Friday, March 12, 1999

'The Prisoner' explained


OK, kids. Here's the secret of The Prisoner.

Most of you nerds know the show inside-out. In case you’ve been wasting your time making money instead of watching old TV shows, here’s the basic premise:

Sometime in the late 1960s, a high-level secret agent (not to be confused with Secret Agent) resigns from MI5 in Great Britain. He doesn't say why. When he gets home, unidentified bad guys fill his flat with knockout gas, capture him and bring him to an unidentified “Village.” The place is a creepy holiday camp where Muzak fills the air and the brainwashed residents have numbers instead of names. If you try to escape, a wicked, self-motivating, white spheroid (aka “Rover”) either eats you, amoeba-style, or herds you back.

A headmaster-like authority figure calls the Prisoner into his office. He’s Number Two. (Numero Uno is never seen.) They talk. The show’s two big questions emerge.

Why did the Prisoner resign?
Who's running the Village?

The Prisoner refuses to say why he resigned. Number Two refuses to say which side is running the Village. (The show is set in the Cold War era. It’s either the Commies or the West.) So, the Prisoner tries to escape; the Village tries to make him talk. A game of cat and mouse goes on for 17 episodes. The show continues to tease you with those two big questions:

Why did the Prisoner resign?
Who's running the Village?

You never find out until the last episode — Fall Out. Actually, you don't find out then, either. What you get is a goofy, surreal, allegorical, bad acid trip. McGoohan (the show’s lead actor, producer, frequent screenwriter and all-time Jr. God) fills your brain with trippy imagery then pisses on your head. He leaves the big questions hanging. Big joke. Because the big answer hides in plain sight.

Take The Prisoner on its own terms.

Supposedly, the Village is a prettified internment camp for spies and people who know too much. It’s designed to protect or extract information and test new brainwashing techniques. The world power behind it wishes to remain anonymous.

Realistically, what would a place like that look like?

First, they’d rotate the nationality of the man in the big chair. There’d be a Russian Number Two. They’d be followed by an American Number Two. Then Brazilian, Chinese, Indian, and so on. If you wish to remain anonymous, that’s how it’s done.

Second, a village of spies wouldn’t be a village of sheep. Spies are the least sheeplike people imaginable. They’re cunning, inner-directed, analytical chess-players who get in other people's heads. They wouldn't be bossed around so easily. The Prisoner wouldn’t be the only rebel.

But that’s not what it looks like.

The Prisoner isn’t a realistic scenario. As anyone remotely familiar with the show knows, it’s an allegory. OK. An allegory of what? Individualism vs. conformity. Sure, but that’s far too general. The allegory has a far more specific target.

Consider the picture it paints …

The Village pretends to be a democratically elected government. The people in charge are really thugs. Behind its techno cleverness, the Village's default solution to people problems is a punch to the gut, a kick to the head or a lobotomy. The rulers rule by force and tell the people they’re free.

The Villagers believe them. Because they want to.

The Villagers are a herd of mindless conformists. They shout slogans, twirl umbrellas, march in parades, discourage “un-mutualness,” trust their leaders and think they're living in a democracy.

Some prisoners are actually jailers in disguise. The Village is a village of finks. And many CCTV cameras. An Orwellian nightmare with pseudo-Italianate architecture.

The leaders have a superior attitude. They feel entitled to grab you out of your home, plop you into their system and tell you want to do and how to think.

And all of the leaders are British. Every last one of them.

Yes, there’s some half-hearted misdirection involving foreign languages. But every bloody Number Two is obviously from Great Britain. British, British, British. On it goes, for all 17 episodes.

The Number Twos are not simply British. They exude the smug, preppy, upper-class, Cambridge/Oxford, old boy arrogance of Britain's ruling class. (With the working class exception of Leo McKern's Number Two, who'd been forced into the job — and ultimately helps bring the system down.)

The Village = an allegory of Great Britain.

Obviously.

Yep. Patrick McGoohan, with his fiery Irish background, has given us a satire of Great Britain. The Village = the UK. From an Irishman's perspective, it's an ugly caricature of the vast hypocrisy of British democracy that, coincidentally, aired about the time of the "Troubles."

Case closed.

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