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The Prisoner: "The Chimes of Big Ben" / "Free For All"

Illustration for article titled iThe Prisoner/i: The Chimes of Big Ben / Free For All
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"The Chimes of Big Ben"

If I was trying to get someone hooked on The Prisoner, "The Chimes of Big Ben" is the episode I would show them first. It's not the most innovative, and I don't think it's the best, but it is excellent; and even more so than "The Arrival," it works as sort of a perfect model for the series' premise. Other episodes will be bolder or stranger or more self-referential, but "Big Ben" gives us the zero point from which therest spring, something that stays true to its television roots while maintaining a high standard of thematic depth and eerily obscure dialog.


Plus, it's wildly entertaining; few episodes of the show can match it for simple pleasures, and a lion's share of that enjoyment comes from the presence of Leo McKern as the new Number 2. McKern brings a gregarious, Falstaffian glee to the role, by turns friendly, laughing, and furious. Of the 2's we've seen so far (and, arguably, of the whole run of them), McKern is the only one to really capture the balance between apparently genuine friendliness and boiling outrage. Early in the episode, he invites 6 back to his house for breakfast, and while the conversation begins pleasantly, 6's refusal to bend on any point gets under 2's skin; he snaps over something as simple as the number of sugars in a cup of tea.

In general, the 2's are chummy and difficult to ruffle. That's how they get the job; part of the process of breaking down 6's will is to show him a face of consistent, unflappable opposition. The problem with that is it doesn't exploit one of the Village's strongest weapons—camaraderie. The plots against 6 are aggressive, comprehensive, and clever, but many of them lack a personal element, making it easier to resist; deep as the layers go, it's still clear who he's fighting against. McKern offers something new. He's charming, and there isn't much in the way of artifice to his charm. Here we have someone who really believes what the Village is selling, not just because he has to or because he wants power, but because he thinks it's the best way for the world. That makes him harder to dismiss. Marry Morris might bend you to her will, but it's hard to see siding with her by choice. McKern is hard to resist because he doesn't hide his enthusiasm or his fury. He's one of the Village's rare honest men, even if he does spend much of this episode lying through his teeth.

"Chimes" has a sharp script, written by Vincent Tilsley (who also wrote "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling"). Again, this isn't a particularly allegorical episode, and I'm not arguing that its lack of allegory makes it better; what makes The Prisoner such a terrific show is that it can have something like this, alongside outright oddities like the upcoming "Free For All," and neither seem out of place. The plot 6 is sucked into—he befriends a newcomer to the Village, and with her, attempts an escape—wouldn't seem completely out of place on a really good Mission: Impossible, but it has enough odd edges and layers to make it distinct. It's impressively massive, as well, relying on resources that change the nature of 6's captivity significantly.

Last week's "Checkmate" had 6 trying to tell the difference between the true believers and the not-yet-converted, only to learn that both were dangerous; "Chimes" reinforces just how dangerous it is to accept anyone on face value. The temptation this time around is the new number 8, an Estonian named Nadia who gets brought to the Village with a "nervous condition" and installed in the house next door to 6. She tries swimming to freedom, and Rover (with two little Rovers!) bring her back to land. At the hospital, she's put through a test that probably had the Jigsaw Killer from Saw taking furious notes: a room where the only path to the door is electrified by intervals. If she truly wants to live, 2 claims she has plenty of time to escape, but instead Nadia tries to kill herself through the charge. In doing so, she earns 6's sympathies. The damsel in distress trick nearly always works, and while 6 never seems completely overcome by Nadia's charms (again, we have McGoohan's resistance to traditional romantic tropes; Nadia flirts a little with him near the end, but he endures it rather than reciprocating), her apparently vulnerability is enough to get him to lower his guard.

There's also the information she offers—she claims she was sent to the Village because she knows its location. That's all 6 needs, really, to start taking steps. Other 2s try to break 6 by convincing him of the futility of fighting back, but here, we're working with a long con; McKern's approach (in tandem with Nadia) is practical, and it comes surprisingly close to succeeding. That's partly because it's such a direct trick (strange using "direct" in this context, but it's comparatively appropriate), and partly because it lets 6 do so much of the work. Once Nadia tells him what he needs to know, he's the one that conceives of the escape method, he works out how to get a message to his superiors, and then he (along with Nadia) is the one who spends days cooped up inside a box, presumably being shipped to safety. So when the box is opened and he finds himself standing in what looks like the home office, there's a certain momentum established that makes the lie more convincing.

Having his old bosses there to greet him doesn't hurt, either. We finally have confirmation of what the opening titles suggested; that whoever 6 used to work for is somehow complicit in what's happening at the Village. That makes the situation a good deal murkier. "Chimes" adds some pieces to the puzzle: that complicity, and McKern, who we'll be seeing again. Of all the things we learn, it's 6's near confession about his reason for resignation that seems the most important. McKern explains early on that he believes 6 is so determinedly himself that 6 only needs to crack a little and he'll give in completely. And that crack is the question of why he quit. "It was a matter of conscience," 6 says, and then later on, "I resigned, because for a very long time, this…" That's as far as he gets.

But it's almost enough. We'll never know the specifics, but it's a story we've heard before. He worked for the government, and he started having his doubts; given the nature of the series, and of the Village, I'm willing to bet those doubts were about whether or not the work he was doing was really worth doing, and whether or not the "side" he stood for was really much of a side at all. McKern and Nadia's plan fails in the end because they forget to account for time zones—the titular chimes of Big Ben sound on Lithuanian time—and while it seems an obvious mistake, why wouldn't they make it? To them, the whole world is just one place. There are no borders, no boundaries. It's all the Village, as McKern tells 6. And that's why 6 is, to their minds, outmoded, dangerous, and in need of adjustment. Because for him, an hour's difference is just as important as who's fighting whom.

"Free For All"
Number 2: "You going to run?"


Number 6: "Like blazes, the first chance I get."

So far, I'm digging the KTEH episode order. I'm not that concerned about getting anything close to perfect, really; it's impossible, and since the episodes are generally standalone, a missed shading here or there won't hurt anything. Still, I like having "Chimes" come a bit later on, as it doesn't really fit as the second episode. It relies too much on 6 feeling at least somewhat comfortable in his surroundings—any later in the run wouldn't work either, because in "Chimes," 6 is still operating under the assumption that simply getting away from the Village is all he needs to do to escape it. Fourth in the series works quite nicely, and I agree with the placement of "Dance of the Dead" as well. But I'm wondering if "Free For All" might not have worked better third. 6's speech about separating the prisoners from the guards fits better coming before "Checkmate," and we had some mentions of democratic elections in the first episode. Plus, there was the first appearance of the town hall in "Dance."


That's just splitting hairs, though. If "Chimes" is the purest expression of The Prisoner as a series, then "Free" is one of the many riffs the show would make on that expression, taking the basic concept and then stretching it like a fun-house mirror (or riffing on it like great jazz music). 6 has no plots or plans in the episode, and there's no clever trick here to fool him into giving himself up. In fact, it's sometimes hard to determine exactly what this week's number 2, Eric Portman, is up to. Probably the best way to see it is as an extended demonstration on the nature of control in the Village. We already know how its going to come out in the end, and it knows we know, and that's what makes it so powerful.

On the surface, "Free" looks like a swipe at the political process. 2 ropes 6 into participating in the election of the next 2. There are empty speeches, cheering crowds, and a reporter that has the interview written even before he starts asking questions. The existing town council is a silent, staring group of "tailor's dummies," and the whole notion of representation in the Village is absurd. Here, the will of electorate is by determined by those already in power. 2 tantalizes 6 with the idea that he'll get to meet Number 1 if he wins office, but it's doubtful 6 believes him. It's all a puppet show, designed to distract the masses and give them an illusion of participation.


It's not a bad jab at fradulent democracy, but there's something else going on as well. Whether or not 6 willingly goes along with 2's demands doesn't matter; when he resists, he's put through the wringer at Labour Exchange and brainwashed into more agreeable behavior. 6 is essentially passive through nearly all of "Free"; one ill-advised escape attempt aside, he's led by the hand to the end. That could be part of the satire; candidates are supposed to be the driving forces behind their campaigns even though, often as not, they're just as much a pawn as the next. The fact that 6 ultimately learns how futile the concept of power in the Village is also fits as commentary—it's not hard to imagine an official coming to work the first day of his first term and being horror-struck at how extraneous to the process he truly is.

But what I find intriguing here is the way "Free" works as a commentary on the concept of the show itself. If you'll pardon the digression; for the longest time, I couldn't stand Wile E. Coyote cartoons. They always depressed the hell out of me. Instead of seeing a witty hero outsmarting a fool, we were forced to watch a fool humiliated time and again in quest of something that he couldn't ever hope to achieve; something which he probably wouldn't know what to do with even if he did achieve it. There's something absurdly bleak about that, and I could never understand why I was supposed to be laughing. He's a coyote, for crying out loud, he's supposed to want to eat meat. Would anyone really have mourned if the Road Runner wound up in a pot?


There's something of Wile E. Coyote in 6's pursuit of freedom. 6 is smarter, of course, and the Village is much less sympathetic than the Road Runner, but in the early episodes of the series, there's that same feeling of repetitive despair. 6 has to try and escape, because it's in his nature to do so, just as Wile E. had to try and catch that goddamn bird. But 6 can't escapes, because as soon as he does, there goes the show. McGoohan and the writers on the series are smart enough to be aware of this, and in that light, "Free" operates as a response to the impossibility of success. 6's idea of shutting down the system and inciting the rest of the villagers to riot is so clearly doomed from the start that it hardly seems worth mentioning. There's no surprise when it fails, just as there's no surprise when the parachute doesn't open, or the rocket doesn't launch properly, or the slingshot smashes into a wall; the methods may differ, but the end result is the same.

Even the dialog in "Free" makes references to its structure. Unlike his chats with McKern, when 6 talks with Portman, both men dodge direct statements, like a darker version of the question game from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. If a typical conversation rests on the exchange of information, conversations in the Village are about control; because information is power, and the trick here is to hold onto as much as you can without letting your end drop. If you listen carefully, nearly everything 6 says is a witticism that doubles as a veiled threat, but that's all it is. He refuses to respond to even the simplest questions, because all he has left is the ability to refuse them.


And then there's "According to Hoyle," a repeated rejoinder from 6 that refers to the proper rules in a card game. All of this, the political shenanigans, the brainwashing tricks at Labour Exchange, the final reveal of the identity of 6's charming foreign maid, it's all part of a game; and like any game, the consequences always stay on the board. 6 may try and beat them, and he may hold out a little longer in the end, but the point of "Free For All" is that any dream of escape is futile.

Everything's rigged, and even the few moments where 6 seems to peak behind the curtain—like when he finds Number 2 drowning his sorrows in private—are an act. When the maid turns out to be the next number 2, the true transference of power becomes clear. There is no transference. And in the end, that's the only rule that matters.


Stray Observations:

  • The art exhibition in "Chimes" is great, from the way all the entries but 6's have McKern's image, to 6's bullshitting explanation of his "sculpture." And I always love the line, "It means what it is." It's a glib but concise defense of the show's stranger moments.
  • "Free For All" is really wonderfully surreal; I love the silhouettes that chart 6's mental progress, and the randomness of 6's breakdowns.
  • In case you missed it, here's my essay on McGoohan from when he passed away in January. I talk about "Chimes" a bit in the end.
  • Next week, "Many Happy Returns" and "The Schizoid Man."

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