What an extraordinary episode, and I approach writing about it with some trepidation, knowing that it is going to be impossible to do it justice. Perhaps it is necessary to first deal with what this episode is not. It is not any kind of a conclusion or resolution to the series we have been watching for the previous sixteen episodes. It does not provide an actual encounter with Number One (who must actually exist due to the telephone conversations we have been shown). It does not answer the question of why Number Six resigned, or even reveal his name. It does not confirm who runs the village or the connection with Number Six’s former bosses. It does not even definitely show the escape of Number Six. Note how his flat has an automatic door, and the episode ends with a moment from the usual title sequence, plus this is clearly not the same village as Number Six previously escaped from by raft, as he is able to be driven to London. So if we want to constrain the episode within some kind of real-world logic, we can only really interpret it as another episode of mind-controlled dreaming, with the Prisoner continuing to be imprisoned.
What McGoohan wanted to give the viewers at the time was an allegory. This whole series has been remarkably ahead of its time, and maybe Britain wasn’t ready for it. McGoohan literally had to head for the hills because of the reaction of an angry public, not yet culturally mature enough to accept anything other than a Bond movie villain face off. But McGoohan was happy to get some kind of a reaction anyway:
“As long as people feel something, that’s the great thing, it’s when they’re walking around not thinking, not feeling… that’s where all the dangerous stuff is, cause when you get a mob like that, you can turn them in to the sort of gang that Hitler had.”
So yes, basically McGoohan was a genius and he made this episode about three major issues that beset the human condition: the battle against our own evils, the corruption of power, and the demonisation of youth. The first of those is the most blatant, with Number One a crazed reflection of Number Six. The way it is shot is utterly terrifying, although no allowance is made for the viewing habits of the time. I had to do a fair bit of replaying of the shot to see exactly what was going on. For a 1960s viewer with no facilities to pause, rewind or rewatch, it was a confusing four seconds and then gone. This feels so much like a series made for a later era it’s uncanny.
The corruption of power is present in Number Six’s illusory status as the new boss of the Village. He is placed on a throne and deferred to, treated as royalty, and yet when the moment comes for him to give a speech he is shouted down. The respect is an illusion, as is his power. As always with this series, there is a power behind the throne. The same applies on a wider political level. Note how Number Two heads for Parliament at the end, and also how his big regret is to not have resisted corruption:
“What is deplorable is that I resisted for so short a time.”
Perhaps most importantly, the episode portrays the demonisation of youth culture. All You Need is Love, by the Beatles, plays at key moments in the episode, and the Beatles were of course the embodiment of youth culture at the time. They also generated a lot of fear from the older generation and cultural conservatives in general, with the US government even attempting to ban all British acts from performing a couple of years earlier.
“Youth, with it’s enthusiasms, which rebels against any accepted norm because it must, and we sympathise… when the common good is threatened, when the function of society is threatened, such revolts must cease. They are non-productive and must be abolished.”
… and then later in the episode:
“We have just witnessed two forms of revolt. The first, uncoordinated youth, rebelling against nothing it can define. The second, an established, successful, secure member of the establishment, turning on and biting the hand that feeds him.”
… with the word “youth” positively spat out.
“Humanity is not humanised without force.”
So those are some of the key themes (and there are many more), but what about the means by which those themes are delivered? Well, it’s all gloriously surreal. It reminded me strongly of Alice in Wonderland, particularly the 1966 version, also starring Leo McKern. It was all quite nightmarish, disturbing, and more than a little Pig and the Pepper, with the overall storyline also reflecting the trial theme from Alice. The four main leads: McGoohan, McKern, Alexis Kanner and Kenneth Griffith, all provide faultless performances that burn themselves into your consciousness: Kanner’s crazed singing of Dem Bones (which presumably was chosen because it references rebirth in Ezekiel, reflecting the cyclical nature of the Prisoner’s captivity), McKern’s crazed laughter, and fourth wall lean when he says “be seeing you” to the camera, Griffith’s mood constantly turning on a sixpence, and McGoohan’s unfazed reaction to everything, reflective of a dream state.
“You are free to go.”
Like the Prisoner, freedom might just be an illusion. For anyone who has watched this series, I suspect the Village lives on in our minds and souls forever. Simply unforgettable. RP
The view from across the pond:
We begin the end of this strange eventful history with a recap. Well, this is where it ends. This is the resolution we’ve all been waiting for, where all our questions get answered. Except not very much really gets resolved here. In fact, we are left with more questions than answers. To quote a certain door:
WELL COME… To Fallout.
Fallout offers us three possible solutions to this series. Let’s look at it as, shall we say, A, B & C?
A. This is all meant to be a real place with real events
B. It’s actually a deep science fiction story
C. It’s inside the mind of #6, a psychological “coming of age” story
Let’s start with the easiest option, subject A:
As the camera opens on the beautiful Village, we learn it is filmed in the Hotel Portmeirion in North Wales. I’ve been there and it is magical! The mystery is solved for the viewer, but not for the character. We’ve seen that the Village has some American influences (of the people, by the people, for the people – Dance of the Dead, US Dollars – Do Not Forsake Me Oh, My Darling). We’ve been told it’s off the coast of Morocco (Many Happy Returns) while another time it was 30 miles from the Polish border, near Lithuania (Chimes of Big Ben). The gunrunners of Many Happy Returns may have even been bringing the guns to the Village based on what we see in this episode. This all points towards an actual place. In Fallout, the Village appears to be down the A20, somewhere outside central London! So are we really any wiser about it’s location? Perhaps other possibilities exist. Perhaps there is more than one Village, all designed to look identical? Fallout may just take place down the A20 but the other Villages still exist. This might tie in with subject C, but considering how often #6 was drugged, how hard would it be to transport him without his knowledge?
When #6 overcomes the Village, he is given money, a passport to go anywhere, the key to his home, and petty cash. He can leave if he wants to. “You are free to go.” But when he finds yet another village trick in the control room, he no longer cares about power and just wants to leave. He takes his reward and escapes with his fellow revolutionaries, shooting all the guards and leaving. (All you need is love plays ironically in the background). We see #48 hitchhiking, but he has no direction in mind. He starts on one side of the road, then moves across to the other side of the road, going in the opposite direction. #2, who has had the “ear of statesmen, kings and princes of many lands” goes back to Parliament, to reclaim a position of power, ultimately biting the hand that fed him yet again; this time that of the Village. And number 6 goes home to 1 Buckingham Place. He hops in his car and begins driving back to work, possibly to give them a piece of his mind or maybe to tell them that the bomb he knew about, the rocket, has been dealt with. He can start working again knowing that the ultimate threat has been handled. End of story.
Let’s look at subject B, the alien power:
When #2 looks the rocket “in the eye” he says, “Whoever you are. Whatever you are…” This may be telling. What we see is rocket with a blinking green eye which communicates and holds power over people. Let’s not forget, that strange rubber orb-creature, Rover, that exists, emerging from the seabed; it can attack people as needed. Let’s also not forget that #2 has been resurrected from the dead. We’ve seen plenty of clones, including one of #6 (The Schizoid Man) and we’ve seen mind transfer (Do Not Forsake Me Oh, My Darling). The cave is peopled with faceless masses that seem to have no thought of their own. Observe what happens when #6 says “I”; they react like beings that have no sense of self. And when #48 sings Dem Bones, (a religious song about Ezekiel animating the bones of the dead with the words of the Lord), those faceless masses spring to life, flailing about manically. “Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around…” and that is exactly what they do: walk aimlessly. #48 creates chaos until the green eye of 1, some unknown entity, somehow communicates with the President. But even the President is not immune to those words. Finally, just before we get to meet #1, we see are a number of globes. Are these parallel Earths representing different realities? Maybe in which each Village exists in a different location. When #6 defeats the alien, the Village of that one was just down the A20? It might also explain why #6 has so many contradicting events happen throughout the series. Might this explanation not also explain why #2 and #48 are kept in glass containers marked ORBIT?
When we get to the control room, #1 extends a crystal ball from which the final scene of every episode is shown on a loop. #6 removes the black and white mask to reveal a gibbering monkey. He pulls that mask off and faces himself. Is this another clone? Remember the line: “we thought you’d feel happier as yourself”. Let’s not forget, when #6 says to the President, “I see,” the President replies, “You do. You see all!” With all the cameras around the Village, #1 did see all, but not #6, unless 6 is 1. “All about you is… yours!” Again, #1 was the true power behind the village and the entire cave scene is there to transfer “ultimate power”. Is that power, as the President put it, “the right to be person, someone, or individual… All the remains is recognition of a man… a man of steel.” Has #6 earned the right to be a person, free of the alien power that created him. The original version no longer able to rule, is abandoned.
That might indicate that he was being tested to see if he would ever break and thus be identified as an alien. Perhaps he is “a plant” (as #2 said in Hammer Into Anvil, though he meant it for totally different reasons!) By plant, I mean, a being designed to look like us to infiltrate our most trusted institutions. If this is the case, that gives new meaning to what happens when he drives back to work at the end of the story. He is now in place and living among us? Or maybe his “right to be person, someone, or individual” means he is free of his creator and has earned the right to be a human being. Has he heard the word of the Lord, and been set free. It is interesting that his final revolt against #1 is after hearing Dem Bones. When he meets #1, they seem to attack each other with our #6 casting his “creator” into the nosecone of the rocket and launching it. This scene gives an entirely new take on a little musical piece that has played since episode one:
Round and round the mulberry bush, the monkey chased the weasel.
The monkey thought it was all in fun. POP goes the weasel.
The interesting thing about this scene is that it could exist as proof of B or C. #6 beats his “master”. This is both literal (overcoming a creature that has created and controlled him) or figuratively (overcoming one’s inner demons, or choosing freedom – another motif that has been a part of the series since the start.)
Of course, it could all be in his mind. None of it actually having taken place in the real world at all. We come at last to subject C.
If there were no village, and it’s all in his head, it becomes a question of identity, which has been at the heart of the show right from the beginning. From the moment he is drugged at the start of Arrival, perhaps he never wakes up until the end of Fallout. The hearse drives past him as he gets back in his car, in that final minute of the episode. Surely the driver hadn’t waited there for the last year(s). Perhaps no time has passed in the real world. What does that say of the unnamed hero, searching for his identity?
In Once Upon a Time, Leo McKern’s #2 makes the comment of the Butler, “he thinks you’re the boss”. There are three people in the embryo room and the Butler begins to see 6 as the boss. Let’s talk psychology: there’s the Id, Ego, and Superego; three “people in a room”. The id is the primitive part of the brain, instinctual, driven by emotion. The superego is the moral center, which #6 seems to represent, though his pacing like a caged animal might be the restrained id trying to get out. The Ego is the realistic part that balances Id and Superego. Is the id repressed, like the Butler, who never says a word an only occasionally does something? And when he does, he brutally wallops #6 across the back of the head to prevent his superego from overthrowing his ego completely? Maybe the “transfer of ultimate power” is accepting oneself completely; after all, when they escape, Id, ego, superego and … childhood all leave together, one whole.
Let’s also consider, in Once Upon a Time, #6 is brought into a cave; he has to look under the surface for answers. Rather apt, if this whole ordeal has been in his mind. And once in the cave, no one seems to care why #6 resigned. In fact, to parallel #2’s comment in Once Upon a Time (“you’re number nothing!”), the President dismisses calling #6 by a number altogether. He must no longer be referred to as “number 6 or a number of any kind.” He has “gloriously vindicated the right of the individual to be individual.” As such, he is raised, nearly deified; this is represented by the throne. “I feel a new man! … My dear chap, how’ve you been keeping? The throne at last! I knew it. It had to be!” And when #6 speaks to the crowd, there’s meaning there too…
The people have no faces, but they have titles. The ones I was able to see are: Welfare, Pacifists, Activists, Identification, defectors, therapy, reactionists, nationalists, education, youngsters, rehabilitation, entertainment, old folk, recreation. Notice that these are all concepts associated with groups. It’s important to realize because when the President asks #6 to “tell us a true statement which could only be yours, but for us”, #6 gets up in front of the crowd and gets as far as “I” before he is drowned out by the cheering, faceless people behind him. But think about it: that’s the only thing he could say which is uniquely his. An individual is by definition singular, one. I is not us, we, them, they, etc. In short, it is not a collective, it is a singular word spoken to represent individuality. There are many Mike’s, many Roger’s, many John Drake’s, but there is only ever one I. And this even gets a “hip, hip, hooray” from them when they make it a part of who they are. Furthermore, when #6 goes face to face with his alter ego in the monkey mask, “I! I! I! I! I!” is playing over and over. (Ironically, when the rocket launches, Carmen Miranda plays with the opening strand “I, I, I… I, I, I… I, I. I like you very much….” Again the repeated motif of I. The power of the individual destroys the monsters: Rover and the bomb. By being an individual, he proves himself “a man equipped to lead us or go.” And by going, he shows us the way.
The mind game could be more insidious than we imagined. Allow me to demonstrate something anecdotally:
“I’d like to buy one jackass.” This phrase might be stated by a farmer trying to obtain a beast of burden.
“I’d like to buy one, jackass.” This sounds like someone asking to buy an item from someone they do not particularly like.
“Who is number 1?” “You are number 6!” This illustrates that the person responding is not acknowledging the question.
But behold the power of the comma.
“Who is number 1?” “You are, number 6!” The answer was in front of us the whole time as it is for #6 and it points to subject C being the most plausible solution to me! Who is in charge of his own life, from the very start? Only he, himself. The “I” of the series. Only when he recognizes this, does he escape and go back to his life. The hearse, his constant pursuer, drives by and leaves him alone. (Perhaps a representation of the fear of death being finally overcome? If it’s a real world scenario, that fear could be driven by his knowledge of the bomb that cannot be beaten that he has learned about in his position holding international state secrets. If the alien option, he has defeated his masters and moved on, and those in the hearse can do nothing more to him.) He has returned home to 1 Buckingham Place, the butler approaches the door and it opens automatically. And then #6 starts the whole cycle again… Prisoner of society? Or his own psyche???? Or perhaps Prisoner no more, he can now do what he set out to do from the very beginning. He gets to work!
Odds and Ends…
There are too many little gems in this story to ignore.
- First, this is by far the most musical episode to date. The instrumental pieces are top notch. The choice of All You Need is Love for the revolution is brilliant. Dem Bones is inspired as it animates the dead. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor catches the eeriness of what is going on in the cave when #6 kicks off the end of (Village) days. Even Carmen Miranda’s I Yi, Yi, Yi, Like You Very Much, bizarre as it is, is apt, given the repeat motif of I.
- I couldn’t speak of it last week in Once Upon a Time because the question I raised of #2 is not answered until Fallout. He says he is a good man then corrects himself, “I was a good man…” Why was? Because, like #6, he too was abducted and brought to the village but unlike #6, he joined this new power. What is interesting is that this is the very thing that put him in charge of the Village “second only, to one!” Yet they are condemning him for it, probably because he gave up what secrets he had. “What is deplorable is that I resisted for so short a time.” Had he resisted, they would have had even more respect for him. Perhaps he stopped short of achieving individuality… or freedom from an alien control.
- Lastly, it has got to be said that Leo McKern’s laugh, especially on a loop is utterly addictive and wonderful. That can exist in our word, an alien world, or in our psyche’s, and I will always laugh with him.
This has been one of the hardest articles I’ve ever written for the blog. (One might call this a blog slog!) There is so much to be said about this amazing piece of television history yet to write about it is challenging, as it loops back on itself like an evil mobius strip. I hope I did it justice. Now complete, I stand with arms open wide, clean shaven and announce to no one in particular… “I FEEL A NEW MAN!”
(And then I realize that the lack of the word “like” can be misinterpreted and feel awkward, so I go back to my cave to start all over again!)
Be seeing you, ML!
Read next in the Junkyard… The Prisoner: Shattered Visage