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: HAMMER INTO ANVIL … In the ongoing debate over the exact numbering of the 17 episodes of The Prisoner I place this one 4th from the last.
NOTE: The title of this episode does indeed come from the famous Goethe quote and refers to the intensely personal duel of wills between the Prisoner and this episode’s Number Two (Patrick Cargill).
Many readers have asked me to start SPOILING up-front if our hero or the Villagekeepers win the battle in the episode being reviewed. They said they’ve come to hate episodes where the malevolent Villagekeepers come out on top. That’s a great tribute to what effective villains they are and how the Prisoner has to overcome incredible odds for his scattered victories. Rest assured our protagonist unequivocally wins this round.
THE STORY: Amid a dramatically convenient thunderstorm this episode’s Number Two, the rotating series of executives who manage the prison-city called the Village, interrogates a female prisoner called Number Seventy-Three. Her wrists are still bandaged from her recent suicide attempt, an action she tried in order to escape captivity in the Village.
Number Two is sadistically enjoying his latest Head Game against the woman, who has been drugged to perceive him as a quasi-demonic figure. The villain seems close to breaking the woman to extract whatever information the Villagekeepers want from her. She begins screaming in terror.
Her sheer animal screams attract the attention of the Prisoner, who races to their location, outfighting a pair of Village thugs to reach Number Two and Number Seventy-Three. Number Two is distracted by the unexpected arrival of the outraged McGoohan and Number Seventy-Three seizes the opportunity to break away and throw herself to her death far below.
Number Two is enraged and tells Number Six that he’ll pay for interfering like this but our hero vows that instead he will make Number Two pay for what just happened.
The next morning Number Two has the Prisoner brought to him in his high-tech office. We viewers get treated to another great verbal battle between our protagonist and The Powers That Be as the two men argue. Number Two, believing he holds all the cards like the forces of conformity so often do, casually threatens McGoohan while holding a sword up to his eyes.
The Village administrator invokes imagery from Goethe’s line about hammers and anvils but is interrupted by the cordless phone buzzing, signaling a call from either the Board or the never-seen Number One. The Prisoner notes that, like so many other Number Twos, this one is terrified of displeasing his enigmatic superiors. As he gets chewed out for letting Number Seventy-Three die before extracting the desired information our hero leaves the office.
Over the next few days Number Six employs a very effective but one-time-only strategy against this Number Two. McGoohan demonstrates how effective he must have been at Psy-Ops when he was an Intelligence Officer by tricking Number Two into thinking that he (Number Six) may actually be an agent of the Villagekeepers running a Head Game against HIM (Patrick Cargill’s Number Two).
Regular viewers of The Prisoner will appreciate how plausible this is, considering the complex, multi-layered and deceptive Head Games the Villagekeepers run, sometimes against their own personnel who have fallen into disfavor. For a laugh, think of The Simpsons episode parodying The Prisoner, specifically the part where Homer describes the villains’ plan as “fiendishly simple” then pauses and says “Wait, no it isn’t … It’s needlessly complicated.” Hilarious!
But, as I said before, it’s definitely a “one-time-only” gambit since the Villagekeepers presumably instituted additional safeguards after the Prisoner turned their own methods against them in this story.
At any rate the series’ War of Nerves once again tilts in McGoohan’s favor. Knowing that he – like all the Villagers – is subjected to constant surveillance he makes a great show of bizarre but seemingly meaningless activities designed to make Cargill’s Number Two think HE is the actual target of this episode’s Head Game.
*** The Prisoner repeatedly listens to the same piece of classical music over and over again at the Village music store while studying his watch.
*** He leaves copies of the Village newspaper (The Tally-Ho) lying around with sinister single words circled, in the time-honored espionage tradition.
*** He circulates seemingly coded messages, confident that Number Two will have Village agents intercept at least some of them.
*** He places an enigmatic personal ad in The Tally-Ho.
*** He makes Cargill think the Village psychiatrists are doing a study on his mental state.
And on and on. At one point Number Two has one of his thugs – Number Fourteen – try to “accidentally” kill Number Six during a game of Kosho but our hero survives. I like to pretend the ridiculous game of Kosho doesn’t exist so I’ll say no more.
Number Two becomes increasingly paranoid, not trusting any of his subordinates when they claim to have no idea what the Prisoner is up to. He sees conspiracy everywhere, and let’s face it, it usually IS in the Village.
In the end our protagonist allows Number Two to assume he (McGoohan) is a higher-ranking Villagekeeper assigned to investigate Number Two to see if he is merely incompetent or a traitor. The villain, increasingly twitchy and unnerved, breaks in the end, confessing to his superiors that he is too unstable to continue his work and needs removed. With the Villagekeepers that may very well result in fatal punishment. +++ JUST THREE EPISODES TO GO!
I’LL EXAMINE ANOTHER EPISODE SOON. KEEP CHECKING BACK.
FOR MORE LOOKS AT NEGLECTED TELEVISION FROM THE PAST CLICK HERE
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