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: MANY HAPPY RETURNS … In the ongoing debate about the exact numbering of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner I place this as the 7th episode.
This is the most relentlessly downbeat installment of The Prisoner saga.
The Story: The Prisoner wakes up on his own, rather than being awakened by the usual syrupy-sweet broadcast of the Village’s “good morning” message. That is odd, but what is odder is the way that there is no running water as our protagonist discovers when he tries to take his morning shower.
Number Six gets dressed and ventures outside but finds the entire prison-city deserted. The automatic doors don’t work either, because all the power is out, but the doors can be pushed open since they are not locking like they usually do.
Our hero has access to all of the food and bottled water of the Village’s stores so he is in no immediate danger. In a well-rendered moment of irony this most anti-social of characters actually seems to wistfully miss a little human contact after awhile.
Ultimately the Prisoner is convinced that this is not just some short-term head-game on the part of the Villagekeepers and he assembles a raft. Next he loads it up with supplies, gets a camera from one of the stores and takes several photos of the Village so that he’ll have proof of its existence.
When he is all set to shove off and head for the high seas he hears movement behind him, the first hint of other life in the Village in quite awhile. Slowly, with dread, the Prisoner turns around, expecting to see the Villagekeepers springing one of their “gotcha” endings to another bizarre head-game.
Instead it is merely a black cat exploring the abandoned prison-city. Relieved, McGoohan climbs aboard his makeshift vessel and sails off.
Initially the Prisoner is very orderly, carefully keeping a log and shaving every day. After who knows how many days at sea his morale begins to flag. He stops shaving and stops adding daily entries to his log.
One time while he is sleeping his wayward craft comes across a ship crewed by smugglers and gunrunners. The men steal all the food and water from the vessel and then toss McGoohan into the sea to die.
This brings back all of our hero’s survival instincts. He manages to get back aboard the illicit ship and temporarily commandeers the craft, setting course for England. The smugglers eventually free themselves from captivity and retake control of their ship, prompting the Prisoner to dive overboard now that land is within sight.
The criminals flee while Number Six swims to shore. He is weary but wary, not sure who he can trust since – as we know from The Chimes of Big Ben – even some of his former superiors in British Intelligence are in on the Villagekeepers’ conspiracy.
This plays well (but depressingly so) visually, since our hero’s journey across his home country is directorially framed more like a POW on the run in a foreign land. Walls, fences, barred windows and other sights that we all encounter every day take on sinister airs as the Prisoner makes his cautious way toward London.
Mentally and physically exhausted our protagonist numbly shows up at his former home. He finds it occupied by an older (but not elderly) woman named Mrs Butterworth who says she bought it recently. The sports car that the Prisoner custom-built himself was thrown in with the house, adding even more of a sense of violation.
Mrs Butterworth takes pity on Number Six, who gives the false name Peter Smith. She feeds him, lets him shower and when it comes up in conversation the next day that it is his birthday she promises to bake him a cake. Regular viewers know that women who help our main character often come to a bad end.
Refreshed, the Prisoner contacts different intelligence agency figures from the ones in The Chimes of Big Ben. He relates his ordeal, but naturally has no proof since the photos were lost in the encounter with the smugglers.
After weathering initial suspicions that he may have become a Double Agent for the Soviets after his disappearance, our main character gets some cooperation. Working with maps and other info, the Prisoner and his two former superiors work out a possible location for the Village on an island southwest of Morocco and the Canary Islands. Number Six insists on riding along with the pilot sent out to do an aerial search for the Village.
Some fans complain about the attempt to find the Village being limited to just about three or four people but I have no problem with that in-story. After what happened in The Chimes of Big Ben the Prisoner’s sincere allies this time around can’t know who they can trust so it makes sense to keep their plans to themselves.
One of the Villagekeepers’ external agents, posing as a Milk Man in a “Pinta Man is Strong” truck, covertly replaces the real pilot who was supposed to conduct the aerial search.
After hours in the air McGoohan spots the island on which the Village is located. He tries to draw the pilot’s attention to it. At first the replacement pilot pretends not to see it and then simply makes with the Village gesture and slogan “Be seeing you” and ejects the Prisoner’s seat from the plane.
Our hero recovers, pulls the ripcord on his parachute and can do nothing but helplessly float back down to the hated Village below. To his surprise, it still seems completely deserted.
Number Six resignedly returns to his old residence in the prison-city and is greeted by a smiling Mrs Butterworth. She is wearing insignia which mark her as one of the Village’s “Number Twos,” the rotating series of executives who manage the place. The black cat from earlier is with her.
In the most sadistic ending to any episode of The Prisoner “Mrs Butterworth” shows our hero that she did indeed bake him a birthday cake. With cruel double-meaning this Number Two cheerfully wishes the Prisoner “Many happy returns.”
The previously hidden Villagekeepers and Villagers now emerge from concealment and begin a mockingly festive birthday celebration for the returnee.
COMMENT: Some people I know have given up watching this show after the nasty, downbeat ending of this episode. Rest assured that more hopeful episodes will be coming up soon and eventually we’ll get to the still-controversial two-part finale. So hang in there.
From a storytelling angle the clear message that the Villagekeepers are sending to the Prisoner is this: Even if you DO leave the Village it doesn’t matter. Too many people in the outside world are in league with us. We will always find you and always bring you back. There is no escape.
Even in this darkest of episodes long-time fans will recognize the implied double-edge to that sword: if there is no escape then the only way out is to bring down the entire worldwide conspiracy planning to impose a Global “Village.” The fallout (as it were) of free-thinking people being forced into such a rock and a hard place situation won’t be pleasant for anyone.
Some critics obsess over how the Villagekeepers could possibly have manipulated every single thing that happened after the Prisoner set sail on his raft. My take on this episode is that they didn’t control everything and didn’t have to.
Number Two/ Mrs Butterworth was in position if our hero returned home and we can assume other conspirators were prepared to act if he went elsewhere. No matter what they’d have gotten him back to the Village with this same lesson driven home to him. Because this is fiction the most agonizingly cruel and ironic ending was allowed to play out. +++
I’LL EXAMINE ANOTHER EPISODE SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK.
FOR MORE LOOKS AT NEGLECTED TELEVISION FROM THE PAST CLICK HERE
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