The Prisoner

Sole season on DVD. (At present, all seventeen episodes are also streaming for free on AMCtv.com.)

I love watching TV shows on DVD, partly because of the lack of commercials but mainly because I’ve never been good with delayed gratification, and on DVD, I can watch episode after episode without having to wait a week or more in between.* When it came to The Prisoner, however, one episode at a time was all I could take, not because it’s a bad show—to the contrary, it’s brilliant—but because it’s so weird and trippy, such a relentless mind-fuck, that I always wanted to stew over an episode before jumping directly into the next.

Simply put, The Prisoner is like nothing else I’ve ever seen before. Sure, you can recognize the classic show’s influence—particularly on labyrinthine, long-arced series such as The X-Files and Twin Peaks and Lost—but the audacity and surreality of the 1967–68 original are hard to match. Furthermore, The Prisoner demonstrates a strong singular vision that TV shows, a relatively collaborative medium, rarely possess. It was championed, cocreated, and produced by one man, actor Patrick McGoohan—who also wrote and directed many of the episodes (some under pseudonyms) and, of course, starred as Number 6—and that matters, I think. The Prisoner feels authored, for lack of a better term. It’s as unfiltered and distinct as a good novel, and as challenging as one, too.

In the first episode, McGoohan’s unnamed British agent angrily resigns from service, only to be spirited away to the Village, a serene but locked-down community where he is labeled Number 6. The administrator of the Village, Number 2, demands to know his reasons for resigning, but 6 refuses: “I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.” Thus begins an extended struggle between Number 6 and a parade of Number 2s. Each Number 2, answering to an unseen and unknown Number 1, attempts to cajole or trick or bully the information out of 6, and 6 continually tries to escape the Village’s clutches, and they all fail again and again. Virtually every episode starts and ends at the same place, with Number 6 still trapped but still in sole possession of the one thing he has left to call his own.

In a paradoxically endearing acting choice, McGoohan refuses to make Number 6 endearing. The former spy is caustic, rude, egotistical, and needlessly belligerent. At times, his stubbornness seems foolish, even pointless—what exactly is he fighting for?—but ultimately, his principles are admirable: his life is his own, even if he is an unrepentant asshole, and the quiet, insidious hell of the Village is worth resisting.

Getting to know the Village and its fearful, indoctrinated populace is a creepy pleasure. No one can be trusted, and the uncompromising doctrine of the place inspires numerous Orwellian turns of phrase. (My favorite is the admonishment “Questions are a burden to others; answers are a prison for oneself.”—Eek!) The series was filmed mostly at an eccentric resort in Wales, with gorgeous vistas and fanciful architecture, and the beauty of 6’s prison, filigreed by the oddball art direction, adds to its eeriness. By the end of the series, I would get a chill just from spotting the distinctive quasi-friendly typeface of all the Village signs and labels.

The creators of the show clearly expected viewers to pick up on that sort of thing because The Prisoner quickly starts playing with our expectations—what we know (or think we know) of 6 and the 2s and the Village—and turning them upside-down. Some episodes are fairly conventional (if well-constructed) secret agent riffs, but the twists come fast, and before long, the plots are mind-bendingly surreal. It’s the kind of storytelling you have to just go with, picking up what you can and piecing it together later with the understanding that this is a relatively open text, not an algebraic equation where you can simply solve for x: there isn’t necessarily just one answer or one way to read.

And with such weighty thematic material, there shouldn’t be. Some of the show’s Ludditism hasn’t aged well (in “The General,” the points about the nature of learning are well taken, but the destruction of the evil supercomputer is just silly), but the nuanced conflict between individualism and collectivism still holds great power, and fears about loss of privacy, creeping incursion into our private-most selves, have only grown. In The Prisoner, the methods of such incursion are rarely realistic, but they easily play into contemporary nightmares. Despite the show’s 1960s flavor in some of the aesthetic choices, the thematic material is too primal and handled with too much sophistication to feel dated.

And even when it all starts to feel anarchic, with the fantastic, glowering McGoohan at the center, The Prisoner never stops entertaining. Hell, it doesn’t stop entertaining even after you’re done watching it! I still haven’t quite settled on what to make of the bizarre finale, “Fall Out”—with its masked judges and the demented musical number and reappearance of Alexis Kanner’s unsettling character and the reveal (or was it?) on Number 1 and the missile launch and the Parliament building and everything else—but I can’t get that finale or McGoohan’s confrontational bark out of my head. And what’s more, I don’t I want to.

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*My brother and I first watched the inaugural season of The Sopranos, which was new to both of us, in a daylong marathon. Neither of us could make it home to Florida for Thanksgiving, but we attended college only a couple of hours apart, so Michael drove to my apartment for the holiday. I made salad and pasta—with tomato sauce for him and pesto for me—and baked chocolate-chip cookies, and together we watched all thirteen episodes back to back, albeit pausing frequently for commentary and discussion. It was all wrong—pasta instead of turkey, cookies instead of pie, a bloody mob drama instead of anything remotely appropriate—but it was one of my happiest Thanksgivings, one of my fondest memories of time with my brother. I love you, dorkus.