Balladeer’s Blog continues its examination of the science fiction/ existential drama The Prisoner. For Part One, in which I examined the themes and concepts at play in the series click HERE
Episode Title: DANCE OF THE DEAD
In the eternally-open debate about the exact order of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner I unashamedly hold with those who place Dance of the Dead as Episode Two. My main reason is the fact that the Prisoner himself and other characters bluntly state he is new to the Village.
Plus this episode features him betraying so much lack of awareness of the Villagekeepers’ Head Games and their placement of cameras everywhere that to me Dance of the Dead only makes sense coming immediately after the first episode, Arrival.
Mary Morris as this episode’s Number Two is one of the most memorable Number Twos in the rotating series of those Village executives. As we all know Trevor Howard was originally slated for this episode but Morris is a more than welcome change.
The title is perfect for anyone with the Prisoner mindset. So-called “mainstream society”, including its bizarre rituals which so many willingly and mindlessly play along with, truly is a Dance of the Dead. Today Facebook and Twitter and social media in general take the whole concept beyond the point of parody.
To me part of the argument for placing Dance of the Dead as Episode Two comes from the way it embodies the television industry problem called Second Episode Blues in which a strong opening episode is often followed by one that is a bit aimless compared to that debut.
Dance of the Dead‘s storyline – fragmented though it may seem – features a nice selection of elements that show up in various combinations in nearly every subsequent Prisoner episode:
“THIS MAN HAS A FUTURE WITH US” – On the literal level it IS true that a talented former Intelligence Agent like Number Six could be an asset to the conspirators behind the Village.
On the allegorical level, the leadership in even the most conformist and oppressive societies stays on the lookout for capable recruits. It’s often the most efficient way of co-opting individuals whose abilities might otherwise lead them to establish rebellions. The Powers That Be can even dangle the carrot of certain privileges not enjoyed by the rest of the population as an added incentive for talented individuals, enticing them to sell out and come over to the side of the ruling class.
“HE’S AN INDIVIDUAL, AND THEY’RE ALWAYS TRYING” – The vague sense of amusement that the Villagekeepers demonstrate toward McGoohan’s fierce individualism changes over the course of the series. Eventually it turns into increased aggravation and finally to outrage and frustration the longer the series goes on. (Another reason I place Dance of the Dead as the second episode since Mary Morris’ Number Two is so blasé and indulgent about Number Six’s resistance.)
“ONLY THROUGH PAIN CAN TOMORROW BE ENSURED” – The contraband radio (as opposed to Citizen’s Band radio – Thank you, I’m here all week!) that the Prisoner gets hold of during the episode would immediately be spotted as a Villagekeeper plant by a later Number Six more accustomed to the bizarre Head Games of the Village.
The enigmatic messages – in multiple languages – conveyed through the programming picked up by the radio seem almost like eerie parodies of Radio Free Europe. While perfectly reasonable for the Cold War era in which The Prisoner was set, 21st Century viewers may find it to be a pointless aspect of the story.
In context it’s perfectly characteristic of the Villagekeepers to be running a mock version of Radio Free Europe. If any Villagers got hold of unplanted radios they would successfully be misled about the Village’s location and might even be set up in “sting” operations if certain messages were broadcast by the phony station.
DUTTON – Another former Intelligence Operative whom the Prisoner knew professionally – Dutton – turns up in the Village. In their usual way the Villagekeepers want to know everything HE knows and are using their vast array of tortures to obtain that information.
As Dutton points out with hopeless resignation, he has already told them everything he knows but they refuse to believe it. The Villagekeepers keep torturing him, ultimately reducing the man to a gibbering idiot. Appropriately, he shows up wearing a Court Jester’s costume at the Carnival celebrations and the Prisoner’s impromptu trial.
THE TRIAL – The ease with which the festive Carnival celebrations are converted to a floating trial for the Prisoner adds to what – arguably – may be considered the overall theme of this odd episode: control. The Villagekeepers exercise absolute control; over the Villagers, over the Village’s bureaucracy, even over seemingly unplanned incidents like McGoohan’s discovery of the sea-tossed corpse and the radio.
Ludicrously, our hero is put on trial for the possession of the radio, when the Villagekeepers have evidence of his guilt for much greater crimes. Even more ludicrous is the way in which Number Two announces that the Villagers will simply be told Number Six has been put to death and – like the sheep they are – will believe it while ignoring the evidence of their own eyes. It’s a nice nod to Montag’s escape in Fahrenheit 451.
The fleeing Prisoner penetrates to an inner office – which Mary Morris says no other Villager has ever reached – where scripts for the bizarre radio programs and messages are generated by a ticker-tape like machine. Though our protagonist seemingly trashes the device and gets a slight feeling of temporary accomplishment even THAT is a deception.
Number Two draws the Prisoner’s attention to the fact that – impossibly – the machine still functions even in its seemingly destroyed condition, which adds to the nightmarish feelings of helplessness engendered by this episode.
And the closing exchange between McGoohan and Mary Morris is one of those moments which every true non-conformist has LIVED at least once or twice in their lifetime. Our hero puts on an air of continued defiance by saying “You’ll never win.” (Though I would have preferred a more straightforward “You’ll never break me.”) Number Two, holding all the cards as the forces of conformity so often do, damn them, replies with a taunting “Then how very uncomfortable for YOU, Old Chap.”
I could have lived without the following stage villain laughter from Morris but that’s a very minor complaint. Dance of the Dead is one of those episodes that separate people who take a mere academic interest in The Prisoner from those oddballs among us who have LIVED it. +++
I’LL EXAMINE ANOTHER EPISODE SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK.
FOR MORE LOOKS AT NEGLECTED TELEVISION FROM THE PAST CLICK HERE
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