Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Prisoner - "The Schizoid Man"

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Prisoner - "The Schizoid Man"


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.

Number Six really is Number Six, but they want him to think he is Number Twelve, supposedly in order to trick Number Six (who is actually Number Twelve, and who has been assigned to trick the real Number Six) but actually in order to confuse and break Number Six, the real Number Six that is. Got that? Actually the concept plays much smoother than it sounds: we're always pretty clear on which Number Six is really Number Six, with just the right dash of is-he-or-isn't-he thrown into the mix. This is partly achieved by the obvious method of giving real Number Six (fake Number Twelve) a black jacket, and real Number Twelve (fake Number Six) a white one. But it is also accomplished more subtly through McGoohan's performance, which is rather a masterstroke given how many levels it plays at once. Number Twelve (the fake Number...well, hopefully by this point you've got the hang of it) is almost too confident, brash, and authoritative. This makes him less sympathetic, for one thing, and clearly distinguishes him from the real Number Six, whose very human perplexity serves as a suitable audience surrogate. Such a gesture could seem a tad obvious unless we recall just how arrogant Six can be at times (for which he paid a price in "Checkmate" - one reason this episode order has worked well for me so far). In a way, this plays almost like Number Six being forced to confront his own dark side: the same overconfidence that can sometimes be his undoing is now turned on himself.

This situation is also quite naturally funny, and is extremely well-played for both humor and pathos by McGoohan. His performance has been one of the real highlights of the show for me so far - I love how he mixes a certain straight-edge, unflappable mid-sixties masculinity with offkilter, almost rubber-faced antics. Beneath his keeping-himself-in-check exterior there is always a touch of the bizarre, amplified by the fact that you know he is the one who conceptualized this entire universe. McGoohan outdoes himself here, creating two distinct yet identical characters (the trick shots are also mostly convincing, aside from one very shaky two-shot at the firing range). There is of course more than a shade of Dostoevsky in the proceedings, with Six's double seemingly more real than Six himself. At the same time, Twelve may be more of an evil doppelganger than an exact copy, exaggerating Six's worst qualities (his arrogance suddenly seems smug rather than resilient when played by Twelve) and humanizing the real Six by contrast. Kafka is another author who haunts The Prisoner - not just this episode, but the entire series. The primary difference is that Six usually refuses to bend to his environment. Not for him Josef K's neurotic passivity. In that sense, "The Schizoid Man" may be the most Kafkaesque episode so far, because Six actually does come close to cracking, and - at least for the first hour of the episode - he seems truly overwhelmed by his circumstances.

Some of the episode's other conceits may be more questionable. If my internet know-how was better, I could probably tell you exactly what cleverly-named trope describes Number Twenty-Four/Alison (Jane Merrow), whose psychic skills enter the series out of nowhere just so they can come in handy about fifteen minutes later. It's a bit too convenient although it does make for a nice, even subtly surprising, moment in the end when she cryptically apologizes to Six (who is now pretending to be Twelve) for betraying him the day before. I have to admit I found the relationship between Alison and Six a bit odd, even uncharacteristic: not just the in medias res fashion in which it's introduced (never has the show felt more like it was building off development in previous episodes which simply don't exist), but also their apparent friendliness. Why is the skeptical Six willing to allow someone so close to him, especially someone with psychic abilities? Especially a female on a show that - let's face it - just loves to play the "Eve" card ad nauseum (not that the men have proved especially trustworthy either)? At first, I was willing to accept this unexplained turn of events as one of The Prisoner's charming eccentricities but when it became clear how these arbitrary devices were used to advance the story, they began to look rather clumsy in retrospect.

The show also walks a fine line when depicting its central phenomenon: the entry of the enemy agent who looks exactly like Six, leading to a Groucho-in-the-mirror routine where each accuses the other of being a spy sent in to disrupt the "real" Number Six (which each claims to be). It could tip us off right away, and consistently remind us, that of course the Six we are asked to identify with is the real one, and that Twelve is the poseur. And indeed one could argue that this is exactly what "The Schizoid Man" does; after all, we see experiments conducted on Six in his bed, and when he wakes up with a beard he looks shocked, a pretty strong tip-off that this is not Twelve we're watching. And yet there is always a bit of doubt. What if, we wonder, we are misunderstanding "Six"'s behavior and this really is just Twelve getting into character? Or what if the person we're watching is Twelve, but he too is also a pawn in their game - a clone, perhaps, who is not the real Six but has been brainwashed to think he is. What a twist it would be to discover the surly Six is the real Six after all. The episode plays its cards brilliantly in this regard, clarifying the point when it needs to be clarified so that the dramatic momentum can shift from Six trying to figure out what's going on to Six attempting to defeat Two at his own game. The only misstep for me came in the end because I saw the "dead wife" trick coming from a mile away. Still, the storyline does enough right - and importantly, the drama works well enough outside of the puzzle aspect - that this remains a minor quibble.

I'm not sure why Christopher Yohn, the Prisoner fan who contacted me when he found out I would be covering this series, selected this particular viewing order. At the end of the series, I'm sure I will ask him but based on the evidence so far I would guess that it has something to do with a sense of escalation."The Chimes of Big Ben," for example, is officially listed as #2 but if I had watched it that earlier, more reserved episodes like "Dance of the Dead" or "Free for All" may have felt like anticlimactic letdowns. (Of course, this presumes that upcoming plots and conceits are going to be even more elaborate and provocative than the already high bar that has been set.) Likewise, "The Schizoid Man" is one of the cleverest, and at times trippiest, concepts the series has yet employed. It's not necessarily a new device, even in 1967 (how many cartoons and live-action comedy shorts have utilized the immortal "He's the imposter!" "No, he's the imposter!" routine?). But The Prisoner adds many deft touches and, most importantly ties it in to the larger conceptual, character, and narrative framework. This is what I admire most about the show so far. The Prisoner works perfectly well in an episodic context yet also functions from a serialized standpoint even when episodes don't lead directly to one another. Perhaps "cumulative" would be the word to use. No matter what order you watch The Prisoner in, but maybe especially in this order, there is a sense of getting to know this character and this world better with each episode...even if we're not moving in anything like a straight line.

Previous episode: The Chimes of Big Ben
Next episode: The General

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