Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Prisoner - "It's Your Funeral"

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Prisoner - "It's Your Funeral"


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 Prisoner is something of a high-wire act. Its parameters seem so clear, the risks so high, that at any given moment you expect it to fail spectacularly. "It's Your Funeral" is a perfect example of this. After the previous nine episodes, it seems increasingly difficult to imagine where the show could go next without either repeating or overextending itself. At first, the episode seems to tread on the latter territory. Despite the creativity of focusing on the authorities' point of view - something we've humored before but never to this extent (we even get a glimpse of the daily mechanisms of the Village bureaucracy)  - at a certain point this maneuver feels a bit forced. We watch Number Two (Derren Nesbitt), this time a somewhat prissy and smug blonde youth, manipulate Number Six into thinking there's a plot against him (meaning against Number Two). Initially clever, within a few scenes this device seems a little tired. We've already viewed these officials toy with Six so many times that it feels like finally the show may have fallen a bit flat in its conceits. Ho hum, so Two will convince Six there's an assassination conspiracy, and then convince him that he's crazy for thinking this and oh, who cares really? But then the episode reveals its ace in the hole: on the day Two is to be assassinated, Six goes to visit Two to warn him again - only to be told that he's a "jammer," someone who creates so many false-flag rebellions against the governing class that he's considered a boy who cried wolf. So far, so predictable: their goal is to mess with Six's mind, right? Well, no. Over half an hour into "It's Your Funeral" we discover the twist: the actual Number Two, the one who is at risk of being killed is someone completely different, an older man (Andre van Gyseghem) who is actually passing the official role on to the Two we met earlier. Six, at this point, is little more than a pawn in their game - with the new Two's goal to execute the old Two. Why? Well, we don't really know. Perhaps because, as Six archly puts it, "they're trying save a pension."


The episode is crafty from the very first scene. Appropriate for a chapter in which our viewpoint is less limited to Six than ever before, we begin by following Number Fifty (Annete Andre, who appeared in the completely unrelated TV show Prisoner, no "The"). She is an extremely winsome young woman who has been manipulated to alert Six about the assassination plot. She's even been drugged to pass out a certain point, and since the filmmakers repeatedly cut back to the officials' headquarters, we are alerted to the fact that this is all part of their grand plan. As Six maintains contact with her, we learn that Fifty's father, the Watchmaker (Martin Miller), has been tasked to assassinate Two and that Six is sent to his workshop specifically to discover the detonation device that will ostensibly destroy Two. Up until we meet the older Number Two, the situation seems fairly predictable. Two wants to prove that Six will warn him, pretends not to believe Six's warning, and thus proves his mental instability. Frankly this doesn't seem like all that much of a worthy narrative arc so I was delighted when the older Two was revealed and the plot took on new complications. Apparently, on Appreciation Day this Number Two will be assassinated in favor of the new one, and Six has been discredited in advance. Unfortunately for the plotters, these machinations aren't enough to deter either Six or the old Two.

Admittedly, there are some holes in this scenario. Why exactly is it necessary to alert Six to this plot? Couldn't they just go ahead and assassinate the old Two, if that is their ultimate goal, without risking any disruption of their plans by tipping Six off? I suppose the idea is that they want to kill two birds with one stone: assassinate Two and mess with Six's head...but it does seem like the importance of the first goal wouldn't really justify the relative frivolity of the second, especially given the risk that Six would be able to disrupt that more important plan - as he does in the end. These thoughts occurred to me after the episode had ended. During it, I was simply relieved that the writers had kicked it up a notch and subverted our expectations. Is the twist a bit cheap? Well, maybe. But it worked for me in the moment and was a big relief after I started to suspect that this would be the first really disappointing episode in my series watch-through. Ultimately, the importance of this development may have more to do with the audience than the internal logic of the story. We are surprised to find a new Number Two sitting in the chair - the first time (at least in my viewing order) that this has happened since the premiere - and so is Number Six.

There are several interesting aspects to the episode's narrative devices. For one, as I've already noted, it gives us a glimpse into the operations of the Village's regime. One extended sequence, in which Six's daily activities are observed and charted, is fairly amusing in its casual treatment of this authoritarian society's routines. Something else that marks this episode apart is the emphasis it places on other characters' storylines. Six never once tries to escape in "It's Your Funeral." As is ultimately revealed, his goal is to protect another character (and, to a certain extent, the society - which he's sure will experience unfair reprisals if their leader is murdered). I'm hard-pressed to think of another episode which doesn't treat Six's struggles as the central issue in the Village. Also, this is one of the few times Six achieves an unequivocal victory over Two - with "A., B., and C." as the most notable precedent (indeed, Two's nervousness about his fate in that episode presages this Two's uneasy statement, in response to the warning "We're running out of time," that "I know that...better than anybody...").

In the end, Six and Fifty are able to prevent the Watchmaker - and his accomplice, One Hundred (Mark Eden) - from killing the old Two. Six even holds the new Two hostage as the old Two escapes in his helicopter. It's a satisfying episode, but it also leaves me a little nervous. I've been led to believe that the final two episodes of The Prisoner are brilliant, the best of the series. But it's also been suggested to me that there are some weak - perhaps even irrelevant - episodes to come (I've been warned about one in particular). And the show has been so inventive up to now, so apt at upping the stakes and pulling off a new twist episode-to-episode, that it's hard to imagine how it can keep doing this for five more episodes before it reaches the final stretch. In addition to its clever plot conceits, this episode also has some very unique stylistic and/or narrative flourishes, such as Six fighting some strange sort of trampoline/swimming pool duel while clad in a helmet and tunic. This both provides an excuse for One Hundred to mess with his wristwatch and also anticipates his fight scene in the end, but it's also just a strange, cool setpiece. So certainly future episodes could introduces moments like this to hold our interest and build the show's world. But how many more premises can the show pull off before it starts to seem tricksy for its own sake, and we become antsy to reach the long-awaited conclusion? The Prisoner has consistently surprised me so far, so here's hoping it continues to do so.

Previous episode: Many Happy Returns
Next episode: Living in Harmony

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