"Living In Harmony"
When CBS first aired The Prisoner, it skipped "Living In Harmony." According to some, the network blinked because the allegory of a man refusing to pick up a gun was too closely linked to the burgeoning protest movement against the war in Vietnam, but it's hard to imagine any programming executive being thrilled by the opening of this week's first episode. Gone is the familiar sequence of the soon-to-be-6 quitting his government job, getting gassed by a large man in a top hat, waking up in the Village, and having a voice-over exchange with his newest nemesis. Instead, we see Patrick McGoohan as a sheriff in the Old West leaving his office (in a way similar to that of the modern 6's resignation), and then getting set on by toughs in the middle of the countryside. The title pops up on screen, and you can almost hear the collective "what in the hell?" from an audience thirty years gone.
It's still disconcerting even today, after decades of genre trickery and experimental storytelling on TV. It's also thrilling—any time a show has an established pattern, comforting as that pattern may be, there's something exciting and inspiring when it starts screwing with your expectations. Obviously this is the kind of series where you expect your expectations to be routinely screwed with, but the mixture of craziness like "Harmony," which, metaphorical nods aside, doesn't tip its hat to the audience for over two/thirds of its length, and a more traditional storyline like "It's Your Funeral," means you're always on your guard. It's a rare show that manages to balance craziness with reliably intelligent story-telling, and by and large, The Prisoner manages that balance.
So why a Western? Because, minus its final ten minutes, that's what "Harmony" is. There's a corrupt judge, a town that seems to be made up mostly of a saloon and a jail (sure, there are other buildings, but none of them actually matter), guys on horses, guys with chaps, a woman in one of those dresses that suggests lingerie without actually being it, and, of course, gun-play. And while this is all symbolic of other things—the judge is essentially number 2, and Harmony, the town he runs, is the Village writ small—it works enough on its own terms that with maybe twenty more minutes running time, it could've been a credible, albeit surreal, movie in its own right. We even get a villain that's strong enough to stand opposite McGoohan's considerable presence; not the judge (David Bauer is fine in the role, but not that memorable), but the red-headed, glaring mute, the Kid, played with mesmerizing weirdness by Alex Kanner. It's the sort of performance that, on a more traditional series, would be in danger of running away with the episode, much in the way the hallucination that lies at the heart of "Harmony" runs away from its creators. Thankfully, this is a series that has a certain leeway built into its core, so Kanner is less an anomaly than an acceptable and regular dose of madness.
If "Harmony" has a weak point, it's that the final reveal is something of a let-down. 6 waking up in his "real" clothes to find himself in a town inhabited by life-size cardboard cut-outs is a terrific, freaky visual. But finding out it was another trick by this week's 2, and then seeing the main characters revealed as their true selves—the judge really is 2, the Kid is his assistant, 8, and the woman, Cathy (Valerie French), is 22—is disappointing, if only because coming back to a more traditional reality after the unblinking oddness of the changed setting was going to be disappointing no matter how well it was executed. It almost would've been more satisfying if the whole episode had remained in the Old West, as though 6's current struggle was just another in a long of similar confrontations that had taken place throughout history. Having 6's individualism save him from confusing truth and fiction is smart enough, and it's nice to see the Village's efforts fail so thoroughly that two of their own wind up dead, but in trying to give the different format a plausible explanation, it just raises more questions.
The biggest one being, what exactly was the point of all this? To break 6, of course, that's always the point, but for once, no one asks him why he resigned. The focus here, instead, is on getting him to carry a gun again. So why? Why is it so important to not only have him take the job of sheriff in Harmony, thus becoming a part of Harmony (and, in a way, the Village) and joining its community, which has always been an element in the Village's games—why is that not enough, why do they also insist that he arm himself, to the point where the Judge has his thugs deal out beatings to convince 6 he'll never make it with his fists alone? It reminds you again of 6's brief comments in "Chimes," about how the reason he quit was "a matter of conscience," and suggests that despite his never-ending rage, 6, at heart, is not a violent man. Or at least not a killing one. He's willing to fight when it becomes necessary, but when bullets enter into things, fights tend to have fatal results, and that is not something he's comfortable with. The Village can't understand that, and what they can't understand, they have to dominate.
6 is, as always, a man with a deep distrust of crowds, and since The Prisoner is in many ways a reflection of its central character, throwing his mistrust and suspicions back tenfold, the citizens of Harmony don't come as a huge surprise. Much like in the real Village, we have the token resistance, too disparate and ineffectual to be much good; in addition to the twice-doomed Cathy, there's the once-doomed Jim, who offers to help 6 clean up the town before being beaten to death by the judge's thugs. And there are unnamed masses, who get so angry when 6 refuses to go with the flow that the judge has to give them a replacement man to lynch. As always, the message is, no one can help you, there's no place else to turn, just give us what we want, and life will be easier for everyone.
It's curious that he does seem to give in, then. In the end, he does pick up the gun, and it's really only 2's misjudgment of both 6's character and the character of 2's own helpers that stops the plan from working. As always, our traditional understanding of conflict and resolution are being questioned. If 6's desire for escape has had to evolve, than surely the Village's conception of victory has to change also. And with every seemingly inevitable failure, who's to say someone, somewhere, isn't taking notes?
"It's Your Funeral"
After the originality of "Living In Harmony," we change gears for a more straightforward thriller in "Funeral," albeit one with its own share of kinks. While the previous number 2 was more noteworthy for his clothes than his personality, "Funeral" gives us one of my favorites, the platinum blond, liver-lipped Darren Nesbitt. Nesbitt is a precise planner, thinking two or three steps ahead, and keeping careful track of how every piece must operate for things to work properly. He's also more than willing to lay the blame on others should problems arise, the sort of manager who is so assured of his own competence that he is thoroughly and automatically convinced that any failures are the responsibilities of his subordinates. We've seen 2's make schemes that don't revolve around 6 before, but this is the first time we've had a 2 plot something that uses 6, but doesn't have him as its primary focus. It's just the sort of cleverness you'd expect from an up-and-comer like Nesbitt.
The problem is, I'm not sure that cleverness makes any sense. Nesbitt's 2 is an interim measure; one of the more fascinating elements of "Funeral" is that it gives us a glimpse of the organizational design that lies behind the Village, and in that design, it is apparently possible for a reigning 2 to go on leave, and a series of substitutes to run the place in his absence. Even stranger, the "real" 2, Andre Van Gyseghem, is up for retirement. Nesbitt, with the help of an assistant, has manipulated an elderly watchmaker (Martin Miller) in the Village into building a bomb that will kill the retiring 2, all sanctioned by the proper authorities, of course. Nesbitt has the watchmaker's daughter, Monique (Annette Andre), inform 6 of the plot, and ask for his help in stopping her father, since if the retiring 2 is successfully murdered, the entire Village will suffer reprisals. Nesbitt then records 6's warning and uses that recording to discredit 6 when he tries to talk to Van Gyseghem.
It's all very smart, done with trick editing and the like, but… why get 6 involved in the first place? He ultimately manages to upset Nesbitt's plot, successfully convincing Van Gyseghem to watch his back and preventing the watchmaker from detonating the bomb during the episode's climax. None of these things would've happened if Nesbitt hadn't convinced Monique to seek 6 out. He even drugs her to ensure she'll faint at the proper time, winning 6's sympathies in spite of his suspicions. (6 has clearly learned his lesson by this point. And in both this and "Harmony," McGoohan seems a good deal calmer than he has in previous episodes. Even his sarcasm to Monique has a controlled, deliberate air. Since the order of these episodes is not locked down, it's dangerous to read too much into this, but we are working our way through the downward half of the series. The idea that 6 might have an arc isn't a completely ridiculous one.) I can understand wanting to make sure 6 wouldn't interfere, but there's no reason to think that he would've gotten involved if Nesbitt hadn't dragged him in.
There could be a moral here about the danger of over-thinking, of planning too much, but if that's the case, it doesn't really come across, mainly because Nesbitt never seems to realize his mistake. He knows he's been thwarted, and 6's point how the Village will most likely give him the same treatment when he retires was well put, but there's no real recognition beat where the pieces come together. It plays more like 6 has just foiled yet another evil scheme, even though his foiling largely amounts to being himself and doing what anyone with half a brain would've realized he would do from the start. For all his apparent intelligence, Nesbitt's plans aren't all that cunning or multi-layered, and whether that's intentional or not, they're not very interesting once the secret is finally revealed. An extra twist here would've been nice.
"Funeral" is more worthwhile for the extra pieces of mythology it suggests. There are the "jammers," citizens of the Village who spend their time taking about phony plans and schemes in order to confuse the observers; it's good to find out that 6 isn't the only person dedicated to defeating the bosses, and it's surprising as well, because it indicates a world that, even at this point in the series, we know precious little of. Theoretically, there should be any number of stories going on here, and any number of minor victories and failures, but since we spend our time focusing on 6 (for good reason, really), it's easy to forget those stories, and the possible people inhabiting them. In a similar way, we also get a glimpse behind the plotting of our main villains, and while these plots aren't nearly as surprising (finding out that the baddies have a pension plan that relies entirely on premature death isn't a discovery so much as a confirmation), it works again to create that same sense of a persistent world, one that has wheels within wheels which continue to spin with or without 6's knowledge of them.
Whether this mythology works to the better of the show, though, is open to debate. In general, I'm in favor of deeper, richer back-story, provided it's delivered in a convincing way, and the back-story we get here is deftly handled. But I can't help thinking that, in general, The Prisoner works best when it doesn't work towards conventional goals. Watching "Funeral," I'm actually grateful that the show only ran as long as it did, because an extended run would've seen more episodes like this, and, well-done or not, those episodes would've gradually shifted the focus away from surreal eeriness to a more straight-forward adventure series. Nesbitt gives a terrific performance, and, until we get the last reveal, the insinuations and possibilities of the script are exciting enough, but the most affecting aspect of the episode is, once again, the dilemma it creates for 6. He finds himself both working to protect a sworn enemy, as well as becoming actively engaged in protecting the Village itself—sure, he's saving his fellow citizens (and himself), but he's also admitting that he's a part of what happens there, and that the plots can affect him no matter how much he might insist otherwise. This raises issues that are never really addressed. More episodes would've meant more ancillary characters, more freedom fighters, a slowly widening focus, and that would've been a mistake. Whatever your feelings about a more developed world, this is still a show about one thing, and one thing only. And like its hero, it works best with it stays true to itself.
-Seeing McGoohan in "Harmony" makes me wish he'd done an actual Western. He had a stoicism that would've suited the genre well.
-Damn but the Kid is creepy. I hope we see Alex Kanner again…
-I love how Van Gyseghem is completely convinced he's doomed. It makes sense. He doesn't have 6's constitution for survival, after all.
-Next week, it's "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" and "A Change Of Mind"