Lost in the Movies: The Prisoner - "Once Upon a Time"

The Prisoner - "Once Upon a Time"

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.

I knew a couple things going in. One, I knew this was by general agreement the penultimate episode. Two, I knew...well, I knew Two - specifically that Leo McKern would return to play him. First the episode order. No listing I've seen has placed this anywhere else (although its shooting order and production code - whatever that is - were sixth and thirteenth according to Wikipedia). So clearly something important was going to happen in "Once Upon a Time." And indeed, at the end of the episode Number Six asks be taken to see Number One and apparently gets his wish. That would be pretty hard to slot elsewhere in the lineup, especially if the finale does indeed begin with Six meeting One. As for Number Two, while I knew about McKern's casting I wasn't sure how it would be handled onscreen. To my mild surprise, it was fully acknowledged. "I know you," Six remarks on hearing Two's voice, and to both his superiors (over the phone) and to Six, Two says, "I've been here before." This in itself is an anomaly; every episode is usually careful not to reference the events of others (although the earlier repeat Two appearance edges pretty close to this line). While both of these facts are small, they - especially the first - affected my attitude going in. I wonder if I would have experienced "Once Upon a Time" as something more routine had its placement been more random, or if I would have sensed something afoot right away. In other words, was the episode's unique quality in my own head or inherent in the material? I'm not sure, and that uncertainty is indicative of the episode as a whole. This is a thoroughly strange fifty minutes, fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. It's pretty brilliant, and I'm not sure I liked it. The episode crawls inside your head and insinuates itself in your consciousness, appropriately for a show about brainwashing.

Two establishes the stakes early on, demanding that "Degree Absolute" be implemented, and implying that only he or Six will survive this drastic measure. In a drawn-out sequence involving a lamp that lowers from the ceiling to cover Six's face, Two chants a nursery rhyme and reduces Six to the mental state of a toddler. They eventually descend into a chamber beneath Two's headquarters, referenced online as the "Embryo Room" though I'm not sure if it's called that on the show itself. There the bulk of the episode unfolds, as Two antagonizes and disciplines Number Six, playing parent, teacher, boss, judge, and friend, hurling abuse, encouragement, and sheer verbal nonsense at the prisoner in equal measure. His primary goals are to get Six to - of course - admit why he resigned from the agency, but also, oddly, to say the word "six" aloud. Eventually, in fact, he does both (for the first time, he admits he resigned for "peace - peace of mind" though this is embedded in such a stream of apparent non sequiturs, it's hard to know how seriously to take it). But neither concession matters because on some more fundamental level, Six won't be broken. The entire episode is a tug of war with Six eventually emerging in complete control, tormenting Two until his nemesis dies (he has been given exactly a week to crack Six and when the clock counts down he cracks instead, a defeat as physical as it is mental). The victory is rather astounding, in no small part because we - or I, anyway - couldn't really tell you how Six did it. We're not given much to hold onto as we witness the battle of wills and as a result I ended the episode both awed by and slightly alienated from the hero.

Several comparisons crept into my memory as I watched, contextualizing the scene (perhaps in vain). The first, and most relevant, was John Fowler's novel The Magus, which similarly messes with the mind of both reader and protagonist via an authority figure whose mind games follow the familiar pattern of "This makes sense...no it doesn't...wait, maybe it does and I'm just missing something!" It's been a decade since I've read The Magus but, as I recall, at its most absorbing there can be a kind of liberating openness in this approach; at its worst, it can veer toward self-torture (Woody Allen once remarked, about the film adaptation which Fowler disowned, "If I could live my whole life over again, I'd do everything the same, except that I wouldn't see The Magus"). The British book was released to wide acclaim just two years prior to this episode's production, and the film was in production not long after, so it's possible this link was conscious. It also leads me to wonder - despite some universal aspects - how much of this anxiety about obedience and defiance is a particularly British phenomenon (the roots of which would be interesting to examine). Nevertheless the other connections I saw were cross-cultural, including Franz Kafka, who first came to mind in "The Schizoid Man." I'm also reminded of a single scene from The Master when a character paces back and forth in a room, touching a wall and window, for hours on end. Apparently this was based on real Scientology exercises but what it - and the exchanges in "Once Upon a Time" - recall more than anything is an actor's game, playing with language and motion as a form of training. Thus there is a slightly "meta" quality to McKern's and McGoohan's back-and-forth, as if the performers are allowing us to peek behind the curtain to explore their own methods.

In both Kafka and The Master - at least that one scene - the protagonist is at the mercy of "the master" but in The Prisoner the tables are turned. Perhaps that's one reason I eventually felt a distance from Six: could anyone, after one viewing, pinpoint precisely how he's able to overcome Two, when and why the roles are reversed? We aren't used to seeing a sympathetic figure who can stand their ground this stubbornly. By forcefully asserting his humanity, Six becomes vaguely inhuman. In a way this is what I wanted from "Hammer into Anvil": an exercise in paranoia and manipulation that doesn't let the viewer off the hook. "Once Upon a Time" is certainly effective in that regard. It's also worth noting that the show hasn't lost its sense of humor, although the only laugh-out-loud moment, for me, came early on when long-lost Rover emerges in Number Two's seat (I wondered for a moment if maybe it was Number One but Two was too harsh with it, and also with the little man who is a constant presence here for the first time, suggesting neither one is his One). The elemental "Embryo Room," with its jumble of random props, children's toys, and fragments of other locales like a kitchen and jail cell, evokes the Theatre of the Absurd. The comedy is arch and dry rather than kooky; Two's glasses, Six's infantile behavior, and the whirligig of stop-and-start music and sound effects are as offputting as they are potentially amusing.

This is an episode I look forward to discussing, reading about, and even rewatching, even as I struggle to digest it now. Some sporadic questions, then, will have to suffice as I approach The Prisoner's final hour. Who exactly is the Prisoner? Does his childhood have anything to do with his incredible resilience? (I'd never stopped to consider a conventional psychological explanation, just taking his stubborn refusals as a Billy Budd-esque inherent character trait, and perhaps this episode intends to mock Freudian explanations as much as to suggest them?) Does the purpose of the agency, and his role there, matter at all or is his resignation important only as a symbolic act, an allegory for refusal to conform? When Two suggests that Six is "as good" as he (Two) used to be, with even greater potential, what exactly does he mean? Is the show setting us up for a fall, whereby the very qualities we've admired in Six for sixteen episodes turn out to be his downfall in the seventeenth? Knowing very little about McGoohan, his collaborators, or their philosophy means that I don't know what to expect. The show's ethos to date could be sincere, satirical, or something more subtle - only the finish will throw it into relief, if not greater confusion.

Previous episode: The Girl Who Was Death
Next episode: Fall Out


Nathaniel Drake Carlson said...

I think "greater confusion" may be what awaits you, at least initially. As to this episode, well, there is indeed much to say about it individually and as a lead in to the end. But it is very difficult for me to separate it or disentangle it from that final episode; they just seem so utterly inextricable from one another, regardless of when this was shot or what was originally intended. It's hard to imagine this coming anywhere else. I guess at this point I will limit myself to noting just a couple of details. First, the bulk of this episode never fails to remain amazing to me and I've sen it many, many times--the level of intensity reached via an absurdity taken very seriously (and that's key, transforming it into the serious rather than the purely absurd) is remarkable. And admittedly utterly exhausting too. But that's part of its unique and particular greatness I think as it earns that response from us (we're not simply just exasperated with it). You really do feel as though you've come out on the other end of something so intensive that it deserves to be called Degree Absolute as so much is at stake (including Two's symbolic death). As for your question as to how Six manages to triumph, well, all I can tell you is that I can't point to any specific moment myself. I suppose it's cumulative but really it seems to me primarily in that sense about his resistance, his sheer endurance; he holds fast to the very end and his titanic strength of will is the reality we are left with. After all, we see a humbled Two right from the start unable to fathom why Six should care (presumably about holding out) when it is very much an issue of the purity of his strength of will, his identity, his constitutive character (this incomprehension on Two's part may very well be why he ultimately fails as he cannot accept or believe that what Six finally tells him about why he resigned is actually the real answer, the answer they've sought all along--and yet we see in that scene Six confess this possible truth and yet move on beyond it, ultimately minimizing its larger relevance, in a way the Village authorities cannot).

I also wanted to note another detail regarding the position of this episode toward the end. Part of my own pleasure with it certainly comes from the contrast with the preceding episode's extreme lightness of tone. The Village has simply had enough. And there's a way in which The Village seems at this point itself to be expendable, irrelevant now (just consider the scarcity of inhabitants we see in wide shots of what would otherwise normally be bustling images of community life and Six's seemingly arbitrary, taunting confrontation/provocation of a random seeming inhabitant). A question that lingers throughout emerges and will become very pronounced: how much of The Village is only about, and has always only been about, Number Six, breaking him or not?

Joel Bocko said...

Great points, especially about Six's victory being cumulative. If you are interested in participating in a discussion in the show (for a couple months, I'm publishing different discussions each week, let me know. My gmail is movieman0283.

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