Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Prisoner - "Living in Harmony"

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Prisoner - "Living in Harmony"


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.

This is probably the least successful episode so far for me, yet it's also one of the most interesting. Every week I say "The Prisoner couldn't possibly stretch its conceit any further" before being surprised. At the risk of going out on a limb, however, it's hard to imagine any future chapters (aside from the gloves-off finales) taking a bolder approach than this. Of course, how much can you twist the show's basic premise without venturing into decadence? I spent about as much of "Living in Harmony" admiring its cleverness and enjoying its eccentricities (and this is a very eccentric episode) as I did frustrated by the moments that lapsed into self-parody and bizarre-for-bizarre's sake mannerisms. At one point, when the mute outlaw/deputy "The Kid" (Alex Kanner) started performing some sort of drunken avant-garde dance with his pistol I decided I was just going to go along for the ride without asking too many questions, but that wasn't always easy. I guess I should dive right into the big twist... When "Living in Harmony" begins, it follows the structure of the usual opening shots pretty closely. But instead of riding in a sports car, Number Six is on a horse. He's crossing the prairie, not the busy streets of swingin' London. Instead of pounding a table in a sleek, modern office and turning in his resignation he throws a sheriff's badge on a U.S. marshal's wooden desk. "Living in Harmony" is a Western.

Sad to say, as much as I've been able to avoid spoilers I had some inkling of this going in. The featured image on YouTube is a woman with the unmistakable feathered headdress and choke collar of a classic Old West dance hall girl (and the folks behind her looked distinctly un-Village-like too). Of course I didn't know exactly what form this would take. Would the Village be performing some kind of Western play? Would we watch the authorities manipulating a dream scenario as we did in "A, B, and C"? Would we be stepping into some kind of alternate universe? Whatever the case, I did not expect the episode to begin so boldly and was immediately delighted. Instead of being knocked out by gas, Six is beaten up by a bunch of heavies and dragged unwillingly to the town of Harmony, a 19th-century version of the Village - shades of Back to the Future's Hill Valley, whose 1885 and 1985 incarnations also had fascinating parallels. There, we quickly learn that Six (who is never referred to nor refers to himself as such) refuses to take up his badge and gun even at the request/demand/order of the benignly ominous "Judge" (David Bauer), whom we can immediately recognize as a classic Number Two.

Kathy (Valerie French) also fulfills a familiar role, that of the woman assigned to deceive Six by playing on his sympathetic protectiveness (you'd think he'd learn by now), but who has conflicted feelings about her role. Indeed, the show's types are so basic that they both readily lend themselves to the infinite variation of The Prisoner but also, in a sense, demand it. Some of "Living in Harmony"'s problems are familiar from other episodes - the same we'll-make-this-work-because-we-need-it-to convenience of "The General" and "It's Your Funeral" is here in spades. Events tend to happen so that Six will have something to react to rather than growing organically out of a real situation. Eventually revealing that this was another controlled hallucination, "Living in Harmony" gives itself an out while also exacerbating the issue: "well, of course nothing seems natural, it isn't supposed to!" More distracting is the often flimsy execution of the whole endeavor. Technical details like the unconvincing day for night and the laughably unambitious soundstage backdrops (at one point Kathy stands outside the jail cell against a blue wall or cloth that doesn't look a bit like a real sky) are of course covered by the same "it's a hallucination" excuse; in the climax Six even collides with cardboard cutouts to emphasize the point. The often sloppy cutting and staging feel less excusable, however. That weird cutaway to convey the passage of time during the trial, some of the ill-timed inserts of the Kid, and the moment where the crowd starts to ask for Six's help are all particularly clumsy. I just couldn't shake the sense that the whole endeavor felt rather rushed and ragtag.

Curious about the single writer/director/producer of the episode, I looked up David Tomblin. He had a rich and varied career, serving as assistant director on numerous Lucasfilm projects and high-profile nineties adventure films (like Braveheart and The Three Musketeers), as well as directing the unfinished The Ewok Story. More importantly for our purposes, he was a co-creator and strong collaborator on The Prisoner with McGoohan. This makes sense because "Living in Harmony" is clearly the work of someone deeply invested in the show's mythos, bravely determined to stretch its boundaries. While I know very little about the behind-the-scenes story of the show, I have heard whispers of controversy about how much McGoohan or someone else (Tomblin, I assume) was responsible for its content. I suspect that after researching the series, which I intend to do after my first watch-through, this is going to be one of the most fascinating episodes to reflect upon. For now I'm amused by the concept and delighted by many details even if I'm not entirely impressed by the whole. I particularly liked the clever beginning, but when its charms fade I think I'll still be taken with the strange, striking conclusion, so much so that I'm inclined to write an extra paragraph on the episode (and this in a review where I didn't even offer much space for a plot summary!).

Very early in "Living in Harmony," I realized that I did not want the show to explain what was happening (and indeed, the weakest part of the conclusion is Two's over-expository rant about drugs and procedures and precedents - although it does set up the final scene). How gutsy and perverse would it be for the episode to exist as a bizarre standalone unit, leaving us to figure out how it fit in with the whole? Yet when the inevitable reveal finally came it was very effective and not only because of the disorienting visual surrealism, much as I did get a kick out of those cardboard cutouts. In fact I'm finding it difficult to articulate exactly why it worked so well for me, something I look forward to discussing in the post-finale chats, but it has something to do with The Prisoner's existence as both an episodic and serialized narrative. While this same dichotomy defines many great series, few embody both roles as ambiguously as The Prisoner. Each episode absolutely has to function on its own, since there is no set order. Yet the overarching situation demands a strong beginning, strong ending, and thus by definition a middle that serves a purpose in the whole, reinforcing theme and sensibility, if nothing more narrative. "Living in Harmony" suddenly yanks us out of the universe we've been immersed in for the entire runtime (very important, because even beginning with the usual credits sequence would dilute the effect). And it does so by thrusting us back into a place completely familiar, and oddly...comforting. At least that's how I felt when I saw (and heard - I love how Tomblin uses sound here) that familiar Village square again. Even McGoohan's trim haircut and crisp blazer were oddly soothing after his rougher, more rustic get-up.

Simultaneously, though, I could sympathize with the characters' desire to return to Harmony. Despite my uneven viewing experience, I too was immersed in this world. To be cut off so quickly was like waking up from a dream that - for better or worse - you had fully believed in. Plus the Western is a form that appeals to our sense of simple, archetypal storytelling: the charming but corrupt officials; the savage, unpredictable bad guy; the rugged, virtuous outsider; the tough girl with a heart of gold. This was probably even more true in 1967-8 when The Prisoner aired and the genre was far more ubiquitous than it is now. For The Prisoner, with its cheerfully cynical reliance on social alienation, powerful technology, and moral ambiguity, temporarily restoring us to the Western environment carries an extra bite. Thus "Living in Harmony" works on several different levels. The Village conclusion is a reassuring return to form after our unexplained detour into another show altogether. But it is also a dispiriting restoration of modern uncertainties after the soothing genre cliches of the Western. And ultimately, the Village and Harmony complement and mirror one another, with the Old West providing the perfect venue for Six's stoic, nonverbal form of resistance (perhaps too perfect, since he actually does crack inside the dream). Eventually it becomes hard to tell which side of the mirror we're on, for us and for the characters. The Kid, aka Number Eight, and Karen, aka Number Twenty-two, long for this world themselves, re-enacting their deaths - for real this time - on the abandoned set.

I'll end, like Six always does, back where I began but with a slight revision. I suspect this very flawed episode isn't only one of the series' most interesting, but may actually be the most interesting...so far.

Previous episode: It's Your Funeral
Next episode: A Change of Mind

4 comments:

Nathaniel Drake Carlson said...

"This is probably the least successful episode so far for me..."

I know you don't want spoilers, so let me simply say that we'll see if that judgment holds up after Do Not Forsake Me...

As for me, I've got to be honest and say that I've never really liked this episode all that much, though certainly I do appreciate its challenges. It may simply come down to my lack of appreciation for the whole Western conceit, as its a genre I've never warmed to much. Again though, at least The Prisoner takes a radical approach to that model and I'll be keeping your observations and ideas in mind next time I watch it.

Joel Bocko said...

Uho oh! I've also had warnings about "The Girl Who Was Death" so between them that's 2 out of the next 3 episodes (on the other hand, I've also heard someone cite "Hammer Into Anvil" as one of their absolute favorites so I guess I still have something to look forward to before the final 2). With Westerns, I feel like I enjoy the best ones as much as anything but when it comes to run-of-the-mill examples of the genre, I'm not much into it (whereas even a mediocre thriller or gangster film has me kind of hooked) so in a sense, I'm with you. Still it was interesting to see The Prisoner go in that direction - certainly not one I would have ever expected at the outset.

Nathaniel Drake Carlson said...

I have to say that I've always loved "The Girl Who Was Death" though I realize many fans do not and for what will be, I'm sure, obvious reasons. But you'll hear no complaints from me about that one! I will say too that the lulling quality that you've identified in these episodes leading up to the end is something I've always recognized and appreciated as well (and just about every episode order places these episodes in the back half). I like that because it starts to suggest ways in which the Village is finally failing not only to break Six but even to matter much to him. The show shifts away from his strident escape attempts and desperate need to know into the register you've noted in which he's far more focused on simply scuttling their plans. That leads appropriately enough to the end I think as a kind of inevitability. I also always liked how the Village began to seem more and more depopulated as the show progressed as though the budget to break Six was failing as well (or that again the efforts to maintain the Village as an actual "real" community were ceasing).

James Cooray Smith said...

I think the "lull" is probably an illusion, myself. But hard to explain why without reference to running orders/production issues/timelines.

(I have come round, over time, to the idea that the series should be watched, the premiere and finale apart, in alphabetical order. (Stripping out articles, obviously). Because that strips away any choices, conscious and unconscious, by the person whose order you've selected; and there really is no 'right' order at all.)

Here's an interesting thing for you: When the series was first shown in the UK, the last couple of episodes weren't ready in time, so between Living In Harmony and The Girl Who Was Death, in the slot the Prisoner was in, they showed Koroshi and Shinda Shima. Which are the only two colour episodes of Danger Man. The series McGoohan was working on when he had the idea for The Prisoner and which Lew Grade cancelled in order for him to make it. Given how odd Living in Harmony and The Girl Who Was Death are, I do wonder if people saw these two Danger Man episodes and thought they were just The Prisoner too.


The Girl Who Was Death, btw, is one of my favourite hours of television ever.