Warning: this entire article contains spoilers for the series, especially the finale.
Each episode of 1967’s The Prisoner opens with (some variation of) a three minute title sequence that shows the unnamed protagonist (Patrick McGoohan, who is also the series creator and occasional writer/director) resigning from a his job as a top level British agent, attempting to leave London, getting gassed, and then waking up in a strange, colorful village. He is welcomed to the Village by Number Two, the visible figurehead, and then told he is Number Six.
Well, specifically, he asks who Number One is, and Number Two responds, “You are…Number Six.” Is the ellipsis meant to be a space, or a comma? Can Number Six be two people at once, when he struggles to maintain even a single identity in the anti-individualist society of the Village? Regardless, the long introduction to each episode reflects not only the inescapable nature of the Village, but also the cyclical quality of the show—one that dares you to read into its politics, but challenges any attempts to break its circularity with a totalizing political through-line.
Upon my recent revisit of the series, I immediately saw nigh-satiric levels of socio-political conservatism wrapped in the protagonist’s individualist crusade. His frequent claims to be a human being and not a number; his defiance-for-the-sake-of-defiance; his classic Old White British Dude looks: all of these endear the audience to him as a character and welcome us to say, “Yeah, screw the man! Screw society! Rebel! Rebel! Rebel!” But already the contradictory nature of The Prisoner rears its head: defiance for defiance’s sake means that you are never free from the system you resist.
Number Six is always reacting to his environment, and thus can never exist outside of it. Whenever he escapes the Village, he immediately returns to London, which is the place he so desperately wished to leave before his kidnapping. The series finale further acknowledges this quality with its closing shot: Number Six, supposedly destroying and escaping the Village, drives toward the camera—the same shot that is shown in the title sequence. He can never escape the Village, because he is, to quote McGoohan, “a prisoner unto himself.” His desires to rebel and be an individual disable his ability to do either.
Yet, the show could not be called a testament to the benefits of participating in society. McGoohan goes to great pains to demonstrate the dehumanization society performs on its citizens, which is a a viewpoint that seems more rooted in reactionary politics in the face of the 1960s than any notion of objective truth. McGoohan himself sheds some light on this in an interview, where he says, “I think progress is the biggest enemy on Earth apart from oneself.”
I would guess that McGoohan is talking about technology more than society, but it’s hard not to think he’s referring to progress in general, especially considering the nature of the Village. Alcohol is banned, limiting his freedom, but drugs—a massive social anxiety in the late sixties—are exclusively portrayed as obstacles to agency. In at least five episodes, drugs are used to destroy Number Six’s ability to resist Number Two’s simple question: “Why did you resign?” The disparity between views of alcohol and a vague notion of “drugs” is reflective of McGoohan’s placement within his social context, one that is markedly traditional, even paranoid.
Maybe “paranoid” is a strong word to use in describing the atmosphere of the show, but paranoia contributes to what makes the series so interesting. Every item and person is a tool of the Village, something that will abolish individuality and privacy. In that sense, the show resonates in today’s social climate—particularly in the United States, where domestic spying dominates a lot of political discourse—and reflects the permeating nature of fear when the object of that fear is both invisible and ubiquitous.
Yet, what I think has helped the show to transcend its time period while still being clearly placed within it is how much McGoohan simultaneously resists and welcomes the very anxieties that he uses to make political points. The Village is wholly evil, and its strangeness stands in stark contrast to Number Six. Yet, the queerness of the place is what endears its fans, who ironically meet in the location where scenes in the Village were shot and re-enact events that were meant to represent the calculated oppression of the government. The show embraces its otherness and frequently blends in surrealism to challenge its own politics, to reveal the lack of a single answer to its numerous questions.
The series finale, “Fall Out,” captures all of these qualities: the absurd traditions of a governing body are an obvious target, but so is Number Six’s ego. When he attempts to give a speech to the (presumed) “secret leaders” of the Village, he starts his sentence with, “I….” However, he’s drowned out by the congregation, whose members shout either, “I!” or “Aye!” repeatedly. Number Six cannot think outside of himself, but the Village must embrace his individualism in order to ensure that it remains in the right, an undefeated community. This is why the Village can win, even if it’s destroyed: it will adapt to be superior. This is also why Number Six is, in a bizarre moment, revealed to also be Number One, the assumed leader of the Village: he is what keeps himself a prisoner, and he is what the Village will become if it cannot defeat him.
Again, each person—each entity—is his/her/its own prisoner. We trap ourselves, and perhaps that is McGoohan’s major point. After all, an entire episode is dedicated to Number Six mentally destroying one of the various incarnations of Number Two by exploiting his violent paranoia; in another, Number Six almost escapes with the help of another villager, but is defeated when the other villager reports the plot to Number Two, believing Number Six himself to be an agent testing his loyalty. We all ensnare and destroy ourselves due to our own self-imprisonment. Yet, the alternative is no better; a society where there is no self is meaningless.
The Prisoner is, at is heart, a cynical show. It screams out numerous questions and steadfastly refuses to provide any answers. Yet, each episode contains humor, strangeness, and an ironic embracing of those qualities, as if all of the terror is part of life, and we can only do our best to find meaning within it. But most importantly, The Prisoner is a Rorschach test, a polymorphous tale that will show the viewer the limitation of his or her own perspective. Few shows manage to be so politically charged—a perfect reflection of their time and place—without defining themselves within a fabricated political dichotomy. McGoohan ignores the typical dichotomy of liberalism or conservatism, and instead presents a vision that is both dated and transcendent. McGoohan could not escape himself, but he did escape the limitations of the medium to create something that has fascinated the public imagination whilst spitting in its face.