In 1967, roundabout the Summer of Love, there aired a very curious program in Great Britain and around the world: The Prisoner, ostensibly the follow-up to the successful spy show Danger Man (in the U.S., Secret Agent), with the same star, Patrick McGoohan, who would go on to a sporadic film career (most notably in Ice Station Zebra, David Cronenberg's Scanners, and Braveheart, the star of which--Mel Gibson--once considered remaking The Prisoner). The problem with The Prisoner is that although it began as a particularly surreal episode of Danger Man, by the end of the episode John Drake, if that even was John Drake, didn't get to escape. He was there in the next episode. And then the next. He tried to escape, and he always failed, either pursued by a terrifying white bubble that eats people, or tripped up by more subtler means. He was held hostage in The Village, which has no man-made walls--only the sea and the mountains--and seems like a particularly pleasant resort on the surface, with contented residents, Villagers, who wear colorful striped tee-shirts and hold colorful striped umbrellas over their shoulders, and play chess, and swim, and buy candies at the local shop, and listen to a brass band playing the same shrill tunes over and over and over again, day after day. Only many of them, like the Prisoner, are former spies who are being coerced into giving vital secrets, and they all are issued numbers, their identities stolen. Our hero is No.6; the chief warden is known as No.2, and sits in a globe chair within the darkened confines of "The Green Dome," constantly watching surveillance footage of the Villagers with the Supervisor, a bald man who announces "Orange Alert!" when someone swims too far out to sea; his butler, a dwarf, has no name or number, but neither does he have a voice; and the mysterious No.1, who controls all, is never to be seen or heard, except by a red telephone on No.2's desk.
It must have been an odd thing to happen upon when flipping channels in 1967. Given the limited number of channels in the U.K., you'd probably end up watching it whether the show made any sense to you or not. It was in color, after all. Some of the stories were even quite thrilling in a conventional sense: like when No.6 almost escapes the Village with a sexy girl by trapping them within a crate being shipped to London, or when he fences with his mysterious doppelganger sent to steal his identity, or when he--in each episode, actually--engages in a fistfight with a bunch of thugs in those bright, striped shirts. But for the most part No.6 was kept on the defensive, constantly being shot up with drugs, put under hypnosis, gassed, or forced to endure Pavlovian shock treatment. Like the more haunting photos in your Psych 101 textbook, every unhinged experiment was tried on No.6, each time in an effort to "break" him, and find out why he suddenly resigned his position in an intelligence agency. No matter what he was subjected to, he always kept his integrity intact.
When I was a teenager, my Blockbuster decided to carry all seventeen episodes of the series, and I worked my way through them; I remember they seemed inexplicable. I had never heard of the series before, but the description on the back of the first box, "Arrival," sounded like it was made for this young Kafka devotee. I embraced the abstract nature, the unexplainables, and the bouncing white ball that killed (the Village called it "Rover," since it was the prison's guard dog). McGoohan's overly mannered performance impressed me deeply, and I recited his dialogue devotedly, especially the part where he says he won't be pushed, stamped, et cetera. I was slightly disappointed by the conventional plot outline of "Checkmate," which had such a tantalizing premise (chess with live chess pieces!), but found myself in over my head--and loving it--with the bizarre and satirical "Free for All," and especially the directly allegorical two-part finale. When my parents took me to England as a graduation present, I insisted we drive to William Clough-Ellis' resort of Portmeirion, where the show was filmed, and when I suddenly rounded the corner and looked down into the Village with my own eyes, my breath was taken away. It was intact. It was exactly as it always was. You could practically see the black-suited McGoohan marching down the Village green. In No.6's house was located the Village shop, and here you could buy all the show memorabilia you could possibly imagine: I bought a Village map, of course (just as No.6 did when he arrived), and also a newspaper ("No.6 Speaks His Mind"), a campaign poster ("Vote for No.6"), and assorted other props. A year later I wrote a Prisoner short story, "Soliloquy," for the Once Upon a Time Prisoner Appreciation Society, and I think you can still buy it for a couple bucks online--that was the first time I got published. While making fun of Trekkies and groaning at the slavish devotion one showed to any other television show with a science fiction theme, I never grew out of The Prisoner, and could always return to it with the same glazed and mesmerized stare. Somehow, I've always lived inside the show.
That's not such a bad thing. No.6 is a pretty solid role model. Sure, he's sexist ("Never trust a woman, even of the feline variety," he says when he's betrayed by a black cat), he's violent (in the penultimate episode, he flat-out murders), and although he's clever as hell, his fits of aggression become his own worst enemy when fighting the machinations of the Village and all its various Nos.2. But he never cows to authority, and he never gives in, never squeals, never breaks. ("I may be a fool," he says to No.2, "but I'm not a rat.") He stands up beneath every conceivable torture and coercion. The last two episodes feel like a test for No.6, and they are: they are testing his integrity, and it is maintained, even though, in the finale, he must turn his destructive instinct inward to finally become free.
Prisoner fans are a really strange folk, because they'll insist it's the greatest show to ever air on television, and then readily admit it's flawed. First, you must understand that it was not meant to be seventeen episodes; McGoohan, the producer and chief creative force behind the direction of the series, wanted fewer, but the network wanted more. Seventeen was a compromise. Those episodes written to bring the series up to 17 are padding, and sometimes they let the series down severely. In a way, it's baffling: could it really be so hard to come up with episodes that adhere to the philosophy of the series, are set in the Village, with a No.2 and a No.6 locked in some kind of duel, No.6 trying to escape, No.2 trying to break him? The formula is there. Instead, we get a Western ("Living in Harmony"), a James Bond spoof ("The Girl Who Was Death"), a serious spy yarn (which is equally inappropriate--"Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling"), and "It's Your Funeral," an episode that, each time I see it, seems to make less and less logical sense, as though the writers were desperately typing away under deadline without any clue as to what the thing was about. The others, for the most part, are rock-solid pieces of writing, and are good enough to raise the entire series above the ones that don't pull their own weight (although I have no grudge against "Living in Harmony," which isn't bad for what it is). So there's one main problem: the writers hired couldn't live up to the standards set by McGoohan, who himself wrote many of the series' finest episodes, including the last two. But the other flaw is McGoohan himself, who is so wonderfully naive about the possibilities of the one-hour-drama that he stretches it in all sorts of experimental ways, many of which just don't work. For example, the aggressive nursery-rhyme score gets quite annoying in "Once Upon a Time," and about half of "Fall Out" is tedious unless you just go with it, as I sometimes will. But it was the Sixties. At least be grateful that his naive excess allowed him to insert The Beatles' "All You Need is Love" into "Fall Out," notably transposing the song over a gratuitous machine gun battle. Only in the Sixties.
I adore The Prisoner. Within this series there really are some of the finest moments on television. I hold up, for example, "Free for All," with its spot-on and cynical view of political elections (No.6 agrees to run for No.2's seat, only to become brainwashed and, in the process, lose his revolutionary message, to become just another politician who plays by the rules). Or "The Chimes of Big Ben" with a glorious Leo McKern--everyone's, even McGoohan's, favorite No.2; or the genuinely disorienting "The Schizoid Man," in which No.6 is faced with an exact double and told that he's not who he thought he was. The great thing about "Schizoid Man" is that the ploy played on No.6 begins to work on the audience; even when the two Nos.6 are given different colored suits--one black, one white--to tell them apart, we're still made dizzy by the plot, which asks us to follow that No.2 is tricking No.6 into thinking he's impersonating No.6. It's ingenious. The best plotlines of the series engage in battles on an abstract or psychological level, rather than a direct and obvious one; there's always a fistfight, but more often the real duel is on another plane. Just as "Schizoid Man" is all about breaking down No.6's sense of self, and he must attempt to rally and rebuild his psyche, there's also the intangible battles of "Dance of the Dead," in which No.2 "kills" No.6 in a way that's somehow more significant than if she had actually done the deed, "A, B, & C," which takes place almost entirely in No.6's dreams (controlled by No.2), and, of course, "Once Upon a Time," where the ultimate battle between 6 and 2 is a mental wrestling match, as No.2 first regresses No.6 to childhood, places him in "The Embryo Room," and, over the course of "one teeny weeny week," attempts to break his will across all the Seven Ages of Man! It seems appropriate that in "Hammer Into Anvil," No.6 should fight back not physically, but by constructing an elaborate mind-game to turn No.2 into a paranoid wreck. Essentially, he uses No.2's own overly-schematicized tactics against him.
In these, some of the finest episodes, the writing is top-drawer, although sometimes the sublime touches come at you in other directions. "Many Happy Returns" has not a line of dialogue for about twenty minutes, as No.6 awakens one morning to find the Village deserted, and methodically sets out on a blind journey into the sea. When he finally arrives before his old bosses--here and in "The Chimes of Big Ben"--he's stunned and visibly distressed to find that they're not much different from his new bosses, and only want to know why he resigned.
"The whole world, as the Village?" No.6 asks No.2 in "Chimes." When we finally meet No.1, sitting on his desk are a series of globes. The feeling of microcosm is encouraged in that episode, "Fall Out," as characters begin to act less like themselves and more like allegorical representations, and not even No.6 becomes much more fleshed out than Alexis Kanner's "Dem Bones"-singing hippie rebel, stirring up a rucus among the the masked jurors, each of whom is given a different, broad label. (Throughout the series, there are usually just generalities: a "general," a "colonel," and a "president" all lurk behind the Village's surface, but that tells us nothing.) We're encouraged to think that even though we watch the show safe in our own homes, they're just as much a prison as the Village--think of the RV-like prison cage in the final two episodes, which has all the comfort and amenities while keeping you behind bars. But prisoner, exactly, of what? "Fall Out" has the answer for you.
McGoohan gave all the answers, but the mainstream public wasn't interested. They wanted John Drake, not a Samuel Beckett play, which "Fall Out" seemed like, at times. They wanted No.6 to act like a person, not a symbol. McGoohan reportedly went into hiding for a little while after the series finale aired. People weren't happy, but deeply dissatisfied. The Prisoner would have to become a cult hit instead.
There was going to be a movie remake about ten years ago, first from Mel Gibson, then from the guy who directed Tomb Raider (thank God that didn't happen). For his part, McGoohan, who held the rights, insisted they use his script, and he concocted something so bizarre that it sabotaged the project. I've read an outline, and it's essentially a direct sequel to "Fall Out." McGoohan will never compromise The Prisoner, even decades on, although he did play No.6 again in the wonderful Simpsons parody a few years ago. If you had never seen The Prisoner before, that Simpsons episode would have seemed like the most aggressively bizarre thing in the world. But if you had, it was a delight, and anyway, a Prisoner fans is accustomed to the aggressively bizarre.
The most popular parlor game among Prisoner fans is to concoct a structure of episodes for the series. There are only three that are fixed: "Arrival," and the final two, "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out." Everything else is up for grabs, as they were shot out of order and aired almost randomly in both the U.K. and the U.S. A&E Home Video has attempted a perfect order, but even they make crucial mistakes, from my point of view. Understanding that there is no set order, because the writers were often working on separate episodes simultaneously, I've just watched all 17, taken lots of notes, and assembled an ideal episode order based upon two principles: (1) clues and data from within the episodes themselves, and (2) a sense of progression and overarching story structure to the entire series. To this latter point, I think the series can be divided in half, from early episodes wherein No.6 is constantly attempting to escape, to the second half, where he's more involved in Village life and tries to destroy the Village from within. If you're watching them for the first time, I recommend you watch them in this order. A justification--my notes taken while I was watching them--follows, but they're filled with spoilers.
2. Free for All
4. Dance of the Dead
5. The Chimes of Big Ben
6. The Schizoid Man
7. Many Happy Returns
8. The General
9. A, B, & C
10. Living in Harmony
11. It's Your Funeral
12. Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling
13. A Change of Mind
14. The Girl Who Was Death
15. Hammer Into Anvil
16. Once Upon a Time
17. Fall Out
The debut episode of the series is one of the greatest pilot episodes of all time. In the opening credits and beneath the theme music of Ron Grainer, No.6 suddenly and angrily resigns from his position in a British intelligence agency. As he packs for vacation in his London apartment, he's followed, gassed, and passes out. When he awakens, his immediate surroundings are the same, but the view from the window is different: he's in the Village, a small coastal hamlet in which every occupant is assigned a number. The ruler is an unseen No.1, but No.2, in the Green Dome, is the official actively in charge. No.6 resists telling No.2 why he resigned, and each of his escape attempts are thwarted, either by the strange guardian known as Rover, or by No.2's ingenuity.
The various ideas established in Arrival are quickly explored in the subsequent three “arrival” episodes: the revolving Nos.2 (Free for All), chess as a metaphor (Checkmate), and encouraging No.6 to settle in and participate in Village life (Dance of the Dead). Immediately the first four episodes are aligned, and play together with fluidity.
#2 Free for All
No.6 is encouraged by No.2 to run for the position of the new No.2, on the promise that holding such a position will allow him to meet No.1. Out of curiosity, No.6 agrees. But the democratic system soon proves to be corrupt, as No.6 is brainwashed by the Town Hall into becoming a candidate bereft of revolutionary ideas.
However unlikely it may seem that No.6 would, this early in his stay in the Village, submit to the election scheme concocted by No.2, there are too many clues scattered about this and subsequent episodes to place Free for All anywhere else. He does not know where the Town Hall is, and has to locate it at the information booth, which places it before Dance of the Dead. He promises to find out “who are the prisoners and who are the warders,” which sets up Checkmate, the culmination of this quest. The boat he uses to escape becomes remote-controlled by the Village, in a similar fashion to the remote-controlled helicopter in Arrival; subsequently, he will not use Village vehicles to try to escape. At the episode’s conclusion, No.2 says, “This is only the beginning. We have many ways and means but don’t wish to damage you permanently.” This sets up the progression of techniques used upon the Prisoner throughout the series, increasingly risking “damaging” him. In an episode that’s entirely about No.2, it also seems appropriate to place it as episode No.2.
A chess match using Villagers as living chess pieces puts No.6 in contact with the "Queen," another Villager who wants to escape. He decides they must organize all the Villagers who aren't secretly working for No.2, but paranoia turns the escapees against each other.
Checkmate is an ideal plot for a second episode, but must be placed after Free for All: in having promised to sort out the prisoners from the warders in Free for All, No.6 now sets out to do this; also, in a word association test, he answers “free” with “for all,” a clear reference to those most recent events. The notion of “we’re all pawns, m’dear,” introduced in Arrival, now becomes a major thematic element of Checkmate. No.6 immediately asks a Villager “Who is No.1?”, and another says “You must be new here,” establishing this as a very early episode. This is No.6 testing the limits of Village security, and he also learns that he must place his trust carefully, as all Villagers are subject to paranoia and betrayal under the manipulation of the warders. After this episode, No.6 will not try such simple plans of escape, but more complex strategies.
#4 Dance of the Dead
No.6 is encouraged by the new No.2 to participate in a Village costume ball; he, meanwhile, has discovered a radio he might use to escape, and comes across a fellow Villager, tortured and of broken will, who was a friend of his on the outside.
The last of the “new arrival” episodes; presumably, these four episodes all take place within a few weeks of each other. There is no sense of urgency in breaking No.6; here, No.2 only wants to wear down his will by showing that he has no hope of returning to the outside world, which, by the end of the episode, will presumably think him dead. No.6 thinks he can enter the Town Hall, introduced in Free for All, but is surprised by the new invisible barrier; he’s informed that you can only enter the Town Hall on special occasions, for which the elections of Free for All would certainly qualify. No.2’s cat is introduced, and No.6 associates felines with females; this must be placed before Many Happy Returns, in which the same cat signals the presence of a female No.2 behind the plot, in the dream-like logic of the series.
#5 The Chimes of Big Ben
No.6, sympathizing with a new arrival, tries to help her escape before she can be tortured by No.2 to reveal her secrets. Amazingly, their plan seems to succeed as they make their way across the sea toward London.
“A gap of months” has occurred, and No.6, having been thoroughly defeated and demoralized by the events of Dance of the Dead, is now more accustomed to the Village, but is still not broken. “Are you running out of time?” he asks No.2 at one point. And as he watches the arrival of a new prisoner, No.2 asks No.6, “Do you remember your first day?” Still, the simplicity of the plot must place it before subsequent episodes, which resort to more drastic means to break No.6. More emphasis than before is placed on the question of why No.6 resigned, and he almost tells; a further progression to this central question will occur in A, B, & C. There is a real sense of excitement as No.6 finally breaks away from Rover and the Village perimeter, and it’s clear this is the first time he’s done so, placing it before Many Happy Returns and Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling. The final revelation would have less impact if placed later in the series, for it wouldn’t be as surprising to learn that the Village superiors have gone to such great lengths for a ruse.
#6 The Schizoid Man
No.2 tries to convince No.6 that he's actually No.12, a lookalike sent to drive the real No.6 mad.
The events begin on February 10, and culminate toward the end of the month, leading directly into Many Happy Returns. No.6 has again settled into the village, and begun to trust another woman, on his own terms; again, this will prove a weakness. After The Chimes of Big Ben, we understand the elaborate lengths to which the Village will take its schemes, and The Schizoid Man is less confusing when this is understood; it’s also a much more sophisticated—in fact, brilliant—means of breaking No.6: No.6 is to be convinced that he’s a doppelganger, No.12. A&E Home Video asserts this episode should be placed after The General, due to the presence in the latter episode of a No.12 who is said to have been in the Village for a long time. In fact, this argument’s irrelevant: No.12 is not really a prisoner, but has a name, “Curtis”; furthermore, the entire Village is apparently in on the scheme, for they refer to No.6 as No.12. The No.12 of The General works for No.2 directly, and can withdraw behind-the-scenes for the events of this episode. Put simply, the No.12 of The Schizoid Man is established as a ruse, and should be treated as such. And more importantly, “the General” is referred to several times in this episode; as the General is destroyed in the eponymous episode, you can either assume it’s a different General (i.e. a man and not a computer), or understand the episode The General to be an attempt to explain just who/what “the General” is, tying up that loose end of The Schizoid Man. Finally, given the plot of this episode, it seems appropriate to place it as episode No.6. Numerology is never to be dismissed in The Prisoner.
#7 Many Happy Returns
No.6 awakens one morning to find the Village deserted. Quickly he sets about making a record of its existence, then sets out by sea to find his way home.
It’s irrefutable that the chronology of The Schizoid Man places it directly before Many Happy Returns, which begins at the end of February, and leaves no room for any episode in-between. How satisfying that after the abruptly aborted escape at the end of the last episode, No.6 should wake up next morning to find the Village deserted, and can simply walk free. Of course, it’s only another game of No.2’s. After No.6 came so very close to escaping in the last episode, upper management must decide it’s time, once and for all, to prove to No.6 that even if he leaves the Village, they’ll have the connections and means to bring him swiftly back. Note the appearance of the cat from Dance of the Dead, a clue to the identity of this episode’s No.2. Note also that the location of the Village is now determined to be completely different from the “Lithuania” theory of Chimes of Big Ben; the location will be further confused in later episodes, in particular Fall Out, always emphasizing the disorienting, dream-like quality of the series. (The theory that there are actually several Villages misses the point a little; Fall Out seems to prove definitively that the events of the series are not to be taken “for real.”) When he returns to London, No.6 distrusts his superiors as much as they distrust him, indicating he has already undergone the betrayal of Chimes of Big Ben.
#8 The General
A new method of programming, "Speedlearn," is introduced into the Village, and within a matter of minutes Villagers can learn a detailed history lesson simply by staring into their TV set. The Professor, who invented the method, happily endorses it on camera, but behind the scenes is attempting to escape, which rouses No.6's curiosity about what is really going on.
After Many Happy Returns, in which No.6 finally escapes only to be brought back, the emphasis in the series changes from escaping the Village to simply maintaining his will and defeating the Village from within. The Prisoner of The General is clearly one who’s spent a lot of time in the Village, and is less interested in plotting escape, but takes the time and effort to resolving an unrelated mystery: Who is the General? A General of some kind was referenced in The Schizoid Man, and it’s revealing to think of that General and this one being one and the same; it would also help explain why No.2 places such importance in the General—which may be such an intelligent computer that it concocted the scheme of The Schizoid Man. The No.2 of this episode returns in the consecutive installment, A, B & C. There are two reasons to think that The General comes first, contrary to its placement on the A&E DVDs. For one thing, No.2 is only casually interested in No.6 in this episode, whereas in A, B, & C he feels a desperate urgency to break No.6 as quickly as possible, while under threat of terrible punishment by No.1, represented by the large red phone. When No.6 defeats No.2 in that episode, it’s clear there will be a new No.2 arriving shortly to replace him. Second, and most obviously, in the opening credits of The General he introduces himself as “the new No.2,” but A, B, & C marks the series’ only departure from that script, subtracting “the new.” But a casual examination of No.2’s disposition in both episodes will reveal the intended order.
#9 A, B, & C
No.2's latest attempt to learn why No.6 resigned involves manipulating his dreams: he arranges the unconscious No.6 to meet three contacts from his past, in the hopes that he will reveal his secrets in confidence to one of them. But during the daylight hours, No.6 begins to slowly uncover the operation.
Having been humiliated by No.6 in The General’s finale, No.2 feels a great pressure to break No.6, and he’s threatened by the invisible No.1. In The Chimes of Big Ben, No.6 begins to explain why he resigned to superiors who worry he’s gone to the other side; here, the possibility is explored in full, and we do learn something in the conclusion: he did not resign to sell secrets to someone else. It clearly must be placed after COBB. Note that The General and A, B, & C act not only as a two-parter, but as the exact center of the series. They represent a turn in the direction of the plotlines. After this point, No.6 looks to ways of destroying the Village from within, and increasingly engages in a battle of wills with No.2, culminating in Hammer into Anvil and Once Upon a Time, two episodes in which he turns the tables and “breaks” No.2. The methods used by the various Nos.2 also become more drastic and desperate, and increasingly rely on mind-altering drugs, something they’re more reluctant to use in the early episodes.
#10 Living in Harmony
No.6 is now a sheriff who has resigned his post in a town in the Old West; he soon finds himself in a new town that won't let him leave, and insists he take up the badge again.
A continuation of the technique used in A, B, & C, here the new No.2 decides to make the drug-controlled dreams of No.6 more immersive by placing him in fabricated sets resembling an Old West town. However, the actors still control the dream by speaking into microphones while the landscape is uploaded onto a projection on a screen, as with the previous episode. When this technique is revealed in the final act, both the viewer and No.6 can understand immediately what is happening, since it has been used before. These reasons make it an ideal fit after our episode #9, but there’s further incentive to separate this Alexis Kanner role as far as possible from the two others in the remaining episodes (The Girl Who Was Death and Fall Out).
#11 It’s Your Funeral
No.6 becomes involved in a plot to assassinate the new No.2, and tries vainly to warn No.2 and disassemble the conspiracy.
Now we enter the weak final stretch of the series, when episodes seem more like filler than anything else, and the writers stray from the concept. The only interesting aspect of It’s Your Funeral is that No.6 is fighting to save the life of a No.2, and that the episode preoccupies itself with the politics of being a transitory No.2. But the plot doesn’t make much sense. Anyway, the episode must be a later one, given No.6’s immediate and hostile distrust of a woman sent to his apartment: he says “Many times bitten, forever shy.” He’s been betrayed by young women in episodes like Free for All, The Chimes of Big Ben, The Schizoid Man, and Living in Harmony, so it could easily come after all these episodes.
#12 Do Not Foresake Me Oh My Darling
The inventor of a device which can place one man's mind in the body of another has disappeared, and No.6 is sent outside the Village to find him--but not before he's made a victim of the device, and now has another man's face.
In the most disposable of all Prisoner episodes (McGoohan was away filming Ice Station Zebra), No.6’s mind is placed in the body of a Colonel and he’s sent to London to find Professor Seltzman, the inventor of the mind-switching device; the Village wants the device’s secrets. Every moment in this episode seems to betray some vital aspect of the premise of the show, from the idea of No.6 having a fiancee (whom he does not visit in Many Happy Returns, or ever mention again) to the final twist, where No.2 seems to think there’s no way to retrieve a man escaping on a Village helicopter. At any rate, little ado is made of No.6 leaving the Village, so presumably it comes after Many Happy Returns; it certainly comes after Free for All, as clips from the episode are shown as padding. It’s also mentioned that he’s been gone for a year, placing it very late in the series.
#13 A Change of Mind
No.6 is branded as "Unmutual" by the Village and forced to apparently undergo a frontal lobe lobotomy. In fact, No.2 fakes the lobotomy and sends his assistant to keep No.6 pacified via drugged tea, hoping that No.6 will now surrender his secrets.
For the second time we see No.6’s self-made gym in the woods (the first time is in It’s Your Funeral), so we know he’s been in the Village for a while. The confidence with which No.6 turns the tables on No.2 in the finale—quickly rounding up a mob of Villagers—shows that he has come quite a distance from his early days, when he was the one constantly being lynched. His time in the Village is about to come to an end.
#14 The Girl Who Was Death
No.6 is now a secret agent in London on the path of a female assassin, the daughter of a villain with a Napoleon complex bent on destroying the city.
In this “fairy tale,” No.6 plays the role of a superspy pursuing a mysterious woman involved in a plot to destroy London. It is, of course, just a storybook read by No.6 to further confuse his captors. To analyze much further would be pointless, although it fits well late into the series—where it’s always been placed—due to No.6’s confident manipulation of his masters. Usually this is placed just prior to Once Upon a Time, where its lightweight charm provides a nice pause before the intensity of the latter, but, as will be seen, there are reasons to rearrange that order.
#15 Hammer Into Anvil
After No.2's brutal interrogation leads a woman to leap out a window to her death, No.6 sets upon a course of revenge. He attempts to "break" No.2 by turning the Village's mind games against him.
The final two episodes, 16 & 17, are a two-parter, but I see the finale as a three-parter that begins with Hammer Into Anvil. After No.2 is seen to be directly responsible for the death of a girl, No.6 sets out to “break” No.2, and what we see is a complete reversal of the typical Prisoner scenario. By the end of the episode, No.2 is so wracked with paranoia that No.6 is a “plant” sent to test his stability that he effectively cowers toadishly at No.6’s feet. No.6 has supplanted No.1. This, coupled with the fact that now drastic measures must be taken, perfectly sets the stage for the final two episodes. Nothing should interrupt that flow. (The fairy tale aspect of Girl Who Was Death could be seen as being referenced in No.6’s morse code signal of “Patty Cake,” and the “baker’s man” recalls the “butcher, baker, and candlestick maker” of that episode. This may not be deliberate, but it works nicely.)
#16 Once Upon a Time
The No.2 of The Chimes of Big Ben (Leo McKern) is brought back to the Village by No.1, to take care of the problematic Prisoner once and for all. No.2 immediately decides upon "Degree Absolute," a method in which No.6 is mentally regressed to childhood, locked with No.2 in "The Embryo Room," and forced to engage in a battle of wills for one week. As No.6's mental state reconstructs itself as the week progresses, the battle becomes evenly matched.
#17 Fall Out
Having earned an audience with No.1, No.6 must first witness the trial of two other rebels: a young anarchist (Alexis Kanner), and a resurrected No.2. No.6 is lauded by the Village President as the ideal rebel, and given a choice: to lead the Village, or to leave it. He asks to see No.1.
The final two episodes bring the series back on course for a terrifically intense and surreal conclusion. Both written and directed by Patrick McGoohan, they remain the most unique hours ever produced for television.