The Prisoner is 50 years old and has been never more relatable
The Prisoner was the best show of 1967. Watch it now, today, a half-century after it debuted. (It’s on Amazon, but the Blu-ray’s so worth it.) And ask yourself: Is it the best show of 2017? A man wakes up in a world that is familiar yet strange, peaceful on the outside and endlessly assaultive from within. He can’t trust anyone, can’t trust reality. He knows he is fighting something nefarious, a force of evil. But that force is elusive, seems to be in the blood veins of his community, touches everything in his past, shrouds his future in mystery. Every action he takes becomes vital, a potential act of escape, and yet every move he makes seems pointless, one more failure in a world where even winning feels like losing.
The man is Patrick McGoohan, born in Queens, raised in Ireland before a childhood move to England. So he is as congenial as any New Yorker, guilt-ridden as any Irishman, uptight as any Englishman. He’s playing a character whose name we never learn. We call him “Number Six,” but so do his oppressors.
The broad strokes of the show suggest a hip sci-fi serial, and The Prisoner is a point of inspiration for many modern genre practitioners. Number Six is some kind of spy who angrily retires from his agency. That happens in the opening credits sequence. Fifty years ago, the tropes of spy fiction were already so established that there were two James Bond movies in one year: Hyperbolic You Only Live Twice and supposed parody Casino Royale. McGoohan himself was under consideration for Bond in Dr. No, had played a spy through the 60s on television as Special Agent John Drake on Danger Man.
McGoohan hated guns and was demanded that Drake would seduce no one. This could seem fuddy-duddy (McGoohan was quite Catholic), but maybe he was reaching for something more thoughtful, less escapist. On The Prisoner, when he walks away from his spy agency, it could also be a retirement from cheap escapism, an attempt to leave the binary world of Us Vs. Them. Fifty years later, seemingly every Bond movie is about Bond going rogue, though only a violent-sexy kind of rogue, kiss kiss bang bang.
In the first episode of The Prisoner, McGoohan (it seems wrong to call him Number Six) is knocked out by strange assailants, wakes up in a pleasant place called the Village. The town looks like and actually was a tourist resort, so it is both inviting and off-putting, homey as a comfortable coffin. Watching the first episode of The Prisoner today is a bit of a shock. You have to adjust a bit, the bright ’60s colors, the uniquely British tone-combo of insidious pleasantries.
Push through. McGoohan finds out that the Village is a prison, run by a strange group of people with futuristic-psychedelic technology. They want information from him, and they will get it. This is restated every week, in the opening credits:
We want information…information…information.
Circa 1967, that line vibed as “secrets,” the kind of thing spies fight over. In 2017, that statement sounds like the narcotic demand of the modern content addict, injecting fresh blessed information through the feedholes of social media. McGoohan refuses to give up his blessed information, but the Village promises him they will get it, by hook or by crook.
And so every episode of The Prisoner follows that essential loop, the attempt to break McGoohan. There are mind games and mind controls. Fifty years before alternate reality theory was popular enough to be a trope in cinema and politics, every Prisoner story finds McGoohan struggling through some fresh mysterious hell, always antagonizing a new onscreen representative of the Village’s power structure. Wonderfully, the weekly villain isn’t even the person in charge.
Everyone in the Village has a number, but McGoohan only ever meets the person who goes by “Number Two,” played by a series of guest stars, essentially all of them British. “Who is Number One?” is the question that powers The Prisoner, sort of like how some lives are powered by the question “Who am I?”
The show was conceived in the middle of the Cold War, and there is some notion of the global “sides” that define the outside world. But The Prisoner brings up its topicality only to undercut the idea that anything that defined 1967 was somehow specific or unusual. Sometimes McGoohan will meet a Soviet spy, also held captive. There’s a read on the show where the Village is run by the West, or by the Iron Curtain, or by something else entirely – so the Village seems to represent some force above the petty grievances of the moment, something that was tormenting people 50 years earlier, something that will still torment us 50 years hence.
So watch it today, and see what doesn’t resonate. There’s an episode called “Free For All” about a democratic election that is sort of a deconstruction of politics. McGoohan runs for office, promising freedom to the citizens, but only so he himself can escape the village. It’s impossible to grasp one clear subtext: McGoohan’s being drugged throughout the episode, the citizenry might be plotting against him, that week’s Number Two is oddly friendly. Most political stories put blame somewhere, but The Prisoner is maddened and amused and angry at everyone. The system is corrupt, the people are corrupt, the outsider is corrupt. There’s another episode, “A Change of Mind,” where the Village declares that McGoohan is “unmutual,” suffers a fake-news campaign and gets Clockwork Orange‘d into docility. The big win of the episode is when McGoohan turns an angry mob from himself onto Number Two, but you remember the angry mob, and you wonder if The Primal State Of Angry Mob-dom is all humanity can collectively aspire to.
Heavy stuff, and important to mention here that The Prisoner is droll and endlessly inventive. My favorite episode, “Many Happy Returns,” opens with a lengthy sequence that is completely dialogue-free. There’s an episode with two McGoohans and an episode with no McGoohans. One episode is, simply, a Western: McGoohan in a cowboy outfit arrives in a frontier town, is somehow a Wild West Sheriff who refuses to carry a gun. Fifty years later, the wonderful Westworld uses its genre to deconstruct escapism, but maybe it also encourages it, guns and explosions and nudity that’s only ironic if you want it to be. Westworld also composes a maze of narratives that all connect together. The Prisoner‘s maze is both less flashy and more profound, its escapism “mature” in the oldest sense of the word, a maturity that sees the walls of what society calls freedom.
A spy who won’t give up information, a cowboy who won’t carry a gun: This act of refusal is central to The Prisoner, makes it a sibling to the great works like Bartleby the Scrivener. It’s a constant act of non-conformity – of resistance! – but even though the show was burnt out of the ’60s, there’s nothing cheap about its rebel vision. And that’s important since “rebellion” itself was already becoming a commodity; watch an episode of The Prisoner and then watch Easy Rider, and see how quickly the aesthetic of rebellion can substitute the actual act.
McGoohan is playing a hero, I think, and you root for him throughout. I have two T-shirts with his face on the front, his iconic statement “I AM NOT A NUMBER” a personal mantra on days of turmoil. (A lapsed Catholic can worship a devoted one.) But what makes The Prisoner timelessly now is how the show approaches his rebellion from all sides, how it seeks to explain yet finds so many explanations that the truth becomes fuzzy. McGoohan himself would say that the show was about “the individual,” and it’s frustratingly unclear whether it’s in favor or against.
The Village itself could be an island or it could be a mountain, seems large enough to encompass an open-world-videogame of climate zones yet small enough to ensure that you always run into the people you least want to talk to. The show influenced the rise of serialization, has a clear series premiere and a final two-act finale, but it’s not even clear in what order the episodes are meant to be watched. McGoohan is McGoohan, and all else could be an illusion, and who is McGoohan, anyhow?
There are 17 episodes. They are weird, wild, druggy, trippy, clever, sorrowful, goofy, gorgeous. Through it all there is McGoohan, who somehow becomes less knowable as the series progresses. The incredible final episode is talk-y and speech-y, was written by McGoohan and directed by McGoohan and features McGoohan stepping onstage to offer some kind of final summation. It’s one of the great indulgent acts of TV authorship, and it is strikingly oblique. We like to imagine ourselves as the hero of our stories, and so we relate naturally to the onscreen protagonists, to the rebels and the outsiders. But when you watch The Prisoner, you realize that the real mystery is the man in the title. Who is Number Six? We want to find out. We want information.