Monday, February 15, 2010

The Whole Damn Thing--THE PRISONER, Episode 17

(NOTE: I realise this episode is baffling, contentious, and utterly mystifying in spots. I also realise people have been writing huge great books of analysis and criticism of The Prisoner, and this episode specifically and I'm liable to come no closer to deciphering all the symbolism and all in this episode. So--my analysis will focus on the parts of the episode that I have a reasonably good handle on and also seem, in my eyes to being the "main idea" of the piece)

Right--Let's do this.

Episode 17--"Fall Out"

Last time, No. 2 and No. 6 squared off in a contest of wills and endurance. And No. 2 lost. Not just the contest, but his life as well. Upon winning, he declared his intention to meet Number One.

And off to the races we go. After a quick wardrobe change (back to his suit from "Arrival," indicating a return to "himself" or the completion of a circular journey, something that comes back a little later) Following a hallucinatory interlude he's taken to a place under the Village, which smacks of "Bond Villain Lair" as much as it does the usual queer aesthetic of the Village. One could be forgiven for thinking this was a completely separate entity from the Village.

But if one reads the cues, it's very much the Village. No. 6's guide dons a robe and mask and disappears into a mass of similarly dressed people, all of whom seem to be seated behind signs indicating generalities.

All of which snaps into focus as we meet the Judge, who declares that No. 6 has "vindicated the right of the individual to be individual" and declares that the assembly behind him has been called in a matter of crisis--to address the question of "rebellion." Eventually No. 6 will get his reward--whatever that might be--but first, he (and us) sit through the presentation of two cases of "failed revolt:"

The first is No. 48 (who you might recognise as The Kid from "Living in Harmony," and depending on how often you think about this stuff, may or may not be considered the same character) No. 48 is called by the Judge "Uncoordinated Youth . . .rebelling against any accepted norm because it must."

No. 48's trip seems to be to be as boisterous, loud and disruptive as possible (as he demonstrates a few times in the course of his "case") for no other reason than what is termed in the Internet age as "the lulz." But hidden within his seemingly random acts of rebellion are veiled messages aimed at the older, established, order (specifically that however rebellious he is, No. 48 is still one of them and is owed something by the community) As to what dooms his rebellion to failure, the clue may be in how The Judge attempts--somewhat deliriously--to communicate on No. 48's level and how the song he constantly sings is subsumed when the entire "jury" joins in with him. His rebellion "fails" because the elements of it can be co-opted by the established order and the "soul" of his rebellion (whatever that is--remember, this is the adolescent, "Whatever mom and dad are for I'm against" kind of rebellion) and if his rebellion is so easily defused, the notion is that ultimately he will one day quiet down and join the crowd.

Failed Rebel No. 2 is, appropriately, No. 2--resurrected for this occasion with the help of shaving cream, a sink plunger, and blinky lights. His crime is "being an established, stable member of the community and turning upon and biting the hand that feeds him." As dodgy as the circumstances of this are, it gets us to a rather good and meaty scene, wherein No. 2 explains what brought him to where he finds himself--he had power, influence, and all he imagined he wanted, and really only upon losing it ("dying") did he realise how ephemeral it all was--after all, the power he so coveted has moved to No. 6 with nary a pause in things and even the small dignity of his death was taken away from him.

The real crime, in his eyes "was that [he] resisted for so short a time." Only now, stripped of his power and his old life can he find it in himself to resist, simply because he has nothing else to lose. But even though this act of rebellion is heartening (and Leo McKern does method spitting not equaled until Timothy Dalton in that Dr. Who episode) his rebellion fails because it's too late--he's already been compromised by the life he leads and his rebellion can be ignored as the ravings a harmless crank who's just grumpy because he's not the one in charge again--the perception of fundamental dishonesty negates its power. And how sincere could be be, anyways? Dangle the promise of the same power he possessed before and wouldn't he fall back in line?

So now it's No. 6's turn. It's somewhat puzzling that after 16 episodes of trying to destroy the man every which way they could think of and a few no one had considered up to now that they're now venerating him as though he just cured cancer or turned water into wine. The Judge gives him everything he needs to return to his life--money, a key to his house, traveler's cheques--he can go anywhere he wants.

Or he can stay and lead them by example. That bit ends up being a bit more fraught than one imagines--Upon addressing the assembly, No. 6 can barely get three words out because everyone is shouting "I! I! I!" at the top of their lungs. This calls to mind the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian where Brian exhorts his followers that they are all individuals, wherein they bleat out, in perfect unison, that they are all individuals.

So, leading this lot isn't an option. Or it's not an option anyone could take without going absolutely nuts. So all that's left is to meet Number One, who waits at the top of a huge rocket (the rocket thing is a bit puzzling unless you study some of The Prisoner's apocrypha--there's a subtle notion about The Village being a "perfect blueprint for world order" and in one alternate take of the pennyfarthing symbol over the end credits, the small-wheel microcosm--Earth/The Village--spins against the big-wheel macrocosm of the Universe, suggesting that the ultimate goal of the Village is to export itself beyond the planet. The globes that adorn Number One's lair seem to suggest this as well) Number One is, like the assemblymen down below, masked and anonymous. It's only when No. 6 reaches for the mask that things get . . .odd.

A quote from "Arrival" plays again and again, settling into a steady drone of "I . . .I . . .I . . ." (completing another "circle"--see the assemblymen in the previous scene) One mask is removed, for another, and No. 6 sees . . .a very nutty version of himself.

According to McGoohan, Number One was always envisaged as the ultimate threat--the evil side of oneself. If we take the episode literally, McGoohan suggests that perhaps the ideal way to deal with evil side of ourselves is to chase it round the table a few times, lock in in the nosecone of the rocket and shoot it into space. But as blatant readings of this episode usually collapse into gibbering nonsense, let's assume there's a deeper meaning here.

Number One is "defeated" (or disposed of) and No. 6 frees Nos. 2 and 48 fight their way out of the Village in a thrilling jailbreak. The Village is evacuated, Rover is destroyed, and it all seems appropriately climactic and cathartic. But it's actually this (pretty much dialogue-free) stretch that provides some very intriguing possible answers.

For one thing, the Village isn't in Lithuania or Morocco or whatever . . .it's just down the A20. That this inescapable "prison" is so close to No. 6's home suggests in a sense that the prison isn't necessarily a place as much as it is a state of mind. There's a strong notion, especially in McGoohan's later interviews that he saw the story of The Prisoner as a cycle--one no sooner slays his Number One than he must face it again, one no sooner "escapes" than becomes trapped again.

Completing circles, again.

No. 48 hits the road, hitchhiking one way and then the other, going whichever way seems like the most interesting. This echoes his "rebellion"--there's no real direction behind it, no idea except the fire of youth driving him up one road or across to the next.

No. 2 returns to a place of power, once again one the road to becoming the man he was. Or maybe not--maybe with a second chance and a opportunity to look from the "outside" and what brought him to where he was, maybe things will be different.

No. 6 returns home, hopefully a little wiser (although the fact that his door is suddenly automatic like his Village flat was is a bit surprising) and, like No. 2 seemingly appears to be on the same course that got him into this mess to begin with (the final shot of the series is an echo of the beginning of the first) Whether history repeats itself nor not we won't know--or can't--because that's where we leave it.

In a later interview McGoohan spoke about the fact that one couldn't absolutely rebel against society--if you did, you'd get ulcers or worse still, lose your mind. That ambivalence tempered with pragmatism ("this may not be completely "right" but I as a person have to find a way I can live in this world without compromising myself totally and without alienating myself from humanity"--or, to borrow Cheap Trick's little bit of wisdom "Surrender, but don't give yourself away") makes the rather elliptical ending work for me, even though I usually hate endings that contend that it's all a big journey around the wheel (not that there aren't enough symbolic clues to let you know that's waiting for you) it makes sense and the notion of it being an open and closed story all at once encourages the viewer to draw their own conclusions and formulate their own response to it.

As you can tell, I don't have all the answers to The Prisoner, and no one does (not on this side of the veil, anyway) But I think there are answers to be found, questions that one can ask oneself, things to be had fun with, things to be thought over. The worst kind of art provokes no reaction at all.

Fortunately, the one thing no one can ever accuse The Prisoner of doing is not provoking a reaction.


Moor Larkin said...

One of the things worthy of notice is that it is the the butler, who enters the house and has the door hum closed behind him. Number Six is back in his car - driving -. Many accounts will suggest to you that Number Six is "back in the village" behind the ominous door, but he isn't - the butler is. It's often the little things in this show that trip people up.

Kazekage said...

True true, and I thought mightily about mentioning that, but I figured it was better to go for the more universal read on the idea of repeating cycles--whether it was exactly that or not I leave to interpretation, but as the butler represents the Great Silent Majority that are often powerless and used by others . . .it makes plenty of sense to me. :)

Diana Kingston-Gabai said...

See, this is my problem with the finale (and, come to think of it, with "The Prisoner" as a whole) - it seems to hinge on the same kind of deliberately weak writing that characterized the "Battlestar Galactica" finale, in that the creators are apparently counting on the viewers to fill in the blanks so they don't have to.

Which begs the question: where do you draw the line between allowing multiple interpretations and lazy storytelling? "It means whatever you want it to mean" isn't a catch-all phrase - it only works in very specific situations, but it tends to pop up whenever writers can't answer their own questions.

Kazekage said...

Well, given how abstract The Prisoner tends to be, I think it just about gets away with it because so little of it is concrete. Where BSG got it wrong is that it thought you could drop that stuff in anytime, which I don't think you can do, unless that's the voice of the show, which BSG, up to that point wasn't and every time they tried, failed miserably.

Well, in this case, I think you kind of expect it when you see the series as a complete whole ("Free For All" and "Living In Harmony" are equally strange and opaque) you can recognise that that's just the way the show plays out its hand. YMMV, of course. :)