Balladeer’s Blog continues its examination of the 1967 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: LIVING IN HARMONY … In the ongoing debate about the exact numbering of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner I place this as the 6th episode.
In this installment the Prisoner (Patrick McGoohan) finds himself living a western version of his current plight. After resigning as a Sheriff and turning in his badge he is captured and knocked out by unknown parties.
When he comes to he discovers he is trapped in a Wild West town called Harmony … And his captors are obsessed with finding out why he resigned as Sheriff.
First-time viewers of this episode are as disoriented as McGoohan’s character. The program starts with this “western” revision of the usual opening sequence in which he is shown resigning from British Intelligence and getting abducted to the prison city called the Village.
It’s easy to underestimate the commitment shown by creative director McGoohan in insisting on this alternate version of the opening credits sequence. I’ll bet NO American television executives of the time would have okayed reshooting the entire opening for just one episode.
“That’d cost too much! Plus the audience will be confused and won’t understand what’s going on!” That would no doubt have been the reaction back then. It’s all just another of the many ways that The Prisoner was ahead of its time. Sometimes it pays to have faith in the intelligence of your audience.
Unable to escape Harmony, the disoriented Prisoner begins trying to feel out his odd yet familiar plight. A town official called the Judge (David Bauer) tries but fails to get our protagonist to answer why he “turned in his badge.”
The Judge also fails to convince McGoohan to become Harmony’s new Sheriff. Our hero further frustrates the Judge by refusing to give any hints about why he dislikes the thought of once again pinning on a badge as a lawman.
The Judge is the corrupt Town Boss and is used to having his way. Everybody else in town “knows their place in the scheme of things” and the Prisoner is causing resentment in the towns-people by making waves. Ever the non-conformist, our hero displays predictable resistance to “living in harmony.” (Yes, I’m a whore for titles with multiple meanings.)
Eventually McGoohan’s individualist ways land him in jail, where he is guarded by some of the town’s corrupt deputies, among them the Kid (Alexis Kanner). A woman named Cathy (Valerie French) takes a liking to our hero. Her late brother similarly defied Harmony’s Powers That Be and was railroaded then hanged because of it.
The Kid has the hots for Cathy and she takes advantage of his infatuation to get him drunk, then frees McGoohan. Unfortunately he is soon recaptured and brought back into town.
Cathy is put on trial for helping our main character escape. The Judge finds her guilty and has her thrown in jail. McGoohan pleads for her release and the Judge offers to free her if our hero will become Harmony’s new Sheriff after all.
Once again the Prisoner refuses but the Judge makes it clear that if he doesn’t agree to become Sheriff then the jailed Cathy will be at the mercy of the now-angry, still-horny gunslinger the Kid. Our protagonist agrees to wear the badge but refuses to wear a gun, having had enough killing in his past life.
Various sinister residents of Harmony try to get the better of their weaponless Sheriff in the days ahead but the Prisoner manages to outfight and subdue them without killing them. Cathy grows fonder of our hero and the Kid grows even more jealous of McGoohan and more possessive toward Cathy.
At one point the Kid even shoots down a Harmony resident for trying to flirt with Cathy. Next the thug tries to rape the young lady in a very creepy scene and when she resists he kills her.
Since the Kid has shown he can’t be reasoned with AND is very willing to kill, our protagonist has no alternative but to strap on a gun in order to take on the villain. The Prisoner shoots the Kid to death in the resulting gunfight.
Next, the Prisoner makes it clear to the Judge and his other gunmen that he’d rather die than go on “living in Harmony” and gets shot down in a blaze of glory after blowing away most of his opponents.
That “death” causes our hero to snap out of the Wild West illusion, Matrix-style. It turns out that Harmony never existed and was a deception mounted by the Villagekeepers through drugs, visual aids and electronic stimuli.
The Judge was really this episode’s Number Two, the rotating series of executives in charge of the Village. The Kid was Number Eight, one of the Villagekeepers’ agents, as was Cathy, Number Twenty-Two. The entire tableau was orchestrated to try to trick the Prisoner into revealing why he resigned and to see if he really would push his resistance to them all the way to the point of dying.
Now events begin to parallel the scenario just enacted in “Harmony.” Number Twenty-Two is clearly impressed with our hero’s fortitude and feels guilty over her role in the deception. Number Eight, who is infatuated with her, resents this and is jealous of McGoohan. He kills the woman, fails to kill our main character, then kills himself.
The Prisoner, looking more haunted than ever by all that’s occurred, leaves the room in disgust, bringing the episode to a close.
COMMENT: I always commit the blasphemy of rejecting the widely-pushed view that this episode was supposedly a commentary on the Vietnam War. That whole myth (as I view it) got started decades ago when Living in Harmony was the only episode of The Prisoner NOT shown in the U.S. during its original American run in 1968.
CBS justified not showing it for various reasons, like its depiction of drug use and its violence and its “tone.” Fans of the show subsequently began pushing the notion that it was REALLY because Number Six’s initial refusal to use a gun was supposed to symbolize people who did not want to fight in the Vietnam War.
That theory gave Living in Harmony a lot of mystique as the decades rolled along and I had always assumed it was true … until I actually SAW the episode. I would have no problem with an anti-Vietnam War theme but I can honestly say I just don’t see it in the episode’s actual content.
For starters the Prisoner’s refusal to use a gun is not made nearly as big a deal in the story as the Vietnam War theorists make it sound. If anything it may have just been fan service, since Patrick McGoohan’s spy character John Drake on Danger Man and Secret Agent always disdained the use of a gun. And that was as far back as 1962.
And for another thing the character’s final decision to strap on a gun is motivated by common sense given the Kid’s nature and not that much is made of McGoohan recognizing the necessity of being armed for their confrontation. Very few lines of dialogue even address the “to wear a gun or not to wear a gun” issue.
Much more emphasis is placed on the Prisoner’s refusal to say why he turned in his badge in the first place or to at least provide a hint or two by elaborating on why he doesn’t want to return to being a Sheriff despite his fitness for the job. In other words it’s more about the “Why did the Prisoner resign from the Intelligence Service” theme. The theme central to the show’s premise.
As for why this episode was not aired in the U.S. in 1968, I’ve long maintained that it was REALLY because of the creepy intensity of the attempted rape leading to murder scene. Alexis Kanner’s performance is genuinely disturbing.
These days we’re used to much more graphic content on television but if you try looking at this episode through 1968 eyes I think you may agree with me that THAT scene is why this episode was yanked. Not some forced parallel to the Vietnam War.
At any rate this installment is a nice change of pace and is a very entertaining allegory about non-conformity and reluctance to submit to other people’s ideas of Living in Harmony. +++
I’LL EXAMINE ANOTHER EPISODE SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK.
FOR MORE LOOKS AT NEGLECTED TELEVISION FROM THE PAST CLICK HERE
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