The long-lasting brilliance of Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner is due to the power of denial and the opinion of the individual over what exactly is taking place before their eyes. For the latter, the surrealistic, amorphous plot and conclusion was fragmented enough to keep viewers, from multiple generations, guessing.
None of it should have worked out. A production of Britain’s ITV, with support of the U.S. CBS network, the show found McGoohan moving from an auteur to something of an egomaniacal bully behind the scenes, to the verge of a nervous breakdown, bringing most of those who worked with him to the same…those he didn’t fire in flagrant, tyrannical fashion.
Before we get to where The Prisoner went, let’s have a quick refresher of where it came from. From the opening credits, an agent of the English Service tears down the road to headquarters. He storms into the building, confronts his handler whilst slamming fists on desk. His case is wiped, his file placed in the “Resigned” drawer. Well, what do you do with a spy that no longer wants to work for you? Do you let him back into the world where he can be open to coersion or fulfill any traitorous tendency that may cross his mind, or worse, left in the open where your enemies can get to him and pry his head open like a treasure chest?
And what exactly does this agent know? What has he seen? And what has he experienced that is jarring enough to provoke such a drastic response? How do you deal with a problem if you don’t have the full scope of the problem? For that you need to get information, by hook or by crook.
The agent wakes up in a strange home. He wanders to the window and peers out to find he has been transported to the pastel-colored Village, a mix between a European villa, a cock-eyed Renaissance Faire, and an isolated island prison. He will be known here as Number Six, his rank in this hierarchy. He will report to Number Two who will endeavor to break that treasure chest open and know what he knows. Number Two reports to Number One, but we don’t actually know who that is. Subterfuge, trickery, and mind-loosening drugs will all be tools for this operation. Deceit, double-dealers, and a round, white wraith that floats and screams will keep escapees in line. Number Two keeps failing and keeps disappearing. Are each of these interrogators killed? Put in reserve? Is this part of the plan to drive Number Six crazy (which explains the return of a Number Two, portrayed by Leo McKern, TV’s Rumpole of the Bailey, in the second to last episode).
What do I think about that? I think they succeeded, but like everything in the series it all depends on how you interpret it. During McGoohan’s lifetime he denied several assumptions held about the plot, all the while dropping tantalizing hints that his denials were itself a subterfuge. Primarily, with respect to Number Six’s identity, the thought was it was Danger Man: Secret Agent, John Drake, the character McGoohan played in the immediately preceding series. A few things stand in the way of this being a certainty, not the least of which was that McGoohan didn’t create Danger Man (which would be Ralph Smart) and may not have had a right to move the John Drake character on to a new series of his own invention — a series that would strip the glamor and thrills of the spy game down into paranoia and chaos. Co-creator and script editor for The Prisoner George Markstein purportedly moved with the scripts on the premise Number Six was Drake, and Number Six was an agent for the same agency that John Drake had been, presumably. This agent angrily quits the agency and a photograph of John Drake is “X’d” out and put into the resignation file. Throughout the run of The Prisoner hints are dropped that this is, for all intents and purposes, a continuation. Perhaps most convincing, a character from Danger Man, “Potter” (seen in the episode “Koroshi”), mysteriously winds up in The Village in the Prisoner episode “The Girl Who Was Death”; placed almost as a throwaway into the episode. Lastly, in Danger Man, the seeds of both The Village and the infamous farewell/warning of observance “Be seeing you” are planted for those who look carefully. These games of saying “no” but showing “yes” are completely in keeping with the mind games that the character of Number Six is subjected to.
That main point is that you know the truth, but fail to admit it. The viewer knows this is John Drake somehow. At the same time, Number Six knows well the identity of the mysterious Number One, or as the courtroom in the final episode Fall Out keep chanting, “I, I, I, I, I…” I is the Roman Numeral for one. Number Six is Number One, or at least metaphorically, he is the prisoner and also the jailer. Perhaps in his Company Days he was the founder of protocol to keep former agents safehoused to not reveal secrets to the world or the black market. He is his own betrayer.
The ending is just as ambiguous as The Village is brought down and Number Six escapes with his fellow prisoners. They make their way back into London where the agent is approached by a policeman. We don’t hear their conversation but see it from a distance. Number Six seems calm and reserved, then he flails wildly, bobbing up and down, then stands, brushes himself off and goes on his way. Some have seen this as just more of the weirdness that was the series primary theme. Some have said that was just Number Six’s way of scaring off the authorities to keep them from hounding him. More likely, the experiment was a success and this former agent’s brain has been cracked hard, like a dropped egg. He may one day spill his secrets to others, but the throne can rest soundly, knowing this man is so irrevocably screwed up, no one will ever believe him.
The Prisoner lasts because it preys upon some of our darkest fears: separation from the familiar and friendly, separation from reality, forced coercion, the nagging feeling you are being watched, the justified conclusion you are being watched, and the creeping belief that as much as one presumes they are an individual they are caught up in as much collectivism as anyone else. The Prisoner railed against dehumanization, but mostly focused on the self-wrought dehumanization of the “go along to get along” set. The series never fully said you could win or lose by going against it. Number Six/John Drake may have escaped. He may be free and he may be clear of further entanglements because The State believes him to be “cracked.” Or maybe he actually is cracked. Or maybe he will find himself dumped into The Village yet again, where all the inhabitants know you, and the only thing that’s certain is that they’ll “be seeing you.”