Lost in the Movies: The Prisoner - "The Chimes of Big Ben"

The Prisoner - "The Chimes of Big Ben"

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.

Here we have a very, very unusual episode. Let me count the ways... Number Two (Leo McKern) seems less confident than usual; he even loses his temper and grows flustered at times. His blustering threats against Number Six seem vaguely out of character, even for a character who's actually a different character each time. While every episode begins with the new Number Two's vague demand for "information," "The Chimes of Big Ben" gets very specific about what information the authorities are looking for: they want to know why Number Six resigned. Number Two goes so far as to say that is all they want to know. This is a rather startling alteration, because it makes Six's situation seem less like a mindfuck limbo and more like a straightforward moral challenge. Something else is more straightforward too: the political stakes of the Village, perhaps even its location, are explicitly - if somewhat confusingly - laid out by the characters onscreen. Number Six is told by Natasha (Nadia Gray), the new Number Eight (have we met the old Number Eight?) that the Village is in Lithuania and together they are even able to chart an escape back to London. It seems very much to be a Cold War situation, with the Soviets trying to extract information from a British agent. Or is this a red herring?

Six meets Natasha when she becomes his next-door neighbor, and as with characters in the previous episodes he plays games with her before deciding to form an alliance (initially she thinks he is one of the captors; shades of "Checkmate"). When she is nearly killed during one of Number Two's mindgames, Six cracks, offering to become a docile citizen if the authorities will stop torturing her. They agree but Six does not keep up his end of the bargain; soon he and Natasha are cheekily disguising their escape vessel - a wooden boat - as an avant-garde sculpture for the Village art show. To my surprise, they succeed in escaping (one of Natasha's colleagues shoots the pursuing Rover from shore) and, hidden inside coffin-like wooden crates, they even make their way over roads and across seas, finally emerging inside a London office, where they are welcomed by several officials whom Six seems to recognize. In this safe environment, he is finally ready to explain why he resigned from the agency...until a very minor discrepancy (or rather lack thereof) between his watch and the chimes of Big Ben alerts him to a jarring realization. He isn't in London. He's still in the Village. A tape recorder hidden inside a cabinet simulates the noises of external traffic and when he opens the door, he is confronted by the familiar site of his colorful resort prison. Natasha stands grimly by Two's side and a weary Six shrugs in almost admiring defeat (while refusing to break down), offering the familiar Village salute and accompanying salutation: "Be seeing you."

Given that Natasha actually betrays Six and that the "London" they return to is a facade, maybe we can take those geographical and geopolitical revelations with a grain of salt. Only the very ending, with the British officials who greeted Six asking for their "next assignment" "before any embarrassing questions are asked" suggests that in fact Six is a prisoner of a non-British force, Soviet or otherwise, and that highly-placed British officials are in on the conspiracy. In a way, the specificity of this episode opens up more possibilities than it closes - no longer can we feel assured that the world onscreen is purely allegorical (a trap I was perhaps falling into). Not only are we unsure who is capturing Six, what they want, and what larger meaning this strange universe represents, we are also unable to determine which framework best encapsulates Six's dilemma. This disorienting sensation is amplified by the weird sense of time-loop or alternate reality. The show's memory of each episode's momentous events evaporates in the "next" chapter, along with most of the characters and whatever Six has apparently "learned" thanks to his experiences.

Early in "The Chimes of Big Ben," I questioned whether it was placed in the optimal spot. At first, it seemed like this episode belonged earlier in the order. Six seems much more trusting of Natasha than he should be, after numerous betrayals and the cautious progress made in "Checkmate" (and, looking at it from the other perspective, his deeply ingrained skepticism in "Checkmate" makes more sense coming after "The Chimes of Big Ben"). The specificity of Two's request and Natasha's geopolitical outline also feels like a relic of the very early show, before Six's struggle took on more metaphysical, abstract dimensions. Then, as the episode progressed, I began to have the opposite worry: had I mistakenly viewed one of the later episodes too early? My confidence that Six wouldn't really escape the Village was shaken with the exterior shots of trucks rumbling down European highways, and by Six's apparent recognition of his superiors. When the final twist arrived, I decided that fifth place is a good spot for "The Chimes of Big Ben" after all. This is by far the most elaborate of Six's escapes so far, and hits much harder after we've watched him make various other attempts, some of which were close calls. This isn't a close call - it's a trap from beginning to end. As such, Six's situation has never seemed more ominous or impossible.

Perhaps this startling juncture would be a good time to offer the questions and speculations I refrained from sharing last week. Who is Number One? I've certainly flirted with the idea that Six is actually One, a problematic idea for several reasons (why give him a different number as well? what purpose would this twist serve in the narrative?). Another idea, whose implications I wouldn't begin to understand at this point, is that the little man is Number One. When noting that characters don't seem to carry over from episode to episode, I forgot to mention that this doesn't apply to this short fellow in a cloak and derby hat, always strolling in the background or serving a tray of food. (I've also been reminded that the shopkeeper appears in at least two episodes.) Perhaps I've forgotten some crucial dialogue about him in the first episode, but I don't think his presence has ever been addressed. And when the possibility of him being Number One began to occur to me, I began looking for a numerical pin on his lapel and couldn't see one. Speaking of which, what is the significance of that bicycle that appears on every Villager's pin as well as under the closing credits, assembling itself before our eyes while the show winds toward its final moments? Obviously it's a mode of transportation in the Village (though not as common as those go-cart things, I think) and it's possible there's no visual significance beyond that - or maybe the idea of one big wheel and one tiny one suggestively refers to Rover's dominance or the importance of the collective vs. the individual (ok, I'm reaching now). Before upcoming episodes, I may begin to listen to podcasts (not for the episode in question, but for previous ones I've watched - I have a list of spoiler-safe options available to me), at which point speculations or perspectives I haven't considered will probably swim into view. Or I may continue to wander this world as confused and curious as Six himself, never knowing what's around each corner. Be seeing you...

Previous episode: Checkmate
Next episode: The Schizoid Man

1 comment:

Nathaniel Drake Carlson said...

Just to respond to your comments on the pennyfarthing bicycle: the commonly held view used to be at least that it was "an ironic symbol of progress". I remember that exact wording from my Six of One days.

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