The Prisoner
By John Beeler
Thursday, January 15th, 2009

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(This contains minor spoilers of the TV show The Prisoner)
[AMC is currently streaming the entire series, for free, here - Ed]

Patrick McGoohan died yesterday, and that is sad news.

He was the creator and actor of The Prisoner, a 60s surreal sci-fi show in which a spy is taken to an island called The Village and held against his will there.

I don’t know how I originally heard about The Prisoner but it was a little before A&E started re-releasing the show on DVD in the late 90s. When they did, at a rate of about a volume at a time (there were five total containing 17 episodes), my parents gave me a volume a Christmas for several years. It became a tradition to finish unwrapping presents, eat brunch, and then all of us  plop on the couch and breeze through a DVD or two of the show. I, of course, loved it.

Wired has suggested that the series laid the groundwork for modern shows like Twin Peaks, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and even The Simpsons. That’s true technically. The serial nature of The Prisoner, with its intricate story arc and its somber tone, definitely made something like Lost possible.

But another modern show that connects to The Prisoner on a more fundamental level, and I would argue a more important one, is The Wire.

prisonerlargeIn the The Prisoner , Number Six, McGoohan’s character, never escapes The Village. Despite Six’s aggressive pursuit of an answer, he never discovers who is behind it all, be it another country or an agency or even his own country or agency. We know that Number Six is a spy, and that he quits whatever agency he is employed by for some unknown but noble purpose. But beyond that, McGoohan as actor or creator reveals very little to the audience. The final episode is surreal, allegorical, and ambigious. We never even learn Number Six’s real name. The general argument woven throughout the series is that countries and agencies are small players in what is a global system of control and manipulation, a system so large it is impossible to combat. And people are mere numbers.

For The Prisoner, McGoohan took an icon of the sixties, The Spy, and made him even more perfect: hansome, witty, intelligent, athletic, resourceful, and principled. If anyone should win, it should be him. But even all that wasn’t enough. In the end, the character is in the same place as he is in the introduction to the show, replayed as a sequence at the beginning of each episode as if to remind us every time. We know as much about The Village at the end of the series as we do at the beginning. The Spy, whose goal is to obtain information, is unable to do anything of the sort. Against the system that is The Village, he is utterly useless.

18048The Wire, too, depicts The System in all its less allegorical and more urban facets; drugs, bureaucracy , government, education, employment. David Simon, creator of The Wire, employs a similar icon (albeit slightly more tarnished than McGoohan’s Spy): The Police Detective, known to us as McNulty. Though the range of “protagonists” is much wider than Prisoner’s Number Six, none are likewise capable of really changing the system, and any influence is muted at best.

In this respect, both shows connect to a broader well: Kafka, as a more recent incarnation, and then Greek tragedy, wherein humans are buffeted about by the whims of gods. But The Wire and The Prisoner break from this tradition and for that reason are distinctly modern. The creators of both shows go to great lengths to demonstrate that the protagonists not only succumbed to The System, they are The System. “Number Six” is not just a designation, it is an operational assignment. McNulty tries to wrestle with bureaucracy in The Wire and not only fails, but only exponentializes the  amount of bureaucracy. The message from both shows is this: despite what we may think, or how strong we may be, or whether we are aware of it at all, we are all perpetrators of a System that dehumanizes and degrades and disregards.

It’s unfortunate, if we’re to read our TV right, that apparently little has changed from the sixties. Maybe there’s more to the budget now, or it all looks a little shinier (or more realistically dirtier). Maybe we think we know more than we did then, or presume that we are making more of a difference. But really, in the end, if we’re to believe our fiction, The Village is Baltimore is Your City, and we are all just along for the ride.

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