The Prisoner Under a Glass – Why Did You Resign?

The Prisoner Under a Glass – Why Did You Resign?

If whatever we wanted to say is not already contained within the episodes of the series then I failed in the production of them and any amount of chit-chat now will not make good that omission. – Patrick McGoohan

Goddamn Sigma Males. – The Dark Herald

Every episode of The Prisoner begins the same way.  A thundercloud is crackling dangerously overhead.  A Lotus 7 comes roaring down a highway, we see the driver dressed in black and he is clearly in a rage about something.  He roars through London, stops in an underground garage, and storms through a doorway with Way Out emblazoned on it.  You see the driver snarling something at a Man of Importance behind a desk while he paces back and forth like caged tiger. The thunder continues to blast past the music as the driver in black slams down an envelope with “Private – Personal – Deliver by Hand” written on it.  The driver in black heads back to his London townhouse while a typewriter Xs out a computer card with the driver’s picture on it. While the driver starts packing, the card is delivered by another machine to a file cabinet marked RESIGNED.   As the driver finishes packing another man driving a hearse, wearing traditional morning dress walks up to the front door.  The driver in black is gassed and passes out.

He appears to wake up in his own living room but when he looks out the window he sees The Village.

The Prisoner: Where am I?

Number 2: In the Village.

The Prisoner: What do you want?

Number 2: Information.

The Prisoner: Whose side are you on?

Number 2: That would be telling… We want information… Information… INFORMATION!

The Prisoner: You won’t get it.

Number 2: By hook or by crook… We will!

The Prisoner: Who are you?

Number 2: The new Number Two.

The Prisoner: Who is Number One?

Number 2: You. Are. Number. Six.

The Prisoner: I am not a number! I AM A FREE MAN!

Number 2 laughs at the funniest joke he’s ever heard in his life.  Largely because it is.

This isn’t just an introduction and episode opener, it serves as a prelude and a self-contained mini-story arc.  It sets the mood for the next fifty minutes and reminds the audience of what is at stake.  The only episode where you didn’t see it was the series finale, “Fallout.”  

This function was fairly vital given the nature of the show.    There is a very strong whiff of the Irish tales of the Fairie realm when it comes to the Village. The Prisoner has been kidnapped out of our world, even if the one he now inhabits is a reflection of the real world.  And try as he might, he can’t escape that realm now that he’s in it, even if he physically leaves the Village, he can’t escape it.  In the episode Many Happy Returns, the Prisoner wakes up to find the Village abandoned.  He builds a raft, goes back to London, and reports on what has happened to him.  It doesn’t make a lick of difference, when he is flying a reconnaissance mission to pinpoint where he thinks the Village is located, he is ejected from the aircraft and finds the Village inhabited again.  He cannot merely escape, he has to defeat the Village.

In the first episode, after the intro, the Prisoner awakens in his rather plush prison. We are shown little more than images of his life before coming to his prison. 

We are quickly introduced to the Uncanny nature of the Village and it’s first warden of the week, Number 2. Maybe warden isn’t an accurate description because two things quickly become apparent, first that Number 2 is also a prisoner (just one that has gone over to the other side) and second, his job title tells you right off the bat that he is not really in charge.

After getting shown around the place, Number 2 assigns him the number 6, then asks the Prisoner, “Why did you resign?”

Thus setting up the fundamental dynamic of the show.  The Prisoner will not accept his number, nor will he tell Them why he resigned. 

It becomes crystal clear fairly quickly that Number 2 doesn’t care why he resigned.  The Prisoner doesn’t care either.  It’s all about power.  Refusing to say why he resigned is the only power he has left. Both sides know it. It also becomes obvious that there probably isn’t any information in his head that They don’t already know all about.  They really don’t want information, informationINFORMATION at least not from him.  No, They want The Prisoner as Their willing servant. Intact.  This gets mentioned from time to time, Number 2 or a lesser (higher numeric) Number expresses frustration about, ‘Why can’t we just get out the power drills and blow torches? He’ll tell us why he resigned.’  And the audience is reminded that The Prisoner is too valuable.  If he is to be broken it must be like using the palm of your hand to open an English Walnut, the hard outer shell must be shattered but leave the fruit of the walnut intact. At the end of the day, The Village wants the the Prisoner on their side. 

Speaking of sides, the binary question of, “Whose side are you on?”  Is somewhat deceptive.  The Cold War binary of East or West doesn’t really apply to Village. As the show progresses it becomes clear that the Village and those who really rule it are above both sides.  

The fundamental problem of the faux-John Drake’s prison isn’t that he doesn’t know whose side it’s on, The Prisoner’s problem is the Prisoner’s Dilemma, he doesn’t know whose side the other prisoners are on.  This was made clear in the first episode when he recognizes another prisoner in the Village Hospital, a friend of his in the spying business.  It turned the Village had had his friend long enough to… Change. His. Mind.  People have a need to trust, and the Prisoner can’t trust anyone.  I’ll get back to this in another post.

While there were some toughs that McGoohan would occasionally get to punch out.  These really weren’t the guards.  The Village only had one guard.

Not you!
Never you!!

Rover was an integral part of the series. Initially designed by Patrick McGoohan himself and contracted out to an outside firm, instead of relying on the prop department.  Bad move as it turned out.  The machine looked awful, sounded much worse, couldn’t go uphill, would get bogged down in sand, and finally sank. It created one of those perfect show business accidents.

Since the lead broke its leg it was time for the unknown understudy to step up and become a star.

Obviously, it was just an underinflated weather balloon either pulled by wires or pushed by fans.  Yet there was something genuinely unnerving about Rover.  It would arise from the ocean deeps with an unearthly, echoing howl. You knew instinctively that it wasn’t just a machine.  It glowed with an uncanny light and moved without limbs.  It seemed to make deep gasping and breathing noises.  In some way you couldn’t quite fathom, you knew that Rover was alive.  It made decisions based on your actions although you mostly had the feeling it was hoping it could decide to kill you. The very first time you saw it in the first episode it killed a prisoner, and you were left wondering, was it supposed to do that? You couldn’t help but feel that the Village wasn’t entirely in control of Rover.  In Schizoid Man it clearly decided it had had enough of Number Six’s shit and killed him.* In Free For All we found out that it could even reproduce itself at need. Rover emerging from the sea just cemented in your mind that it came from a place that produced cosmic horrors. Given the unreal aesthetic of The Prisoner, the surrealness of Rover made for a perfect prison guard.

We now have the setup of the Prisoner and his prison.  So, what is the question of the story?

Why did you resign? No, that wasn’t it at all. That was just a MacGuffin not a plot point.

Normally in a prison story, the question is, can the Prisoner escape his prison?  But that isn’t the question that Patrick McGoohan was putting before his audience.  It was made clear that Number 6 couldn’t escape his prison just by leaving it.  The real question of the story was:

With all of the power of the world focused against him, can this individualist remain individual?

Next, The Prisoner Under a Glass: Be Seeing You!

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*It was a double. Hence the title.

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