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: FREE FOR ALL … In the ongoing debate about the exact numbering of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner I place this as the 8th episode.
Our previous episode wallowed in grim, depressing realism. Free For All takes us back into the realm of allegory and metaphor. It plays like Kafka, Ionesco and Pirandello blended with science fiction.
The Story: Eric Portman plays this episode’s Number Two, the rotating series of Village executives who manage the prison-city for varying periods, sort of like Officer of the Day duty in the military but stretched out for weeks at least.
This Number Two pretends to be calling the Prisoner’s bluff, implying that if he doesn’t like the way things are done in the totalitarian atmosphere of the Village he should run for office and try to enact some changes. Nobody has come forward as a candidate in a long time, so Number Two encourages Number Six to run against him.
Needless to say our protagonist figures this election nonsense is just another experimental Head Game of the Villagekeepers. His suspicion increases when he sees that the Villagekeepers had already printed up campaign posters for him and distributed them to all the other Villagers. Despite our main character’s misgivings he gets swept along in this new cerebral duel with his captors.
NOTE: This is why I place Free For All AFTER Many Happy Returns. That episode made it clear that the Villagekeepers have too many co-conspirators in the outside world for any escape to be permanent. With that being the case the Prisoner can justifiably feel he has nothing to lose by playing along with the obviously phony “election.” If he gets lucky he might be able to at least strike some sort of defiant blow against the people who run the Village.
I mentioned Kafka, Ionesco and Pirandello above but there’s also a certain Marx Brothers feel to this episode. Case in point is the way the Prisoner, while out on the campaign trail – gets peppered with questions by “reporters” who are as fake and corrupt as any in the U.S.
Though McGoohan simply says “No comment” to a long series of questions the reporters simply come up with the typically shallow and meaningless “politician talk” and present the gibberish as Number Six’s actual responses. The punchline comes when the press asks our hero what he will do if he wins. The Prisoner replies that he plans to escape and then destroy the Village but the press THEN pretends “No comment” was his reply.
Even more, though that travesty of an interview JUST finished, the transcript with the made-up answers that the press manufactured is ALREADY on the newsstands under a headline reading “Number Six Speaks His Mind.” Hilarious! And another example of how The Prisoner is still relevant all these decades later.
Though Number Two – as “the incumbent” – has the usual full staff that goes with that office, Number Six is assigned just one lone campaign aide … Number Fifty-Eight, a woman who speaks a language our protagonist is not familiar with.
Even out-manned and hobbled with an aide he can’t even communicate with the Prisoner still manages to make things uncomfortable for the Villagekeepers as the campaign continues.
At a rigged debate with Number Two our hero goes dangerously “off-script,” refusing to play along with the pretense that anything resembling a truly free election is taking place. This is another way Free For All really hits home, especially for us in America in recent years.
A candidate who dares to depart from the script written by the “one percenters’ media” and points out how the rigged proceedings are nothing but a mockery of the political process? Such an outsider would attract a yuge following just by speaking the truth. I know, right? (We need Third Parties)
Number Fifty-Eight – still spouting an incomprehensible language – drags our main character to a secret club where Number Two and other members of the Village elite hang out. Here they are allowed alcoholic beverages (forbidden to the rest of the Villagers) and talk about the pros and cons of wielding power over people.
This is another example of trickery we’ve seen before: The way the Villagekeepers dangle privileges not enjoyed by other citizens as a way of tempting capable, talented prisoners into throwing in with The Powers That Be.
Despite their machinations the Villagekeepers can tell they underestimated the Prisoner’s ability to touch a chord with his fellow captives. Real reform … real rebellion may be in the air if Number Six is allowed to keep harping on what a charade The Powers That Be have made of the electoral process.
With their advanced technology the Villagekeepers are able to intervene. They paralyze the Prisoner and subject him to a partial, temporary brain-washing procedure. By stimulating the part of the brain that makes primates vie for tribe supremacy they can make McGoohan robotically spout the usual meaningless generalities that are meant to pave the way to political victory.
In this way the Villagekeepers exploit the existential “rule or be ruled, eat or be eaten” tableau humanity is born into. Our hero’s Alpha tendencies are thus perverted from a strength which enables him to resist the forces of conformity into a weakness which makes him vulnerable to an animal lust for dominance. (This theme will take on much greater significance in the series’ final episode.)
Now that the Prisoner has been subliminally influenced to play along with the absurd mockery of an election we get some more humor as he mindlessly makes empty promises and expresses pleasant nothings. He promises “less work, and more play” and when Number Two promises “Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer,” the Prisoner vows to provide “Fall, Winter, Summer and Spring,” as if that slight change represents a significant difference from what his opponent is proposing.
(You could edit out all of the dialogue specific to a Prisoner episode and pretty much use what’s left as a hilarious one-act satire of modern political campaigns.)
Soon the Head Game nears its climax. Number Six is hailed as the winner of the election and is told he is now in charge. He and Number Fifty-Eight are even left alone in Number Two’s office, where lie various levers of power.
Number Fifty-Eight now abandons her “foreign version of Edith Prickley” act and behaves very seriously. She frees the Prisoner from the subliminal control like she is bringing him out of a hypnotic spell. Next she shows him that the two of them have full access to the technology usually wielded by the rotating Number Twos.
Reverting to normal our protagonist grabs the Public Address microphone and announces to all of the Villagers that they are free to go – he is disabling all electronic barriers. Over and over again he announces “You’re free to go! You’re free to go!” but the Villagers, apparently tipped off now to the Head Game, ignore the announcement and just go about their business.
Frustrated, the Prisoner tries to at least manage his own escape. He flees into a corridor he’s never had access to before. He comes across the top-hatted Board Members of the Village, all wearing sunglasses and all seated admiringly around the synthetic organism called Rover.
Fans have various theories regarding what this scene is supposed to represent. Given Rover’s role as merciless enforcer for the Villagekeepers, to me it basically just shows the worship of raw violence which ultimately lies behind ALL political power.
This gathering of the Board seems to just be part of the Head Game, so I don’t think it has much significance beyond toying with our hero as the Head Game’s trap is sprung. You’re free to disagree, of course.
The Prisoner tries another hallway but runs into typical Village goons who beat him up and then drag him back to the Number Two office. He is placed in a chair and finds himself facing Number Fifty-Eight … now wearing insignia that mark HER as the REAL new Number Two.
She now speaks perfect English and points out that the Head Game is over. Now that he has suffered through ANOTHER of the Villagekeepers’ seemingly endless ordeals she probes to see if he is finally broken. “Are you ready to talk?” she asks.
The Prisoner stares back at her in silent defiance. The new Number Two disgustedly accepts that our hero STILL refuses to tell them why he resigned from British Intelligence (the symbolic “2+2=5” of The Prisoner series, a sign of surrender).
She has an ambulance take McGoohan back to his residence and talks by wireless phone to the recently departed previous Number Two. She assures him they will all keep trying to break our hero and tells her colleague to “Give my regards to the Homeland.” +++
I’LL EXAMINE ANOTHER EPISODE SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK.
FOR MORE LOOKS AT NEGLECTED TELEVISION FROM THE PAST CLICK HERE
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