Why did you resign? Who is No. 1?

I have posted on The Prisoner before, but the show continues to occupy a prominent place in my pop-cult consciousness, and it keeps coming up in odd places. The opening sequence is tremendous, combining as it does adventure, mystery, and the awful weight of obsessive nightmare, the endless replaying of the “resignation scene.” There he is – cool, angry, totally self-confident – swinging open the doors to the evil sanctum to set himself free, or so he believes.

“Why did you resign?” That one little question distills the essence of the totalitarian program. Just tell us that (and then you will tell us whatever we want to know.) And The Prisoner, now known as No. 6, replies with the obvious rejoinder, “Who is No.1?” He never breaks, and they never give up – the game goes on for about 17 episodes. We never see No. 1, not really, until the end. We never find out why The Prisoner is No. 6 – where are No.s 3, 4, and 5? .  No. 2 runs the village…

I remember when I first heard of this show – I was in elementary school, and a friend who watched a lot more TV at later hours than was permitted me told me of a very “weird show,” in which a “big blob” patrolled an island, and attacked anyone who tried to escape. When I finally saw it, I was hooked for life. This doesn’t necessarily put me in good company. I don’t believe that this show is a piece of deeply complex philosophy – I don’t think it warrants exegesis on a par with what scholars give the works of Dante, and I don’t even think most of the episodes are all that good, but the idea of it, and Patrick McGoohan, are great.

The show is cast in the mold of a standard adventure series, but it has a very large dollop of satire and sly wit thrown in, along with some sci-fi aspects, many of them pretty hokey. The quality of the episodes varies wildly from awful (The General) to absolutely exquisitely developed (A, B, & C). These two, my least and most favorite, have the odd circumstance of using the same actor to play No.2. Usually a different actor takes the role each show, indicative of the displeasure of No. 1 at their inability to break No. 6. The form of the shows varies as well – some are straightforward adventure, but often with a very clever twist (The Chimes of Big Ben), some are more satirical (Free for All, the episode in which No. 6 runs for the office of No. 2: “So, No. 6, will you run?” “Like hell, first chance I get.” Always joking…) , some are like fantasy-fables (The Girl Who Was Death)

My favorite, A, B, & C is the story of an attempt to break No. 6 by drugging him and manipulating his dreams. The three letters refer to three individuals whom No. 2 is convinced may hold the key to why No. 6 resigned. In a series of dreams, which they have the technology to project onto a large screen and into which they can inject themselves, No. 2 and his assistant try to prod No. 6 into giving something away. They fail of course – or is there nothing to give away? Did he just resign because he was sick of his job? Was he really just going on vacation?

In desparation, No. 2 gives a super dose to The Prisoner, and the dream takes on the giddy, crazy aspect of a classic 60’s hallucinatory experience, complete with a posh party a la 007, and corny pop music. It culminates in a confrontation in a dark plaza that is as great a surrealist set piece as anything Bunuel ever did, and the denoument is devilishly clever, as No. 2 watches the dream, and then watches No. 6 walk out of the dream, past him, and back to the village. Then…cut to the endless replay of the doors swinging open in that dark room in London…

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2 Responses to Why did you resign? Who is No. 1?

  1. buggirlx says:

    I was really into the Prisoner when I was in high school, and I figured out everything about it with the help of some reading materials called the Prisoner Puzzling, and now I am sure everything about it has been posted on line. I would stay up to watch it before VCRs even. It was on at 11pm, and often I would fall asleep. The most episode was called the General, but the majority of them were action and fast paced. Interviews with McGoohan also explain what he was trying to do. The show was ground breaking and in many ways.

  2. lichanos says:

    Happy to meet another fan!

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