Thursday, January 15, 2009

R.I.P. Number Six

Veteran actor Patrick McGoohan died today at the age of 80. I will
always remember him for that one brilliant season of his life,
that "Citizen Kane" moment when he created, from sheer talent, drive,
and force of will, the most disturbing and thoughtful TV series
ever: "The Prisoner." The first time the series was broadcast here in
the US, I sat riveted for every episode. In the closing minutes
of the last episode, I had to tear myself away and run to the
bathroom, and so did not get to see the final, shattering revelation
in which we discover the answer to the question that haunts the opening credits
of every episode: "Who is Number 1?" (my mother saw it, but
she refused to tell me -- she just smirked and winked). Many years
later, when the series re-ran, I caught it and this time made sure
not to miss the end of the last episode. Once I realized what I had just
seen, I thought to myself: "Of course. Who else could Number 1 have

In honor of McGoohan?s masterwork, I resurrected an essay I wrote back
in early 2003; it's the first sustained piece I wrote after coming
back to writing after a (30-year) "hiatus" from writing.



Every episode opens with the same fragmented sequence, a sequence saturated

with the disjointed and implicit terror of a familiar nightmare:

‘Where am I?’

‘In The Village.’

‘What do you want?’


‘Who are you?’

‘I am Number Two.’

‘Who is Number One?’

‘You are Number Six.’

‘I am not a number! I am a free man!!’

In the classic television series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan plays a

nameless man who resigns suddenly from a top-level secret job. Before he can

leave the country, he is abducted, waking up in a fantastic village. He is unable

to find out where he is, or who has kidnapped him. All he knows is that they claim

to want ‘information’.

The Village is a complete community -- everything is accounted for. It is the

ultimate welfare state -- the perfect home for those prepared to cede their

individuality and liberty. It is Panopticism taken to its technological extreme.

Everyone is surveilled, videotaped, bugged, betrayed.

In The Village, everyone is known by a number -- the Prisoner, as we have seen,

is designated as Number Six. The Village is run by a large, infallible

infrastructure, under the supervision – but not the control -- of Number Two,

whose task it is to find the answer to one question -- why Number Six resigned.

Or so we are led to believe. The Prisoner's goal is to keep the answer from his

mysterious minders, to find the identity of the menacing and unseen Number

One, and above all to escape.

Or so we are led to believe.

In each episode, Number Six and the Village battle for power. Sometimes one

side wins, and sometimes the other side wins. But no one ever wins for long.

The battle, seemingly endless and epic to those of us who are old enough to

have watched the series every week when it was first on TV, actually only went

on for 17 episodes. There is a continuing controversy about what ‘order’ the

episodes ‘should’ be viewed in (the production sequence is known not to match

the original UK broadcast sequence, for instance), and most viewers were

disoriented by the non-linear and frankly surreal aspects of the series. The

Prisoner was full of bizarre and memorable features – the fairytale Village,

canopied penny-farthing bicycle, piped blazers and striped capes, golf umbrellas

and numbered badges, Mini-Moke taxis and the huge white 'Rover' balloons.

The series makes the viewer work – which, for many of us, is a large part of its

enduring worth. In the ensuing 35 years, there has been nothing on the tube to

compare with it.

Patrick McGoohan created The Prisoner from soup to nuts, as a follow-on to his

immensely popular spy show ‘Danger Man’ (release in the US as ‘Secret Agent’).

To get a sense of what McGoohan gave up in order to devote himself to The

Prisoner, one must imagine if Sean Connery, on top of his game as James Bond

and free to write his own ticket, chose to suddenly start adapting Franz Kafka to

the small screen.

The series asks more questions than it answers. Why is Number Six being held?

Why did he resign? Who is Number Six? Who are his jailers? Who is Number

One? The village is seemingly administered by Number Two, whose identity

changes from episode to episode (often the same Number two reappears in

subsequent episodes without explanation).

Fans have been slammed over the years for paying the same amount of navel-

gazing attention to a TV program as traditional academics would to a

postmodernist tome. Fans have their get-togethers and newsletters and

‘Prisoner-based fiction’ offerings and bitter listserv wars over minutiae of meaning

(think Trekkies, except not as geeky and without the Spock ears). Still, to the

complaint, ‘Catch a grip, it’s only a TV program’, many contemporary thinkers

(Baudrillard comes to mind, for one) would say that this is precisely why it must

be taken seriously.

Television As Text

It is a genuine mystery: how did this television series, which was aptly described

at the time as a ‘puzzling failure’, mutate into something so complex? How did it

take on such a life of its own?

In order to answer this mystery, we must consider the possibility of treating The

Prisoner as a ‘text’.

As arguably the most ‘literary’ of television endeavors, The Prisoner can be –

indeed, must be – confronted and interrogated as a text. Can one over-read a

given text? If so, what does it mean to over-read it? Will we unpack layers of

mean that contain, as Goethe said of one of his own writings, more meaning than

the author himself knew? The Prisoner, taken as a literary artifact, contains

strata of significance that the series’ creator and star, Patrick McGoohan, never

imagined – and never intended. The text literally contains more content than was

written into it.

One of the more fruitful ‘reads’ of The Prisoner is as an exemplar of radical

Panopticism. Our nameless protagonist is drugged and transported to The

Village, where he is confined, disciplined, occasionally interrogated. Yet there is

something strangely tentative about the discipline and control which The Village

attempts to impose on Number Six. It is almost as though the interrogators feel

that Number Six must be somehow complicit – that Number Six is, in some

obscure sense, in control of his own nature as an object of discipline and


Prisons are merely the visible embodiment of a broader, all-encompassing

‘power’, the principles of which are defined in Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and

evolved by Foucault. In The Village, surveillance is both visible and unverifiable.

Number Six never knows at any given moment if he is being watched, but he

may always be under surveillance. This is the principle of Panopticism deployed

in a Village-wide scale.

Other than the unacceptable option of submission to the discipline of The Village,

there is only one course of action available to Number Six: escape. In the very

first episode (‘Arrival’), he stumbles across the Village old people’s home, a clear

signal that he and every other prisoner in The Village is here ‘for the duration’.

The Village is sort of like Guantanamo, only with more sumptuous living spaces.

Number Six attempts his first escape in this very first episode – without success.

He is issued conformist Village wardrobe and forced to wear his ID badge with

just ‘6’ on it. He goes to the Green Dome (the center of The Village as well as

the hub of the Panopticon apparatus) to force a confrontation with his captors,

only to discover that Number Two – who he met upon his arrival -- has been

replaced ( something which recurs in almost every episode, always without

explanation or any indication of surprise on anyone’s part).

Number Six is (understandably) obsessed with the project of escape. At a craft

show in ‘Chimes of Big Ben’, Number Six presents his work called ‘Escape’. It

wins first prize. He seems to escape in ‘Many Happy Returns’, making his way

back to HQ, where he organizes an expedition to find the elusive Village. He

spots it from the air, but the pilot is revealed to be a minion of The Village.

Number Six is ejected, and drifts on his parachute, slowly back down to The

Village. Our protagonist isn’t going anywhere, it would seem.


A second major subtext of The Prisoner (which synchronizes on several levels

with the subtext of escape) is the idea of Number Six as Other. Number Six is

excluded from the discourse of the Village. Why? Is he mad? Criminal? A sexual

deviant? Perhaps all of the above, and more. Number Six clearly and

persistently poses a threat, and that threat is ‘not so much the crime committed

(at least in isolation) but the potentiality of danger that lies hidden in an individual

and which is manifested in his observed everyday conduct. The prison functions

in this as an apparatus of knowledge.’ Like the rebellious chess Rook in

‘Checkmate’, Number Six exhibits the ‘cult of the individual’, which simply cannot

be allowed to stand in The Village. Yet, the warders will not – or can not – let him

leave. From the point of view of The Village, Number Six is considered as a

‘rebel’, ‘reactionary’, and ‘Unmutual’ (the most heinous crime of all). ‘The

suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the

object of suspicion and be completely innocent.’

The most striking characteristic of Number Six’s ordeal is that it seems primarily

intended to simply regulate his body. They don’t particularly want him to believe

anything; they simply want to contain his body. Their claims that ‘we want

information’ ring hollow; they really don’t make any credible efforts to obtain any

information. There are the occasional odd interludes of torture, but one senses

that the interrogator’s heart really isn’t in it. Number Six breaks up the regime of

normalcy. Repeatedly, and with bitter gusto. Why don’t they kill him? Or at least,

put his body under some more draconian form of control?

His position in the Village is perhaps not quite what it seems. We are given a

premonition of this in ‘Checkmate’ when the eccentric Village inhabitant applies

his empathic ‘sixth sense’ on Number Six, claiming that he can tell prisoners from

warders because warders display a secret arrogance. The eccentric denounces

Number Six as one of the warders. Is the eccentric simply mad, or is his insight

based, on some level, in fact?

Foucault would argue that there are no bare facts, simply power relations. The

dominant power structure gets to define the facts. In effect, ‘to the victor go the

spoils.’ Knowledge is controlled in The Village through mechanisms of power.

Everywhere you find knowledge, there you will also find power. Though

imprisoned, Number Six is powerful and in control because he has the

knowledge – ostensibly the knowledge of why he resigned.

The village is a prison, but it is also something from which Number Six is

voluntarily excluded: a discourse, which enables behaviors that Number Six is

unable or unwilling to perform. One realizes that he suspects, correctly, that to

do so would invalidate his power.

Number Six realizes what none of the other inhabitants of The Village realize:

that surveillance is a two way street. This is explored throughout the series by

means of the constant salutation ‘Be Seeing You’, which courtesy prescribes as

the thing to say when taking one’s leave of another prisoner. Form the thumb

and forefinger into a circle; look through the tube thus created (the lens of a

camera, perhaps?), and toss off one’s hand in a salute while chirping ‘Be Seeing

You’ with manufactured congeniality.

Number Six throws it back at them, bitterly, angrily, from between pinched lips.

When he performs the gesture and spits out the words, he turns ‘Be Seeing You’

into a threat. You may be watching me, he seems to say --- but I’m watching

you, as well. And biding my time.

I Am Number Two

Number Two gives every appearance of being the administrator of the Panoptic

apparatus, as well as the on-site delegate for the elusive Number One. Yet

Number Two’s primary function is that of an observer, and the constant,

obsessive object of his observation is Number Six. Number Two is really a

function rather than a person, changing in every episode (and once during an


The power structure of The Village, personified by Number Two, seems geared

towards forcing Number Six to ‘make his honorable amends’. Yet there is

something almost tentative in the ongoing interrogation. One senses that Number

Two is, on one level, not particularly interested in results. Number Two is, in

computer terms, ‘interrupt-driven’; he awaits detailed work direction from Number

One, who is unseen but instantly aware of every twist and turn in the

interrogative project. Number Two is a classic example of ‘supervisors,

perpetually supervised’. Underneath his veneer as interrogator and master,

Number Two is fundamentally a researcher. ‘The investigation, the exercise of

common reason, lays aside the old inquisitorial model and adopts the much more

subtle model (doubly validated by science and common sense) of empirical


It is important to keep in mind that The Village, like the Panopticon, ‘was also a

laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter

behavior, to train or correct individuals. To experiment with medicines and

monitor their effects. To try out different punishments on prisoners, according to

their crimes and characters, and to seek the most effective ones.’

Regardless of the actual content and practice of the various ‘science

experiments’ inflicted by the various Number Twos on Number Six, we begin to

notice that, as the series ‘evolves’, Number Six seems almost in cahoots with

Number Two. Number Six seems to be somehow complicit in his own


Fall Out

This possible complicity becomes more and more obvious, once one knows to be

on the look-out for it. The episode ‘Living in Harmony’ deploys a key element,

one carefully hidden in most of the other episodes but present as a subtext. The

episode opens with a Western parody of the normal pre-titles resignation scene.

Riding out of town, the ex-sheriff is dragged by a mob into a town called

‘Harmony’. He tries several escape attempts, but he cannot get away. The town

judge wants him to be the new Sheriff – but the man refuses. This theme

resonates through the series – the powers that be in the Village want Number Six

to do something, something involving stepping up to some responsibility. Number

Six refuses, avoids. His efforts to do so become more heroic, more frantic.

Things continue to slip into … what? Dementia? Dadaism? Some sort of neo-

Freudian thing? In ‘Once Upon a Time’ we see Foucault’s proposition that the

prison structure can be deployed in all aspects of modernity when we see

Number Two morph into Number Six’s father, then his teacher, coach, employer,

judge, officer, and prison guard. Number Six plays the parts of the son, student,

athlete, employee, accused, soldier, and prisoner. After this mythic rewind/replay

of power relationships, Number Two drops dead at Number Six’s feet. ‘The rule

was that if the accused ‘held out’ and did not confess, the magistrate was forced

to drop the charges. The tortured man had then won.’

A door slides open and a Supervisor enters the room.

‘What do you desire?’

‘Number One.’

‘I’ll take you.’

As ‘Fall Out’, the final episode of the series, begins, Number Six has won.

You Are Number Six

The final episode of The Prisoner is difficult to describe, even more difficult to

unpack. But we need to do it, because the final episode, more than all that has

come before, validates our Foucauldian read of this text.

As ‘Fall Out’ begins, we are in a sort of surreal courtroom. There is a judge, who

gives a long speech to the effect that all the inhabitants of The Village are

‘gathered together in a state of democratic crisis’ and that ‘Number Six has

survived the ultimate test and will therefore no longer be called by a number.’

This speech is followed by an interlude of strange Absurdist theatre that puts one

in mind of Number Two’s advice in ‘Dance of the Dead’: ‘if you insist on living in

a dream, you may be taken for mad.’ Indeed.

Number Six is given traveler’s checks, his passport, and the keys to his London

flat. He attempts to address the throng in the courtroom, but he is drowned out by

their inane chanting of ‘I, I, I’ (or could it perhaps be ‘Eye, Eye, Eye’?).

Things happen quickly now.

Number Six climbs a circular metal staircase and at the top finds himself in a

room full of globes, presided over by a masked and hooded figure wearing the

‘Number One’.

Number Six rushes over to him and rips off his mask.

Under the mask, Number One wears another mask, a monkey mask. (‘I’ve made

a monkey out of you’, perhaps?)

Furious, Number Six rips off the monkey mask, and is confronted with his own

face. His own laughing face.

So it is not until the last seconds of the last episode that we encounter the true

nature of the regimen imposed on Number Six. It is only then that we discover, to

our shock (but not really to our surprise) precisely how ‘all-seeing’ The Village’s

Panopticon really is.

We are now in a position to deploy an alternative – and more productive – read

of the dialog in that dreamlike opening sequence. To the question ‘Who is

Number One?’ the response

‘You are Number Six’

is really

‘You are, Number Six.’

The prisoner and the jailer are one and the same. This bitter vision of our entire

internal landscape as ‘The Village’ is what we arrive at after all of our

protagonist’s struggles and heroics. As the Village saying goes, ‘Questions are a

burden to others. Answers, a prison for oneself.’ Finding the answer to his

screamed question, ‘Who is Number One???’ reveals a prison inescapable.

In a construct where every person is constantly and completely surveilled,

Number Six’s parting words – ‘Be seeing you!’ – can be fully understood as both

a promise of revenge and a cry of despair.

The Prisoner is ‘an account of individuality, the passage from the epic to the

novel, from the noble deed to the secret singularity, from long exiles to the

internal search, from childhood, from combats, to phantasies.’

The last episode ends in a phantasy, a dream sequence. The Prisoner’s little life

is rounded by a sleep.

So, at the end of it, does Number Six imprison himself? Do we all?

Appendix: Episode Guide With Original Air Dates

1. Arrival (10/1/1967)
2. The Chimes Of Big Ben (10/8/1967)
3. A B And C (10/15/1967)
4. Free For All (10/22/1967)
5. The Schizoid Man (10/29/1967)
6. The General (11/5/1967)
7. Many Happy Returns (11/12/1967)
8. Dance Of The Dead (11/26/1967)
9. Checkmate (12/3/1967)
10. Hammer Into Anvil (12/10/1967)
11. It's Your Funeral (12/17/1967)
12. A Change Of Mind (12/31/1967)
13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (1/7/1968)
14. Living In Harmony (1/14/1968)
15. The Girl Who Was Death (1/21/1968)
16. Once Upon A Time (1/28/1968)
17. Fall Out (2/4/1968)

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