Veteran actor Patrick McGoohan died today at the age of 80. I will
always remember him for that one brilliant season of his life,
that "Citizen Kane" moment when he created, from sheer talent, drive,
and force of will, the most disturbing and thoughtful TV series
ever: "The Prisoner." The first time the series was broadcast here in
the US, I sat riveted for every episode. In the closing minutes
of the last episode, I had to tear myself away and run to the
bathroom, and so did not get to see the final, shattering revelation
in which we discover the answer to the question that haunts the opening credits
of every episode: "Who is Number 1?" (my mother saw it, but
she refused to tell me -- she just smirked and winked). Many years
later, when the series re-ran, I caught it and this time made sure
not to miss the end of the last episode. Once I realized what I had just
seen, I thought to myself: "Of course. Who else could Number 1 have
In honor of McGoohan?s masterwork, I resurrected an essay I wrote back
in early 2003; it's the first sustained piece I wrote after coming
back to writing after a (30-year) "hiatus" from writing.
NUMBER SIX vs. THE PANOPTICON
Every episode opens with the same fragmented sequence, a sequence saturated
with the disjointed and implicit terror of a familiar nightmare:
‘Where am I?’
‘In The Village.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Who are you?’
‘I am Number Two.’
‘Who is Number One?’
‘You are Number Six.’
‘I am not a number! I am a free man!!’
In the classic television series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan plays a
nameless man who resigns suddenly from a top-level secret job. Before he can
leave the country, he is abducted, waking up in a fantastic village. He is unable
to find out where he is, or who has kidnapped him. All he knows is that they claim
to want ‘information’.
The Village is a complete community -- everything is accounted for. It is the
ultimate welfare state -- the perfect home for those prepared to cede their
individuality and liberty. It is Panopticism taken to its technological extreme.
Everyone is surveilled, videotaped, bugged, betrayed.
In The Village, everyone is known by a number -- the Prisoner, as we have seen,
is designated as Number Six. The Village is run by a large, infallible
infrastructure, under the supervision – but not the control -- of Number Two,
whose task it is to find the answer to one question -- why Number Six resigned.
Or so we are led to believe. The Prisoner's goal is to keep the answer from his
mysterious minders, to find the identity of the menacing and unseen Number
One, and above all to escape.
Or so we are led to believe.
In each episode, Number Six and the Village battle for power. Sometimes one
side wins, and sometimes the other side wins. But no one ever wins for long.
The battle, seemingly endless and epic to those of us who are old enough to
have watched the series every week when it was first on TV, actually only went
on for 17 episodes. There is a continuing controversy about what ‘order’ the
episodes ‘should’ be viewed in (the production sequence is known not to match
the original UK broadcast sequence, for instance), and most viewers were
disoriented by the non-linear and frankly surreal aspects of the series. The
Prisoner was full of bizarre and memorable features – the fairytale Village,
canopied penny-farthing bicycle, piped blazers and striped capes, golf umbrellas
and numbered badges, Mini-Moke taxis and the huge white 'Rover' balloons.
The series makes the viewer work – which, for many of us, is a large part of its
enduring worth. In the ensuing 35 years, there has been nothing on the tube to
compare with it.
Patrick McGoohan created The Prisoner from soup to nuts, as a follow-on to his
immensely popular spy show ‘Danger Man’ (release in the US as ‘Secret Agent’).
To get a sense of what McGoohan gave up in order to devote himself to The
Prisoner, one must imagine if Sean Connery, on top of his game as James Bond
and free to write his own ticket, chose to suddenly start adapting Franz Kafka to
the small screen.
The series asks more questions than it answers. Why is Number Six being held?
Why did he resign? Who is Number Six? Who are his jailers? Who is Number
One? The village is seemingly administered by Number Two, whose identity
changes from episode to episode (often the same Number two reappears in
subsequent episodes without explanation).
Fans have been slammed over the years for paying the same amount of navel-
gazing attention to a TV program as traditional academics would to a
postmodernist tome. Fans have their get-togethers and newsletters and
‘Prisoner-based fiction’ offerings and bitter listserv wars over minutiae of meaning
(think Trekkies, except not as geeky and without the Spock ears). Still, to the
complaint, ‘Catch a grip, it’s only a TV program’, many contemporary thinkers
(Baudrillard comes to mind, for one) would say that this is precisely why it must
be taken seriously.
Television As Text
It is a genuine mystery: how did this television series, which was aptly described
at the time as a ‘puzzling failure’, mutate into something so complex? How did it
take on such a life of its own?
In order to answer this mystery, we must consider the possibility of treating The
Prisoner as a ‘text’.
As arguably the most ‘literary’ of television endeavors, The Prisoner can be –
indeed, must be – confronted and interrogated as a text. Can one over-read a
given text? If so, what does it mean to over-read it? Will we unpack layers of
mean that contain, as Goethe said of one of his own writings, more meaning than
the author himself knew? The Prisoner, taken as a literary artifact, contains
strata of significance that the series’ creator and star, Patrick McGoohan, never
imagined – and never intended. The text literally contains more content than was
written into it.
One of the more fruitful ‘reads’ of The Prisoner is as an exemplar of radical
Panopticism. Our nameless protagonist is drugged and transported to The
Village, where he is confined, disciplined, occasionally interrogated. Yet there is
something strangely tentative about the discipline and control which The Village
attempts to impose on Number Six. It is almost as though the interrogators feel
that Number Six must be somehow complicit – that Number Six is, in some
obscure sense, in control of his own nature as an object of discipline and
Prisons are merely the visible embodiment of a broader, all-encompassing
‘power’, the principles of which are defined in Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and
evolved by Foucault. In The Village, surveillance is both visible and unverifiable.
Number Six never knows at any given moment if he is being watched, but he
may always be under surveillance. This is the principle of Panopticism deployed
in a Village-wide scale.
Other than the unacceptable option of submission to the discipline of The Village,
there is only one course of action available to Number Six: escape. In the very
first episode (‘Arrival’), he stumbles across the Village old people’s home, a clear
signal that he and every other prisoner in The Village is here ‘for the duration’.
The Village is sort of like Guantanamo, only with more sumptuous living spaces.
Number Six attempts his first escape in this very first episode – without success.
He is issued conformist Village wardrobe and forced to wear his ID badge with
just ‘6’ on it. He goes to the Green Dome (the center of The Village as well as
the hub of the Panopticon apparatus) to force a confrontation with his captors,
only to discover that Number Two – who he met upon his arrival -- has been
replaced ( something which recurs in almost every episode, always without
explanation or any indication of surprise on anyone’s part).
Number Six is (understandably) obsessed with the project of escape. At a craft
show in ‘Chimes of Big Ben’, Number Six presents his work called ‘Escape’. It
wins first prize. He seems to escape in ‘Many Happy Returns’, making his way
back to HQ, where he organizes an expedition to find the elusive Village. He
spots it from the air, but the pilot is revealed to be a minion of The Village.
Number Six is ejected, and drifts on his parachute, slowly back down to The
Village. Our protagonist isn’t going anywhere, it would seem.
A second major subtext of The Prisoner (which synchronizes on several levels
with the subtext of escape) is the idea of Number Six as Other. Number Six is
excluded from the discourse of the Village. Why? Is he mad? Criminal? A sexual
deviant? Perhaps all of the above, and more. Number Six clearly and
persistently poses a threat, and that threat is ‘not so much the crime committed
(at least in isolation) but the potentiality of danger that lies hidden in an individual
and which is manifested in his observed everyday conduct. The prison functions
in this as an apparatus of knowledge.’ Like the rebellious chess Rook in
‘Checkmate’, Number Six exhibits the ‘cult of the individual’, which simply cannot
be allowed to stand in The Village. Yet, the warders will not – or can not – let him
leave. From the point of view of The Village, Number Six is considered as a
‘rebel’, ‘reactionary’, and ‘Unmutual’ (the most heinous crime of all). ‘The
suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the
object of suspicion and be completely innocent.’
The most striking characteristic of Number Six’s ordeal is that it seems primarily
intended to simply regulate his body. They don’t particularly want him to believe
anything; they simply want to contain his body. Their claims that ‘we want
information’ ring hollow; they really don’t make any credible efforts to obtain any
information. There are the occasional odd interludes of torture, but one senses
that the interrogator’s heart really isn’t in it. Number Six breaks up the regime of
normalcy. Repeatedly, and with bitter gusto. Why don’t they kill him? Or at least,
put his body under some more draconian form of control?
His position in the Village is perhaps not quite what it seems. We are given a
premonition of this in ‘Checkmate’ when the eccentric Village inhabitant applies
his empathic ‘sixth sense’ on Number Six, claiming that he can tell prisoners from
warders because warders display a secret arrogance. The eccentric denounces
Number Six as one of the warders. Is the eccentric simply mad, or is his insight
based, on some level, in fact?
Foucault would argue that there are no bare facts, simply power relations. The
dominant power structure gets to define the facts. In effect, ‘to the victor go the
spoils.’ Knowledge is controlled in The Village through mechanisms of power.
Everywhere you find knowledge, there you will also find power. Though
imprisoned, Number Six is powerful and in control because he has the
knowledge – ostensibly the knowledge of why he resigned.
The village is a prison, but it is also something from which Number Six is
voluntarily excluded: a discourse, which enables behaviors that Number Six is
unable or unwilling to perform. One realizes that he suspects, correctly, that to
do so would invalidate his power.
Number Six realizes what none of the other inhabitants of The Village realize:
that surveillance is a two way street. This is explored throughout the series by
means of the constant salutation ‘Be Seeing You’, which courtesy prescribes as
the thing to say when taking one’s leave of another prisoner. Form the thumb
and forefinger into a circle; look through the tube thus created (the lens of a
camera, perhaps?), and toss off one’s hand in a salute while chirping ‘Be Seeing
You’ with manufactured congeniality.
Number Six throws it back at them, bitterly, angrily, from between pinched lips.
When he performs the gesture and spits out the words, he turns ‘Be Seeing You’
into a threat. You may be watching me, he seems to say --- but I’m watching
you, as well. And biding my time.
I Am Number Two
Number Two gives every appearance of being the administrator of the Panoptic
apparatus, as well as the on-site delegate for the elusive Number One. Yet
Number Two’s primary function is that of an observer, and the constant,
obsessive object of his observation is Number Six. Number Two is really a
function rather than a person, changing in every episode (and once during an
The power structure of The Village, personified by Number Two, seems geared
towards forcing Number Six to ‘make his honorable amends’. Yet there is
something almost tentative in the ongoing interrogation. One senses that Number
Two is, on one level, not particularly interested in results. Number Two is, in
computer terms, ‘interrupt-driven’; he awaits detailed work direction from Number
One, who is unseen but instantly aware of every twist and turn in the
interrogative project. Number Two is a classic example of ‘supervisors,
perpetually supervised’. Underneath his veneer as interrogator and master,
Number Two is fundamentally a researcher. ‘The investigation, the exercise of
common reason, lays aside the old inquisitorial model and adopts the much more
subtle model (doubly validated by science and common sense) of empirical
It is important to keep in mind that The Village, like the Panopticon, ‘was also a
laboratory; it could be used as a machine to carry out experiments, to alter
behavior, to train or correct individuals. To experiment with medicines and
monitor their effects. To try out different punishments on prisoners, according to
their crimes and characters, and to seek the most effective ones.’
Regardless of the actual content and practice of the various ‘science
experiments’ inflicted by the various Number Twos on Number Six, we begin to
notice that, as the series ‘evolves’, Number Six seems almost in cahoots with
Number Two. Number Six seems to be somehow complicit in his own
This possible complicity becomes more and more obvious, once one knows to be
on the look-out for it. The episode ‘Living in Harmony’ deploys a key element,
one carefully hidden in most of the other episodes but present as a subtext. The
episode opens with a Western parody of the normal pre-titles resignation scene.
Riding out of town, the ex-sheriff is dragged by a mob into a town called
‘Harmony’. He tries several escape attempts, but he cannot get away. The town
judge wants him to be the new Sheriff – but the man refuses. This theme
resonates through the series – the powers that be in the Village want Number Six
to do something, something involving stepping up to some responsibility. Number
Six refuses, avoids. His efforts to do so become more heroic, more frantic.
Things continue to slip into … what? Dementia? Dadaism? Some sort of neo-
Freudian thing? In ‘Once Upon a Time’ we see Foucault’s proposition that the
prison structure can be deployed in all aspects of modernity when we see
Number Two morph into Number Six’s father, then his teacher, coach, employer,
judge, officer, and prison guard. Number Six plays the parts of the son, student,
athlete, employee, accused, soldier, and prisoner. After this mythic rewind/replay
of power relationships, Number Two drops dead at Number Six’s feet. ‘The rule
was that if the accused ‘held out’ and did not confess, the magistrate was forced
to drop the charges. The tortured man had then won.’
A door slides open and a Supervisor enters the room.
‘What do you desire?’
‘I’ll take you.’
As ‘Fall Out’, the final episode of the series, begins, Number Six has won.
You Are Number Six
The final episode of The Prisoner is difficult to describe, even more difficult to
unpack. But we need to do it, because the final episode, more than all that has
come before, validates our Foucauldian read of this text.
As ‘Fall Out’ begins, we are in a sort of surreal courtroom. There is a judge, who
gives a long speech to the effect that all the inhabitants of The Village are
‘gathered together in a state of democratic crisis’ and that ‘Number Six has
survived the ultimate test and will therefore no longer be called by a number.’
This speech is followed by an interlude of strange Absurdist theatre that puts one
in mind of Number Two’s advice in ‘Dance of the Dead’: ‘if you insist on living in
a dream, you may be taken for mad.’ Indeed.
Number Six is given traveler’s checks, his passport, and the keys to his London
flat. He attempts to address the throng in the courtroom, but he is drowned out by
their inane chanting of ‘I, I, I’ (or could it perhaps be ‘Eye, Eye, Eye’?).
Things happen quickly now.
Number Six climbs a circular metal staircase and at the top finds himself in a
room full of globes, presided over by a masked and hooded figure wearing the
Number Six rushes over to him and rips off his mask.
Under the mask, Number One wears another mask, a monkey mask. (‘I’ve made
a monkey out of you’, perhaps?)
Furious, Number Six rips off the monkey mask, and is confronted with his own
face. His own laughing face.
So it is not until the last seconds of the last episode that we encounter the true
nature of the regimen imposed on Number Six. It is only then that we discover, to
our shock (but not really to our surprise) precisely how ‘all-seeing’ The Village’s
Panopticon really is.
We are now in a position to deploy an alternative – and more productive – read
of the dialog in that dreamlike opening sequence. To the question ‘Who is
Number One?’ the response
‘You are Number Six’
‘You are, Number Six.’
The prisoner and the jailer are one and the same. This bitter vision of our entire
internal landscape as ‘The Village’ is what we arrive at after all of our
protagonist’s struggles and heroics. As the Village saying goes, ‘Questions are a
burden to others. Answers, a prison for oneself.’ Finding the answer to his
screamed question, ‘Who is Number One???’ reveals a prison inescapable.
In a construct where every person is constantly and completely surveilled,
Number Six’s parting words – ‘Be seeing you!’ – can be fully understood as both
a promise of revenge and a cry of despair.
The Prisoner is ‘an account of individuality, the passage from the epic to the
novel, from the noble deed to the secret singularity, from long exiles to the
internal search, from childhood, from combats, to phantasies.’
The last episode ends in a phantasy, a dream sequence. The Prisoner’s little life
is rounded by a sleep.
So, at the end of it, does Number Six imprison himself? Do we all?
Appendix: Episode Guide With Original Air Dates
1. Arrival (10/1/1967)
2. The Chimes Of Big Ben (10/8/1967)
3. A B And C (10/15/1967)
4. Free For All (10/22/1967)
5. The Schizoid Man (10/29/1967)
6. The General (11/5/1967)
7. Many Happy Returns (11/12/1967)
8. Dance Of The Dead (11/26/1967)
9. Checkmate (12/3/1967)
10. Hammer Into Anvil (12/10/1967)
11. It's Your Funeral (12/17/1967)
12. A Change Of Mind (12/31/1967)
13. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (1/7/1968)
14. Living In Harmony (1/14/1968)
15. The Girl Who Was Death (1/21/1968)
16. Once Upon A Time (1/28/1968)
17. Fall Out (2/4/1968)