Wednesday, July 11, 2018

How to watch The Prisoner the Patrick McGoohan way


Good morning! Good morning! Rise and shine, Number One….

It’s been fifty years since its initial broadcast, but I suspect you may have recently had a conversation or two about Patrick McGoohan’s 1968 television series, THE PRISONER. (The fact that it’s streaming on Amazon Prime is cause for celebration, alone.) Completely of the Sixties and yet, ahead of OUR time, THE PRISONER plays like a deeply sober speculation of Ayn Rand on acid as told by Steve Ditko. On vacation. You don’t just watch this adventure in individualism, you even get to choose how to watch its seventeen episodes. This is thanks to a very special ordering confusion that existed within the series from the get-go. The order in which they were shown in the UK is not what was shown in America, and, with most of its life now spent as single-shots on home video, it can and is watched in myriad orders and permutations.

Turns out that some permutations may be more equal than others, because none of the broadcast orders relate to what the creator of the show ever intended.

I assume you’re familiar with the basic premise, and I assume that you have theories of your own. Similar to the episodic experiences of the man I’ll call Drake (aka, “The Prisoner” or “Number Six” — a proper name that he’s kinda-referred to in “The Girl who was Death”), the show is a delightful and maddening series of deeply personal and impenetrable mysteries. If you have an increasingly confident perspective on the show after you’ve seen it, we’re watching different programs.

As with any good manual of mystery and contemplation, THE PRISONER has various strengths and weaknesses depending on how you watch it. The American order of CBS broadcast. The UK broadcast order. Various fan orders. It’s a bit like the Catholic take on the Bible. Most Catholics I know are baffled at the insistence by some Protestants to read the Bible linearly, like a novel. Because, you know, it wasn’t written that way. Approach it different ways and get different results; it’s still the Bible. Go front to back rather than topically, and a few loopholes may or may not appear. Use common sense and proper eyewear, always.

McGoohan was notoriously coy (or blunt, depending on what you read and when) about the true meaning of THE PRISONER. In a show devoted to individualism, it’s fitting that we are given such a gift of personal interpretation. However, McGoohan also provided the order of episodes that he intended and preferred. Watching it through his eyes is a rare treat, and part of that treat is yet another puzzle -- why did he choose this sequence?

The good news is that there are only seven episodes for McGoohan, and you can watch them in an afternoon if you’re feeling athletic. They are what McGoohan initially proposed when creating the show, and it’s a proper English season. (Actually, I think he -- appropriately -- only proposed six, thinking the show was finished after the first finale of “Once Upon a Time.”) It was only commercial pressure that cajoled him into filming ten more, making it appealing to sell in countries used to longer runs. The other, non-filler episodes form what I call “the McGoohan Seven.” In order:

1  Arrival
2  Free for All
3  Dance of the Dead
4  Checkmate
5  The Chimes of Big Ben
6  Once Upon a Time
7  Fall Out 

Whether you see those episodes as the core of THE PRISONER, they are the show as its creator intended. Is it the most fun collection? Maybe not. But it’s probably the most rigorous and intense. Drake follows a clear arc in the Village. He begins as a surly, openly resistant malcontent. He has a lingering faith in the institutions of civilization while believing that he can outsmart The System. Clearing those pipes of preconception is a nihilistic move, but the show isn’t nihilistic. Freed from them, Drake can only rely on one truth: his own.

In “Arrival,” the pilot episode, we find a furious Drake who paces like a tiger, makes loud noises, and hits people. He relies on his Secret Agent Man skills to escape the Village. Well, not really. The tricks of his speculated trade will not help him here, eliminating the institution of career. What’s next? Maybe a democratic republic? Good, old-fashioned government by the people, for the people, etc. In what may be the funniest and most cynical episode of the series, “Free for All” shows an election where a candidate can only succeed by surrendering to the mind control of the state. Just like, it seems, his constituents. Drake’s ego can’t stand the idea that, even though it’s probably a sham, he can’t succeed in an election. That and morbid curiosity teach him that he has no place in the Official Power Structure, so now neither career nor traditional government will provide any solace. “Dance of the Dead” may be the show’s most poetic episode, where the institution of justice is skewered. Job, Government, Justice… institutions, but composed of compromised, corrupt people. (Probably.) Untrustworthy, lying, manipulative, secretive people.

What happened to McGoohan in real life to create a show so viciously on the attack? Whatever it was, I’m grateful. As much as we applaud the morality of the plots, there is also a charming misanthropy running through the show. A fun side-note: in “Dance of the Dead,” you can hear Josette’s original music box theme early in the program as we pass a group of women in appropriately 18th century gowns.

The fourth episode, “Checkmate,” is the fulcrum for the arc of the McGoohan Seven. Drake believes that he can outguess the Village and determine the identities of resisting prisoners from loyal citizens. His litmus test may be a success, but in the words of Captain Kirk, the game is “Not chess. Poker.” His game of sending and reading bluffs with Village loyalists backfires when other dissidents use the same logic on him, and read HIS cues as suspect. Maybe — maybe — he had a chance of escape, but the institutions of hope and optimism in people fail Drake, and he learns that, in desperate circumstances, even friends cannot be trusted, nor will they trust. In a sense, the Village has cursed Drake with his own cynicism and paranoia by spreading it to others.

It will get to a guy.

Does he capitulate? No. He simply changes his expectations based on one understanding; he is more important to the Village than they are to him. With that assuredness, Drake lets go of his anger and makes a game of it -- beginning literally with chess metaphors in “Checkmate.” The Village spent four episodes punishing him for his overconfidence. It’s only polite that he do the same. Their self-importance makes a grand target, as we see in his smart assed treatment of Leo McKern’s alchemically grand Number Two. (He makes a great sail.)

In McKern’s first episode, “Chimes of Big Ben,” the Village deals one more blow. If you watch all seventeen episodes, it feels like Drake is constantly escaping, only to be dragged back. In the McGoohan Seven, it happens only once, showing that even his former employers cannot -- as he dreaded and suspected -- be trusted.

Going into the two-part finale, he has nothing to rely upon except loyalty to his own identity, which is the series’ most hallowed virtue. That and a furious, Zen, mirthfully detached sense of trollism. He’ll need it. Those episodes, “Once Upon a Time” and “Fall Out,” are easy candidates for television’s most surreal hours, and I have no idea how they made it to the air in the age of BONANZA. If you’re a real sadist, introduce an enemy to the show by convincing them that they are the two-part pilot. Watch their reactions.

Initially, “Fall Out” didn’t exist, but McGoohan was pressed for increasingly literal explanations, and so he created one obtuse enough to show the vox populi that they didn’t really want what they thought they did. It’s an often shrill hour of television following the heated-yet-poetic (and strangely touching) two-hander duel of memory and bravado, “Once Upon a Time.” McGoohan somewhat spitefully undoes McKern’s heartbreaking, yet well-deserved, death and then proceeds with absolute mayhem. For all of its noise and nonsense, “Fall Out” has a kind of drunken and giddy charm suitable for leaving a prison, and the sentimentality (toward McKern) that we think we lost in the wacky rewinding and ressurective haircut for McKern’s Two is restored by McGoohan. With a twist.

And that’s the McGoohan Seven. I first saw them in the form over an amazing afternoon in 2009, and it was like a PRISONER walkabout. This was helped by the six-hour long preparation and near-consumption of a lethal bean recipe that a sadistic relative would force on others. It’s a family curse, given to my grandparents by Melvin Belli, the Zodiac killer’s favorite lawyer and also the STAR TREK villain, “The Gorgon” in “And the Children Shall Lead.” Morbid curiosity won me over. I can only say that the beans were an astoundingly inedible biohazard, and a testament to the improvement in culinary standards. Mission Control is a great friend who basically served as both architect and pit crew for my comprehensive DARK SHADOWS viewings. He also only knows slightly more about THE PRISONER than Patrick McGoohan. He joined me that day, and we found ourselves prisoners to the beans. The sight. The aroma. Eventually, the taste. No questions about Number Two.

Give Mission Control a hand. With the dogged determination of Drake, he finished his bowl.

My experience watching the McGoohan Seven, even when not poisoning myself, is that it is an exhausting, fulfilling sequence best watched at once, if you can. And what of the other episodes? The other episodes are a dessert and somewhat like Easter eggs for me. They often lean far more toward science fiction than the psychodramatic political plays of The Seven, and many of them have tight, well-acted plots that are (sometimes) some of the easiest and most enjoyable to follow. And as with the western episode, “Living in Harmony,” sometimes not. Are they apocrypha? Maybe. In the light of the Seven, I can’t help but see them that way.

Saying that, there’s no such thing as a bad PRISONER episode. Some are just better than others. I enjoy even the ones I’m not supposed to, according to fans. “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” where Drake is played by another actor, is a sentimental fave. “A. B. and C.” is an intriguing glimpse into Drake’s past, while “Hammer into Anvil” is a nasty revenge story wrapped up in a comedy of paranoia that probably makes it the program’s most passive aggressive hour. Which is saying a lot.

Try the McGoohan Seven... and then try your own order. Do you leave them all in? What do you keep? What do you eliminate? It’s all THE PRISONER. By selecting how to see it, we celebrate choice and the ownership of our own narrative. As long as we have abilities like that, maybe the Village isn’t quite as near as social media and smart devices make it seem. I’ll resist the urge to give you that sign off. We may all, as McKern’s Number Two suggests, be “lifers,” but the title of Prisoner is a choice.

By the way, like spreading the Dream Curse, here is the bean recipe. Craft at your own risk. But read it. Imagine a world in which that passed for normal.

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