Lost in the Movies: The Prisoner - "Fall Out"

The Prisoner - "Fall Out"

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.

Well, I was right about "Dem Bones" (was I ever). If the episode has a theme song, that non sequitur novelty is it, with the Beatles' then-recent "All You Need is Love" coming in a close, ahem, number two. I had a feeling I'd heard about this before but wasn't sure if I was confusing it with The Singing Detective (which also uses the song, likely in tribute). And there it is, when Number Forty-eight (Alexis Kanner, the deranged mute deputy in "Living in Harmony", now recast as an all-purpose youthful rebel) appears at the hybrid trial/coronation/info-dump where Six is sent after defeating Number Two in the previous episode. Forty-eight's anarchic ditty soon spreads to the entire masked and cloaked delegation ostensibly there to judge him, and as they chant and sway a cheerful, swingin' Pop version of the theme emerges on the soundtrack. This same recording reappears at least three or four more times, jauntily sneering at us in our search for meaning while - if we have good humor - making us grin ear to ear. It's all a big joke, right? Right? Well...this particular recording may be a novelty, but the song itself isn't actually a non sequitur. The lyrics are based on a passage from the Book of Ezekial in which the resurrection of a defeated Israel is prophesied via the metaphor of dry bones found in the desert reattaching themselves to one another, and rising from the dust. The song was written in 1927, via a sermon delivered by the preacher J.M. Gates (who expanded Ezekial's one line about connecting bones to cover the entire human anatomy in a rolling, building catalog) to which music was added by James Weldon Johnson (or his brother), who in addition to being a notable figure in the Harlem Renaissance was the leader of the NAACP at the time of writing. By 1967, the song was perhaps mostly familiar - especially to UK audiences - as a meaningless ditty sung to pass the time.

So which is it? A sly nod to a long history of defiance and revolution? Or a cheeky paeon to individual resistance as little more than sideshow treadmill? There's the crux of The Prisoner's ambiguity, and particularly this final episode's.

There are at least two types of television finales: those content to wrap everything up with a neat bow, straightforwardly answering all our questions - or at least the big ones, and those that...are not. Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, Neon Genesis Evangelion, not coincidentally my three favorite TV shows, all belong to the latter category. So does The Prisoner which may have set the template for all three (one similarity to Twin Peaks is particularly striking if a bit confusing, since it's more in the David Lynch rather than Mark Frost contribution to that finale, despite Frost being the pronounced fan). Written and directed by Patrick McGoohan, the Prisoner finale displays a sure hand throughout. As always it's less in creative compositions and camera movements that the show finds its formal voice, and more in a sense of crisp, punchy cutting. This is most evident in the opening passage, or rather the follow-up to the opening (since "Fall Out" begins with a recap of "Once Upon a Time," both a useful clarification and a humorous audience tease). As Six is marched through a hallway to meet One, or so he believes, there is a sense of precision and propulsion in the rhythm of the Beatles-scored montage as well as the clean set design. In the underground chamber Six is greeted by the President (Kenneth Griffith, the Napoleon wannabe in "The Girl Who Was Death"), apparently dressed as a judge but more concerned with flattering Number Six than passing sentence upon him. In fact, he even removes Six's number, confirming that his dramatic triumph has given him the right to be considered an individual. Not that we actually learn his name, of course.

Those on trial before Six, er the Individual, are the aforementioned Forty-eight and the resurrected Two from the last episode. Forty-eight is upheld as a symbol of defiant youth, though he admittedly already looks a bit dated by the episode's airdate of February 1, 1968. (Unless created by twentysomethings themselves, sixties depictions of rebellious youth always tend to be a tad off-the-mark; Kanner's young enough - though he looks slightly older than his actual twenty-five - but his bemused bohemian act is a relic of '65-'66 if not earlier.) The President fulminates but also slyly accommodates, using the hipster's lingo and allowing, at least briefly, the whole ensemble to dance along with him. I suspected at times that a subtle case was being made for the establishment's ease in co-opting youthful "rebellion without a cause" but I'm not sure. Forty-eight is quickly condemned and removed, the Individual suspending his judgement until the inauguration. Number Two, given a clean shave and haircut, reveals his own history with the Village, where he quickly succumbed to their tactics. Now, however, he's had enough and speaks his mind to the assemblage. The President presents him as another type of rebel, the Establishment figure who breaks free and calls out his former allies and the system that supported him. This leaves a third rebel, the Individual Formerly Known As Number Six. The President celebrates rather than condemns his resistance and asks him to become leader of their community or, if he prefers, to go home or travel the world. In other words, he's free, completely free.

The Individual attempts to speak to the crowd but they simply chant "I" (the first word of his address) over and over, drowning him out completely. He then travels into a chamber that looks like the repainted rocketship/lighthouse from "The Girl Who Was Death" and draws closer and closer, at long last, to Number One. I've only really had two hunches about One, and one of them was correct (although I didn't envision it like this). A few times it did look like the little Butler (Angelo Marcat) was going to step in and introduce himself as the ultimate authority. But it didn't happen. Instead, our hero proceeds up a spiral staircase into a tiny command center where a white-shrouded Number One stands awaiting him. The black/white split mask is removed, revealing an ape face underneath. This too is quickly removed, revealing - surprise! Six/The Individual/our hero/his doppelganger?/Patrick McGoohan - underneath. He cackles maniacally and the actual (?) Individual responds in kind and then they chase each other around the deck like the monkey and the weasel. The episode has already been a bit crazy, but this is where it gets completely unhinged. The hero, allied with Forty-eight, Two, and (for some reason) the Butler, escapes this rocket chamber before it blasts off, mowing down many of the authorities and their minions on their way out (the gunfire is scored, of course, to "All You Need is Love") as the panicky Village is evacuated. They make their escape in the mobile prison-room introduced last week and return to London, the youth to hitchhike along the highway, the middle-aged establishment figure to the Peer's entrance at Westminster (I'm not gonna pretend I didn't have to look that up), the Butler to the Individual's home, and the Individual speeding off in his sportscar. The closing shot of the series is a near-exact replica of the first episode's opening. Oh, and I guess we can call him something other than "Six" or the "Individual" now. The close of the episode reveals each of the actor's names as their characters depart but instead of "Patrick McGoohan" the title read simply, over an aerial shot of his character driving his car in traffic, "Prisoner."

What?? Well, that ending may be the least confusing part of the episode - McGoohan & co. have already tipped their hand many times about the Village not having boundaries and escape not being a true answer to its dilemmas. More perplexing is everything that comes before, and yet it works somehow - or at least it did for me. To an extent I didn't really expect, "Fall Out" calls back to quite a lot of the show's previous content. We see the sculpture of Six and the blinking green eye from "The General", obviously actors return from "The Chimes of Big Ben", "Living in Harmony", and "The Girl Who Was Death", the rocket set and conceit (previously depicted as a tongue-in-cheek lark too outlandish even for The Prisoner) is also revived from "The Girl Who Was Death", and the return to London is repeated from "The Chimes of Big Ben", "Many Happy Returns" and "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling". The invitation to join the establishment recalls "Once Upon a Time", the trial set-up reminds us of "Free for All", the sight of a betrayed, panicked Number Two borrows from "Hammer into Anvil" and "It's Your Funeral". Finally, of course, the hero's encounter with himself is definitely prefigured by "The Schizoid Man" (to the point where I wonder if some of its potential power wasn't robbed by that precedent, great as it plays here). For whatever reason, perhaps because of the non-specific episode order and McGoohan's apparent dismissal of much of the series, I believed that The Prisoner would end in a way that didn't bother to draw on the previous threads. I was wrong - it serves as a very effective culmination to the series' many detours, albeit in a subtle, almost subliminal way (which I think I prefer). But I was also wrong about it towering over the rest of the series, dwarfing them with its brilliance and boldness.

Don't get me wrong: I quite liked this episode and it definitely succeeds as a finale, in which the stakes and outcomes are bigger than any previous entry (although the gap is not quite as big as I expected going in). But does it blow the lid off of everything that came before? I don't really think so; better to say it fulfills and extends what was already established, while amplifying and confirming the show's ethos in some significant aspects. The twists are not especially mindbending, and many of the conceits - aside from the music, maybe - are no more revolutionary or subversive (in some cases, less so) than what came before. Actually, this isn't really a critique of the finale - it's praise of the entire show. From beginning to end, this is a great series that spreads its revelations and reversals evenly across the whole run. Even some of my least favorite episodes - "Living in Harmony", "Do Not Forsake Me..." - I find myself thinking about more than the solid entries, and certainly more than weak spots in other shows. Is "Fall Out" my favorite episode? I don't think so, though I could definitely see it seizing that placement on further viewings (more for the final fifteen or twenty minutes than the "trial" stuff, although I did like that too). At the moment I would lean toward "The Schizoid Man" or "Many Happy Returns." But "Fall Out" is the perfect ending for a show which defiantly refused to settle into a predictable pattern or even outline its stakes in stark, unambiguous terms.

What does it all mean? I appreciate the episode's very Six-like unwillingness to accede to any unreasonable or demeaning demands. Actually I was most worried by the moments when it seemed to lean toward a didactic explication of its principles. That said, I think there is a set of principles and perspectives at play, tossed into the mix with brazen, defiant whimsy. Simply put, the episode's spirit draws from all three of its rebels. The inexplicably wacky touches echo the cheeky, perhaps genuinely obnoxious silliness of the Youth. The flirtations with high-minded, slightly obvious satire reflect the blunt, despairing social critique of the Disillusioned Establishment. And the episode's best quality, its mocking, jaundiced, fun, and challenging mashup of different elements and straight-faced but ludicrous story developments...well, this is the perfect tonal and stylistic embodiment of the Individual or rather, the Prisoner. The one avenue "Fall Out" never really explores, which the show touched upon only briefly in some of its most intriguing moments ("Checkmate" foremost among them), is the possibility of a wider solidarity among Prisoners, not just these three outcasts but a genuine revolution in the Village and implicitly, the wider world - the miraculous coming together of those dry bones in the desert. In that sense, The Prisoner is quite cynical, reflective both of a mid/late Cold War liberal mentality in the West (disillusioned with the radical left but unimpressed by the consumer society) and specifically the wry, caustic outlook of McGoohan's postwar generation (which often regarded the youth counterculture with affection but skepticism, presciently as it turned out). Philosophically, this is existentialism without a shred of ambivalent optimism/idealism, but perhaps doubly stubborn for that absence of melancholy anxiety. The only rebellion it can conceive of is purely individualist, but rather than smugly celebrate this atomized defiance The Prisoner resignedly shrugs its shoulders as if to say, "It's useless, but you'd better believe we won't give in."

Or as the Prisoner himself says, "I am not a number! I am a free man!" And may he remain so, as the cycle repeats, ad infinitum.

Next week: A Conversation with Christopher Yohn
(who designed my viewing order)
Previous episode: The Girl Who Was Death

sources: "The Originals" by Arnold Rypens, "Dem Bones History" by Martin Acaster, Wikipedia (I) (II) (III)


James Cooray Smith said...

Well, you got there! I think it's a wonderful piece of television with a lot to chew on.

Re "Dem Bones" and intent, it's worth noting that McGoohan was quite a religious man, a practising Catholic who was known to refuse roles for conflicting with his religious views. (Although he was not theologically narrow; he won a BAFTA for his performance in a TV version of Brand, an Ibsen play about the intellectual and moral struggles of a Danish clergyman of a very different kind of Christianity to his own.)

prophit1970 said...

To remain true to themes in the real world, sometimes in drama a loss is the inescapable outcome - or the viewers would be betrayed, left back in the real economic/political world where Individuals are all Prisoners, while the Hero wins immunity and races into a selfish, isolated happily-ever-after.

No, the Prisoner is defiant in solidarity with the Viewer: we have only freed our own minds. We ARE Prisoners; but we are freed from illusions of freedom. That's a loss, but a moral victory, more than pyrrhic: to no longer be an unconscious puppet of Big Brother, or BOB. Outright victory was never an option; so honor your hard-won truth, and never ever stop resisting.

Joel Bocko said...

Pertinent words right now...

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