Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 8

Episode 8--"Dance of the Dead"

"They don't know you're already dead. Locked up in the long box, in that little room."

"Dance of the Dead" is one of my all-time favorite episodes of The Prisoner, and, in fact, one of the first I got a chance to see in my early days of buying previously viewed tapes from the local video store. Funnily enough, it took me quite awhile to actually get what it was about, but there was enough going on to offset my utter incomprehension of the plot (and to be fair, it's not something you can get if you're half-watching it) that it still held my attention.

First of all, the No. 2 this time is Mary Morris. Despite being a woman (a rarity for Nos. 2) she comes off as curiously asexual, very charming and urbane at moments, but also utterly implacable and malevolent. She plays No. 2 as utterly convinced No. 6 will break (or in her words, "won over") the only thing that matters is how long it takes. Some Nos. 2 (ok, most of them) overact and almost camp it up in the role, but Morris plays it so deadly subtle that it adds an edge to the No. 2/No. 6 dynamic missing from other episodes.

I usually run down the plot at the point, but it's kind of tricky in this case. No. 6 discovers a body washed up on the shore of the Village, intending to use him to send an SOS message when the body's discovered, he runs into Dutton, former ally and fellow inmate. Dutton's at the end of his tether--he's told them all he knows and they won't stop because they don't believe him. The actor who plays Dutton plays his speech to No. 6 with a rather affecting kind of fatalism that makes his final appearance in the climax of the episode even more upsetting. It shouldn't work--this is Yet Another Of No. 6's Friends Who's Setting Him Up, after all, and yet it does work, and very well too.

While that's going on, No. 2 seems to be trying to set up No. 6 with a pretty girl, bit that doesn't work out very well, as No. 6 is a bit of a grump and pretty well immune to the honey trap anyway. He does take an interest in his Observer, but he seems to do so more to hammer her about her unswerving loyalty to the Village and their methods.

All of which comes to a head at the Carnival. The Carnival, like pretty much everything in the Village seems like fun, but is damn sinister. It's a costume party, but your costumes are chosen for you, and the entertainment this year seems to be sentencing No. 6 to death in a trial best described as "a farce."

No. 6 is is sentenced to death. And sure enough, he "dies." Because No. 2 has found the body No. 6 discovered, and his SOS. The SOS will be "amended slightly" and the body will also be "amended slightly." No. 6, to the outside world, is "dead." The feeling at the end of the episode is one of the box being closed around No. 6. The outside world has just become a lot more unreachable and the Village is more of a prison than ever.

It took me a few viewings before I "got" this one, and it wasn't until I read The AV Club's review of it that things clicked into place. No. 2 uses the whole thing with the death sentence and the dead body and Dutton's betrayal as a way of shutting the cage of No. 6, and cutting off any and all methods of escape--literal or figurative. One feels that the stakes have been raised somehow between the Village and No. 6, and there's more of a palpable feeling of danger.

"This is your world," she says. "I am your world." Well, that's pretty much throwing the gauntlet, isn't it? Even No. 6's defiant "You'll never win" feels a little hollow against that sort of implacability.

This episode is a great one, and should be one of the first you see (the assumption from certain dialogue cues, is that it should have been far earlier in the run, but I am consciously trying to keep that sort of talk off these reviews in the name of concentrating on my thoughts and visceral reactions to the series) as it sets the tone perfectly for what kind of series you're dealing with. It's a bit less immediately unsettling than "The Schizoid Man," but it's got a heart blacker than midnight in a coal mine. It's one of The Prisoner's best.

One of the hardest parts of escaping the Village has been working out which of the Villagers are poor victims of the place and the ringers secreted amongst them to keep tabs on the rest. No. 6 thinks he may have found a way to work out who is who, but does he really? And what's the deal with the chess game being played with real people as the pieces? Some scientists say it satisfies the desire for power, you know . . .

Next episode--"Checkmate"

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