. Thus, by resisting them indefinitely, Number 6 has emerged as victorious as it is possible to do, even though the struggle to maintain his identity is not — and can never be — over.

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