Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Prisoner - "Free for All"

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Prisoner - "Free for All"


Welcome to my viewing diary for The Prisoner. Every Wednesday I will review another episode. This is my first watch-through of the 1967 British cult TV show so there will be NO spoilers for upcoming episodes. But I will be watching the series in this order so if you are watching along with me, keep that in mind.

The last episode presented the world of The Prisoner as a cheerful totalitarian state in which it was impossible to tell the prisoners from the wardens. "Free for All" certainly doesn't run from that sense, but it amplifies it by presenting the Village as a sham democracy too. With an election approaching, Number Six is invited, encouraged in fact, to run for for the position "Number Two." Of course he has his usual headstrong plan: if he is voted in he will rip the facade from the community, discover which prisoners are biding their time until they can escape, and lead all of them to liberation. He might also get to meet the mysterious Number One and find out what's really going on. Needless to say, it doesn't work that way. The current Number Two (or is he?) (Eric Portman) stands by placidly while Six makes his incendiary speech but soon he is responding to each twitch of thought or pang of conscience with a round of brainwashing. On the previous episode, it was said that Six should not be so overtly manipulated, that he must come to provide information and accept the Village's authority of his own accord. There are no such qualms this time. Six is subjected to an ingenuously conveyed mental torture (with silhouettes of a square and circle entering the silhouette of his profile), plied with spiked drinks, and otherwise manipulated into being a grimacing tool of the establishment. This feels like the most cynical episode I've watched so far, and maybe the most hopeless.

Of course, because this is The Prisoner, there is also a fair amount of arch humor (the tone of this show is far more droll than somber); the Brave New World discrepancy between the Village's bright cheer and its mechanisms of control has never been put forth so satirically. McGoohan, who also directed this episode, treats his conventionally handsome face as a mask that is always on the verge of slipping into distress, perplexity, or a certain smug vacancy. The comedy of a benevolent dictatorship is once again played up. Numbers Six and Two are almost cordial in their scenes together, starting with a shared breakfast and including their campaign "rivalry" which virtually amounts to Two endorsing Six while insults are hurled his way. Along with the revelation that Number Two is an elected position, the chief villain seems to be humanized at times, brought down to earth as he stares helplessly at the votes piling up in his rival's bin, huddles wearily at a hidden bar where he drowns his cynical frustration in alcohol, and sits humbly at his prisoner's breakfast table. "Mohammad?" he inquiries when arriving at Six's door. "Everest, I presume" replies a cheeky Six to which Two shrugs, "I've never had a head for heights." Right away we are conditioned to see Number Two as a figure on Six's own level.

However, there are many deceptions here, most notably in the bar scene, which turns out to be an elaborate hoax. This hoax leads to many questions: is the bar itself real, with only Two's drunkenness a performance? Is everything, including the election itself, being staged for Six's benefit (or detriment)? Is the idea to teach him a lesson or simply to mess him up? "Free for All" actively toys with and manipulates Six, not simply responding to his escape attempts or inquiries but actually egging him on and then slapping him down (literally, in the final scene). The final deception is revealed at the end as Number Fifty-Eight (Rachel Herbert), who began as Six's maid and quickly became his political aide and driver, takes his new Number Two button and places it on her own lapel. Having spoken only in a gobbledygook language for forty-five minutes she now lectures him in perfect English. Was she the real Number Two all along, pulling the strings behind the scenes? Is she taking over only because he won't be able to perform his duties? Or is the point simply - as it always is with the shifting identity of the show's antagonist - that it doesn't matter who specifically holds the reigns of power since Number Six is up against a system, a system that is self-regulating and impenetrable?

There has been a playful quality to the episodes I've watched so far, a sense of fun along with the sense of entrapment. It seemed like, within these confines, the possibilities were endless and that, aside from the occasional hospital visit, Number Six was free to question and resist the authorities. "Free for All" questions those premises and feels like the most claustrophobic episode yet. If the assertion of freedom represents a stirring counterpoint to an overt dictatorship, that same assertion sounds like a helpless, confused plea in a system that presents itself from free to begin with. Taking into account the Cold War context of 1967, when The Prisoner was produced, there is a despairing sense that the essential conflict is not between freedom and imprisonment but between competing, ever-refined forms of imprisonment. Watching the episode, I began to wonder if there really might not be any way out for Six. The sight of him interacting like a puppet with the public, brainwashed and manipulated, was certainly discouraging. The episode fuses Orwell's sense of man as a malleable tool in Big Brother's hands with Huxley's vision of dystopia as a funhouse, a consumer's paradise avoiding 1984's revealing drabness, and all the more terrifying for it.

When the episode began, I finally got a hang on its opening montage; not just the outside-world images, but also the stuff inside the Village (the back-and-forth between Six and the new Number Two, the run down the beach, Six's defiant declaration of his identity) are all part of a recurring sequence each episode. This hammers home not just where we've been, but the cyclical nature of where we are going. And I'm not sure we're going where Number Six - or we - would like.

Previous episode: Dance of the Dead
Next episode: Checkmate

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