Lost in the Movies: The Prisoner - "Many Happy Returns"

The Prisoner - "Many Happy Returns"

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.

Week by week, it's amusing to look back on where I thought future episodes might go. I certainly didn't expect "Many Happy Returns" to call the bluff of "The Chimes of Big Ben" or "A, B, and C" by all-out allowing Number Six to escape, allowing him to get all the way to London (!), and even to explain the Village to his superiors and launch an investigation into its whereabouts (!!). And this being a middle episode of The Prisoner (a category that I guess describes everything from 2 to 15), naturally that investigation leads right back to him being stranded on the island again - and we do at least learn this time that the Village is on an island. This is a great episode, maybe my favorite of the series so far. Not only is its narrative conceit bold - hilariously bold, even - it also has the courage to tell nearly half of its story without a single word of dialogue. It's sixteen minutes before we hear any speech at all. Twenty-two minutes in, Six speaks his first line of dialogue ("Where is this?"). Twenty-eight minutes through the episode (more than halfway) Six finally speaks to another person who understands him. As a result, we get pure visual storytelling for a substantial chunk of the episode; it's another feather in The Prisoner's cap as it finds new ways to expand on and play with its concept episode by episode.

Every episode begins with a "what if" and proceeds from that point with the curiosity of the storyteller making it up as they go along (but following a certain logic). This time, it's "what if...Number Six woke up, as usual, in his room, as usual..." (hmm, will an upcoming episode show him waking up somewhere else?) "and he goes to the bathroom, as usual...but there's no running water? And when he walks past the radio, he realizes it's dead? And when he looks outside, the Village is completely quiet and there's nobody else in sight?" In other words, the question is, "What if Number Six was left completely alone, and apparently unsupervised, in the Village?" If the viewers and writers might wonder what Six would do next, he himself seems to have no doubt. Methodically checking every area to ensure the community really has been abandoned, carefully taking photos of everything and taking a newspaper so he will have visual evidence of where he's been, and then constructing a raft and setting out to sea, Six is never panicky or hasty. Confronted with absolute freedom, his deliberate behavior proves that neither oppression nor liberation will cause him to lose his head.

For, I suppose, the second time (the first was "The Chimes of Big Ben"), Six actually leaves the Village. But this time he is by himself - no one else to trick him or lead him astray. After twenty-five days at sea (humorous, in a way, that the episode begins with the absence of water), a nearly unconscious Six is thrown overboard when smugglers/pirates seize his supplies. But Six has his wits about him enough to sneak onboard, lure the outlaws into a trap, and commandeer their vessel to head for shore. Barely escaping to swim ashore, he wakes up the next morning on a beach. He has made it through the most difficult part of his journey and as is often the case with The Prisoner, anything seems possible. He runs across a band of gypsies who can't communicate with him but they offer food and the first sympathetic human company he's had in...well, I was going to say nearly a month but considering the nature of his stay in the Village, it's actually been a lot longer. (Fun trivia: the female gypsy is played by Nike Arrighi, who had an interesting career and life, playing Verlaine's wife in the Rimbaud biopic A Season in Hell and Odile the makeup girl in Day for Night before marrying a Borghese and becoming a bona fide princess, at which point she dropped acting to pursue a distinguished career in art).

Circumventing a police blockade - Six is still a bit shy of authority - he stows away aboard a truck and ends up...in London. At this point I'll admit I was genuinely surprised. The aim of the series had apparently been achieved, with eight episodes still unwatched. Somehow, he would end up back in the Village, surely, but how? Would it be a dream (please no)? Some kind of engineered hallucination, like in "A, B, and C" except this time the audience wouldn't be in on it? Six's first move is to return to his home, which he discovers is now owned by the cheerful and weirdly unflappable Ms. Butterworth (Georgia Cookson), who seems less concerned that Six might be a crazy person than about him leaving her company. Six returns to the Agency and as I already noted in the introduction, he spreads the news about the Village amongst his superiors and many other agents. No matter what, we end this episode in a very different place than we began: depending on the stakes of the international intrigue surrounding Six's prison, these developments could be huge. Even while some of his allies are quite clearly traitors - the pilot him flying him over the Village ejects him from the plane with a hearty "Be seeing you!" - they couldn't all be in on it, could they? Could they? Six himself almost seems not to care. The important, brutally frustrating fact is that at episode's end he is back where he began, no matter what else has been accomplished. Back in the Village, Ms. Butterworth greets him at his door - she is cheerful, carrying a cake, and wearing a button marked "Number Two."

The first hint of this twist is planted before the episode actually begins. Every week we open with that same montage, with only two slight variations that I've noticed: the voiceover of Number Two is different, depending who is playing him/her that week, and there is a shot of the new actor following their declaration that they are "the new Number Two" (except for the last episode, in which Colin Gordon's repeat appearance cues a simpler "I am Number Two" - signifying that "The General" is definitely supposed to come first...but I digress). Anyway, "Many Happy Returns" uses a male voice for Number Two - a sly deception, maybe even a cheat - but it also avoids showing any face, explicitly leaving Two's identity mysterious for the duration of the episode. Another odd thing about this episode's Number Two: she looked familiar to me, as if I'd seen her before in the series, but I couldn't quite place the character. She hadn't been a previous Number Two, had she? That would certainly be a dead giveaway, granted one that I hadn't caught. Well, as it turns out my memory was correct. Georgina Cookson had been on another episode of the series, not as Number Two, but as a partygoer in "A., B., and C." Revisiting the episode, I see she is the woman who gives Six her earring and tells him to bet on number six at the roulette table - "I'm sure it's your lucky number." (Indeed, he wins and is awarded with a key which leads him to the double agent he was looking for at the party.) I can't say exactly what it means now, but it's a brilliant bit of stunt casting, creating a sense of deja vu when we "meet" Ms. Butterworth in this episode without her being recognizable enough to make us feel anything other than vaguely uneasy.

Indeed, much of this episode's appeal relies on not knowing what's coming next or where it's going; I wonder how it will hold up on rewatches? Even as I type out some of the action, I realize it could sound a bit forced or silly but it worked wonderfully for me the first time through (so much so, that I wrote a longer review than expected). "Many Happy Returns" also opens many questions, some of which push in very different directions than previous episodes. For example, I assumed that the authorities Six met in "The Chimes of Big Ben" were people he recognized; but if he already knows they are traitors, why would he be so ready to trust these superiors? That said, the writers plausibly cover themselves by having Six openly observe that he doesn't know whose side the Village is actually on, and making it clear to his superiors that he doesn't completely trust them, even if he's ready to work with them. Aside from appealing to other authorities (whom, the series implies, would hardly be more powerful or protective than Six's own Agency), Six doesn't really have many options after all. And so the journey, which has gone so far afield, ends where it began and even more deflating than that fact is the realization that he was under the watchful eye of the Village overlords all along. The whole world, it seems, is his prison.

Previous episode: A., B., and C.
Next episode: It's Your Funeral

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