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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Prisoner: "Arrival"

Illustration for article titled The Prisoner: "Arrival"
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"It's very cosmopolitan. You never know who you'll meet next!"

But that's not exactly true, is it.

Welcome to the Village. Here, there's a smile on every face, a handshake in every grip; and if it ever rains, it never rains for long. There are committees to join for the political, a newspaper to keep you informed on local events, and a boat that never leaves the beach, so you never have to worry about getting seasick. Contribute, get involved, love your neighbor and your neighbor will love you in return; and get ready to spend the rest of your life in the best place of all possible places. Everything that matters, matters here. You can even go for a walk in the woods without fear of getting lost. We have ways of making sure you never get lost again.

The thing is, though, you always know who you'll meet next. The faces change, but the numbers don't, and while the accents vary, the philosophy is always the same. Don't rock the boat. Keep in line. Don't lose your step. And don't get angry, okay? Just don't. Nobody likes a sourpuss. There's no reason to be angry here! We have everything you ever wanted. There are just a few small issues we'd like you to clear up first. We'd like to ask you a few questions. If you don't want to answer them, that's fine. We have the rest of your life to find what we're looking for.

The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan, aired from September 29, 1967, through to February 1968. It ran 17 episodes. Its mixture of paranoia, surreality, and satire is both hugely influential and unique—it's been imitated and referenced countless times, but never truly repeated. And it'll haunt your dreams.

McGoohan stars as a never-named (which is like being a never-nude, except instead of wearing cut-offs, you just don't have ID) secret agent who, at the start of the first episode, "Arrival," resigns his position. Get used to this opening segment; we'll be seeing the shortened version a lot in the weeks to come. But long version or short, we never get to hear the angry rant McGoohan delivers to his presumed boss. He hits the table hard enough to break china, so we know he's pissed—but we don't know why. And (spoilers!) we never will. McGoohan comes close to confessing his reasons for quitting only a couple of times in the show, and while it's easy enough to come up with a theories, the plain fact is, it's his secret and only his. That's appropriate. The Prisoner is about personal identity, and as much as we like to identify with McGoohan's unnamed hero, in the end, he remains a mystery because that's part of his right as a human being.

"Arrival" sets the stage for what's to come; we get the ground rules here, what there are of them. (The most basic being the old saw that the X-Files would make famous years later: Trust no one.) Upset at his abrupt withdrawal from the workforce, someone (or someones) has McGoohan kidnapped from his home and brought to the Village, a lovely spot in the middle of who knows where. The indoctrination is slow but certain—McGoohan wakes up in an apartment much like his own, goes for a walk in place he doesn't recognize, and has his every attempt to find out what's going on met with cheery ignorance. The friendly cart driver (source of the above quote) responds to questions with statements so blandly formulaic you can't help but wonder if she's working off a script. McGoohan tries to buy a map of the area, but the first one the shop-keeper pulls out is too small; and when he asks for a larger one, he just gets the same map, only magnified and in color.

It's a system with seemingly no loopholes, no points of egress. McGoohan doesn't realize that right off; in fact, much of the series is about him learning how thoroughly caught he is, and how far up the conspiracy to keep him in place goes. We'll get to that when it becomes relevant, but for now, it's enough to accept that McGoohan is an ex-government agent, a brilliant tactician, and a more than capable fighter—and that none of that is going to be enough. The stakes become clear when McGoohan—who is now named Number Six, because here in the Village, answers are a burden to one's self, and personal names are the anchors that hold us down—gets a call from Number Two, the second in command and the face of ever-changing authority. Two would like Six to come up for breakfast, top of the hill, can't miss it. The food is chosen specifically to suit Six's tastes, but what's even more disturbing are the photos of him from his previous life; candid snapshots that capture him at his most vulnerable, captioned by Two's narration of Six's interior monologue in the scenes depicted.

How awful would that feel? Not only have they been watching you for years, not only have they been taking pictures when you thought you were alone, you are apparently so obvious, so blatantly legible, that they can read you perfectly. The first Two, Guy Doleman, sets the tone for the role, a pleasant, chummy condescension that's so British it hurts your teeth. Six isn't dealing with glowering evil here. He's dealing with the perfect next door neighbor who just likes to read your mail to make sure everything's going all right. One of the Village's most insidious weapons (and one that we'll see get worn down over time) is its pretense of moral authority. They aren't trying to hurt anyone, they tell you over and over. This is for your own good. Why fight it? And even worse, even harder to deny—if you insist on fighting it, doesn't that say something about you? When Two can just look at a photo and know you're planning a vacation, when you try and resist that, what fundamental flaw in your character is stopping you from being one with the whole?

There's lots of nifty symbolism at work here, obvious stuff on the whole but still effective. Two brings Six to Labour Exchange (ah, those lovely British "u"'s) where he takes an aptitude test—he puts a round peg into a square hole, and the square hole squeeze itself to fit the peg. Because here at the Village, accommodations are made for all shapes and sizes. The best bit has Two calling a halt to a seemingly random crowd of strollers in the town square. Everyone freezes instantly, except for the one poor bastard who's out of step with the group. He tries to run, and up comes the Village's most potent physical threat: a white weather balloon called "Rover." (It's not actually named in the episode, but that's what it's called.) There's a howling sound and Rover presses down on the misfit. It sounds ridiculous, and it should look worse, but it doesn't. The Prisoner can be ungainly, but Rover is never anything less than terrifying, in no small part because it shouldn't be. 

Despite all of this, Six still tries an escape. Rover takes him out, and he wakes up in hospital to find an old friend, a colleague named Cobb, in one of the nearby beds. They have a quick conversation before Six is led off to be examined, and when Six comes back, Cobb has thrown himself out a window to his death. Very sad, and clearly, this isn't a nice place to spend time in. An opportunity for escape presents itself, though, when Six sees a woman crying over Cobb's funeral procession. She's an agent who'd been assigned to Cobb, but had fallen for him; her next assignment is Six, but she's a soft touch. Maybe his stay in the Village won't be quite so extended after all.

"Arrival" suffers a little from a third act that's nowhere near as crazy as things would get down the line. This is fairly standard spy stuff, and that's understandable; we've got to lock in the premise before the screwing around begins in earnest. On the plus side, we get our first replacement No. Two, George Baker. He plays it much the same as Doleman did, but it's still unsettling to have the power dynamic shift so quickly. The actual mechanics of Six's escape aren't that involved; the woman gives him an "electro-pass" that lets him shut Rover down and make a brief trip in the helicopter. The fact that the helicopter never leaves the Village's control is an omen of things to come, though, and a lesson it will take Six a long time to learn: he won't find escape in the tools they've given him.

The final twist works nicely as well—the woman is actually innocent, it's Cobb who's betrayed Six, a Cobb who isn't dead but rather thoroughly (and enthusiastically) indoctrinated to his new masters' wishes. It's no surprise that Six is being played (it would be one hell of a short show otherwise). The shock here is that it's the person Six thought he could trust most that betrayed him. There are people you can trust in the Village; but the ones you want to believe in the most are the ones most likely to let you down. So not only are you held in place, you're forced to acknowledge that those parts of your life that you always thought safe—those external things you always assumed made you you—are already compromised. 

An elderly chess player explains to the woman who tries to help Six, "We're all my pawns, m'dear." And just as in chess, the casualty rate for pawns here is quite high. The final exchange between Cobb and Number Two is chilling:

Cobb: Don't be too hard on the girl, she was most upset at my funeral.
Two: Don't worry, she'll be well taken care of.
Cobb: Yes, that's what I was afraid of.

We never see the woman again, of course. It's probably better that way. In the end, the helicopter lands itself at the Village, and Rover pushes Six back to where he, temporarily at least, belongs. But just look at his face. If "Arrival" is about how thoroughly Six is trapped, it's also about how the Village may have finally over-reached itself. "I will not make any deals with you," he tells them. "I've resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own." They take their notes and they make their adjustments, but none of them quite realize the danger. For the first time in a long time, there's someone in the Village who isn't familiar; someone who can't be predicted or plotted or planned for. For the first time, there's someone who's new.

Over the next two months, I'll be going through The Prisoner, running two episodes at a time from here on out. We'll be following the KTEH order, and I'll make sure to list the next two episodes at the end of each post. We should be done here just in time for the AMC version in November about which, as company policy dictates, I am cautiously optimistic. The Prisoner is one of my favorite shows, and I'm looking forward to revisiting it here on the AV Club. Be seeing you!

"The Arrival": A-

Stray Observations:

  • Dig the Orwellian signs in Labour Exchange: "a still tongue makes a happy life"
  • Also, the faux friendliness of a sign reading, "walk on the grass." Here, even the rule-breaking is part of the rules.
  • Next week, it's "Dance of the Dead," and "Checkmate."