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The Prisoner: "Hammer Into Anvil" / "The Girl Who Was Death"

Illustration for article titled The Prisoner: "Hammer Into Anvil" / "The Girl Who Was Death"
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"Hammer Into Anvil"
When number 2 references the Goethe quote, "Be the anvil or the hammer," he sounds very sure of himself. He's explaining how he intends to break 6. In 2's mind, 6 is the anvil, and 2 is the hammer who will beat him into submission. He has a lot invested in the idea, you can tell; he believes in it, yearns for it, clings to it with the fervency of a child rounding the calendarial third base of December 23rd. This is a man of absolute convictions, a man who's faith in his own surety is so severe that he feels no qualms in driving a woman to suicide. If it wasn't for that last, you could almost feel sorry for him. After all, as Orwell points out in "Politics and the English Language," "In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about."

It's easy to bemoan the short episode run of The Prisoner. 17 episodes isn't much, and, more to the point, it's so good that you can't help wanting more. We always want more of the stories we love—we want to keep pretending the characters are real, we want to hold onto familiar faces and persistent worlds. But whatever you think of the finale, The Prisoner makes its main points thoroughly and succinctly. It does this by keeping true to its vision throughout, by not diluting itself through unnecessary secondary characters or subplots. The series has some fat, but not much, and each major plot gets presented once, and only once. Or not plot, exactly. The best episodes are like thesis statements, introduced, explicated, and then devastatingly proven.

"Hammer" is about what happens when 6, instead of trying to escape (which he hasn't in quite some time), uses his wits and his importance in the Village to enact revenge on the Geothe-quoting 2 (Patrick Cargill). 6 can't free himself—not yet, anyway—but he can use some of the same tricks that the Village has been playing on him, both to break 2 and as a sardonic commentary on what they've been doing to him for so long. His game is simple enough, with no deeper meaning behind it in than the observer's paranoid fantasies. But it points to the absurdity of everything that goes on the constant tricks and drugging and lies and cheats and he (and the other citizens) have had to endure. All of those are upsetting and frightening because they have a real impact on people's lives—much as 2's interrogations affecting poor 73—but that doesn't make them any less foolish. 2 falls for what is clearly empty tomfoolery because he lives in a world where everything is empty, and the only meaning is what can be found in coded messages, mysterious signals, and endless lies. The Village has power because it can undermine external reality, but in doing so, it reduces life to a zero sum game.

I love "Hammer"'s quick lead-in; in roughly five minutes of actual, non-opening titles time, we have 2 badgering 73, her screaming, 6 coming to her aid, her going out the window, 2 saying, "You shouldn't have interfered, number 6. You'll pay for this," and 6's coldly furious response: "No. You will." And that's it, we're off to the races. There's no lengthy set-up introducing us to 2's sadism, or giving 6 a chance to get to know 73 and understand her plight before her untimely death. We get just as much information as we need to follow what's happening. 2 is clearly a creep, as both his actions against 73 and his increasingly unstrung attempts to get to the heart of 6's plotting reveals everything there is to know about him. And since 6's relationships with his fellow Villagers tends to be distantly polite at best, it works better to have him trying to revenge a victim he only knows post-mortem than to give him a more personal stake in things. A wrong has been done, and he's going to right it. It doesn't need to get anymore more complicated than that.

As for the games he plays… They're all entertaining to watch even after you see through the ruse (which, presumably, anyone watching the episode should do quickly; his first trick, listening to copies of the same record while looking at his watch, is so phony it has to be a prank), which is a good thing since that's really all the episode has going on. There isn't a ton to unpack here. Sure, 6's actions are only a slightly heightened version of the standard spy hi-jinks we've come to expect from years of espionage thrillers, and you could make a case there's some satire going on here. Between "Hammer" and the next episode, there's a clear sense that some of 6's rage has translated itself into a humor so biting it could take off your ears.

There's something else, too. Everything he does—the blank paper, the coded messages that yield nursery rhymes, the phone call to Psychiatrics—expose a mind that is no longer vulnerable to the Village's most basic modes of persuasion. Just as they've reflected his concerns and obsessions, he now reflects their reflection back at them, creating a hall of mirrors that only a fool would get lost in. We're fast approaching the final round here, and the episodes leading into "Once Upon A Time" are clear proof (at least in this order) of the necessity of that end game, of the futility of any further attempts to trick or mold 6 into some new shape. He's taken almost all their tools away from them. All that's left is pure brute force.

Delightful as all 6's ruses are, the reason "Hammer" is powerful is that it gives us justice. 2 is defeated so thoroughly that he places the call to the home office to report himself (it's telling how his darkest suspicion of 6 is that 6 was sent to the Village to keep tabs on him—given how long 6 has been there, and how important we've been told he is to the organization, how confident can the rulers of the Village if they're so ready to disbelieve their own history?), and, going by what we've seen before, it's doubtful his punishment for failure is going to be very pleasant. We'll never know that much about 73, or her husband, but her death did not go unmarked.

"The Girl Who Was Death"
I wanted to like this one. I had fond memories of its crazy editing, trippy action sequences, and terrific punchline. But it had been so long (I've only seen the second half of the series once, when I was in high school), and watching it again, I found it, well, tiresome. There are some swell gags, and I don't hate "Girl," but it's lacking something, isn't it? It's like a lesser Avengers episode, without any Diana Rigg. Not bad, really, and occasionally inspired, but definitely something of a let-down.

The big reveal doesn't come till the final scene, but: 6 is telling a bedtime story to a group of cute kids. (Are these the first kids we've seen in the Village? Surely they're the first to play such a prominent role, even if that role is largely off-screen.) The story is about a spy, also played by 6, who has to investigate a mad scientist named Schnipps, who has built a rocket that could destory England. Schnipps's daughter, Sonia, likes to kill people in strange ways—we first meet her right before a cricket player explodes—and the spy-6 has to follow her to track down Schnipps. (I wonder if Life, The Universe, And Everything is referencing the cricket scene in its climax?) As with "Hammer," there are spy hi-jinks, although these are far more overtly comical. Sonia tries to murder 6 for a bit, he manages to track her to her father, and then he destroys the rocket and Schnipps' lighthouse base ("It's only a model."), thus saving England and, perhaps, the world.

That's pretty much it. The various death traps 6 fights through are funny, and I dug the growing sense that the traps were less about killing our hero and more about giving him something to do, as if he wasn't trying to defeat anyone so much as move from set-up to set-up, 'cause hey, y'know, that's what spies do. Just like 6's gaslighting of 2, it speaks of a hollow core at the center of all these complicated maneuverings, of systems which, though initially designed to protect and further a cause, have become so detached from their intent that they threaten to drift away like untethered balloons.

6's pursuit of the Girl and her crazy father is exaggerated, and not quite as directed as I would've liked—there's something generic about it, despite it strangeness, something oddly indifferent. It reminds me a little of the South Park episode, "Not Without My Anus," the one that followed the initial cliffhanger of Cartman's parentage; not only did "Anus" not address the cliffhanger, it focused on a pair of minor characters in a completely unrelated world. While "Hammer" (or, really, any episode that might have preceded "Girl," excepting the last two) doesn't have any cliffhanger in it, the entire series is normally so fixated on its central premise that to give over fifty minutes to, well, nothing at all, is frustrating. It's a light, goofy riff with some moderate thematic importance, and not much else. I can respect and appreciate McGoohan and the rest wanting to be playful, but this one wears out its welcome before the admittedly satisfying conclusion.

Still, the ending is pretty sweet. 6 puts the kiddies to bed (check out the Golliwogg doll!), and we cut to 2's office, where he and an assistant are observing the children's room. 2 is, of course, the mad scientist from the story, and his assistant is Sonia (and she looks much better without the freaky eye make-up, I might add). He's frustrated—the plan had been to put 6 with the kids and see if he opened up, which he did not do. Then, at the end, 6 looks to the camera and says, to 2, 2's assistant, and to us at home, "Good night, children… everywhere." It's the final nail on the coffin of the Village's plans. 6 has been enraged by their interference, he's been unsettled by them, sometimes terrified, always resistant, but now he barely considers them a threat. They're dangerous, of course, but so are toddlers if they're holding the wrong kind of scissors. The Village has no choice but to play it's final card, come good or come ill. And as for that is—well, we'll just have to wait and see, won't we?

Stray Observations:

  • L'Arlésienne, the record 6 listens to, is about a man who's driven to madness by the infidelity of the woman he loves. And in a way, isn't 2 driven mad by his conviction that the Village he loves is cheating on him with 6?
  • 2 mistrusts the midget butler. The midget butler quits. DO NOT MISTRUST THE MIDGET BUTLER.
  • I'm going to change things up slightly. Since the AMC miniseries won't be starting till mid-November, we've got a little time, so we'll take the final two episodes one at time. So, next week, it's "Once Upon A Time," and the week after that, we'll wind up with "Fall Out."

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