Balladeer’s Blog CONCLUDES 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: FALL OUT
Madness and death reign supreme in the still-controversial series finale of The Prisoner.
We’ve arrived at the 17th and final episode of this innovative Patrick McGoohan series. Last time around, in Part One of the two-part conclusion, we at last learned why the Prisoner resigned from British Intelligence. The significance of the Penny-Farthing Bicycle symbolism was explored, too. (FOR MY REVIEW OF THAT EPISODE CLICK HERE )
Fall Out brings the entire saga to a close.
STILL-CONTROVERSIAL? – I’ll address this right up front. This many decades after it first aired this episode remains controversial but not in the sense of shock appeal. Sometimes when people hear Fall Out referred to as “still controversial” they think purely in terms of envelope-pushing violence or gore or sexual explicitness and wonder what could possibly be so extreme as to STILL be controversial in this day and age.
So don’t say to yourself “Still-controversial? What the hell do they do in this episode? Kill, rape and devour newborn babies?” (No, this isn’t A Serbian Film.)
The Prisoner‘s series finale is still controversial because it is like one long Black Lodge sequence on the later show Twin Peaks. McGoohan and his creative team boldly presented this final episode entirely through obscure symbolism, with clues and hints regarding the literal meaning.
If done today this would be just a gimmick, but back then this was daring and the almost da-daesque approach marked yet another technique of experimental theater brought to broadcast television by The Prisoner. Not in an anthology series format but as part of a continuing storyline.
Controversy enters by way of the contrasting, often wildly different interpretations of the symbolic storyline behind Fall Out. I don’t agree with critics who accuse McGoohan of presenting a big pretentious nothing and then hoping fans will provide him cover by way of the “you bring your own interpretation to it” excuse. There’s far too much meaning and method amid the madness. This ain’t The Jar or similar follies.
The general outline of a literal storyline can be detected behind the non-stop symbolism without invalidating the various metaphorical readings of the episode.
For comparison, on Twin Peaks the general outline of a literal storyline would be “Dark forces from beyond prey upon citizens and visitors of the town of Twin Peaks. Agent Dale Cooper of the FBI’s Blue Rose Task Force is drawn into battle with those forces while investigating the murder of Laura Palmer. Eventually we learn that those same dark forces were responsible for the disappearance of two other Blue Rose agents.”
That general outline is incontestable while not limiting any of the metaphorical and allegorical meanings that can be read into the series Twin Peaks. I will now lay out my view of the general outline of Fall Out. This general outline will not limit any of the metaphorical and allegorical meanings that can be read into the episode. (But I agree going in that my Fall Out outline is NOT “incontestable” like the preceding Twin Peaks outline was.)
OUTLINE: In the previous episode Number Two (Leo McKern) died while clashing with Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) in the week-long Head Game called Degree Absolute. The combatants were locked in the Embryo Room for those seven days after Number Two riled up his superiors by insisting on using the elaborate Degree Absolute gambit to learn why the Prisoner resigned.
Typical of the misdirection forever employed by the Villagekeepers we will learn toward the end of the episode that Degree Absolute did NOT – as we were led to believe – end with Number Two’s death. The bizarre ritual that the Prisoner will be participating in with the dead McKern’s superiors is still part of the elaborate Head Game but even the late Number Two was ignorant of this.
What Number Six is about to experience is no more “authentic” than his phony election win and its aftermath in Free For All. The Head Game continues, but our hero does not yet suspect it. He still thinks that the Village Supervisor is leading him to a meeting with the never-seen Number One as his reward for winning the life-and-death struggle with Leo McKern.
The Prisoner follows the Village Supervisor through one of the subterranean levels of the Village, passing elaborate technology, weaponry and some troops marching in formation. Eventually they reach a huge gathering of the mysterious Board, all wearing robes and masks this time instead of their usual sunglasses and top hats.
The spokesman wears a robe and wig like a British judge (and presumably if a Villager who survived the Embryo Room was from another culture this spokesman’s regalia would be adjusted accordingly). McGoohan is told that he has earned the right to no longer be referred to as a number and will from then on be addressed as “Sir.”
Our hero is invited to sit in a throne and observe as the Board deals with a few internal disciplinary matters. It turns out Degree Absolute does not just test whichever Villager was judged to be a sufficiently tough prisoner to break. Since the procedure is only okayed if the Number Two requesting it refuses to take no for an answer, that Number Two’s insistence becomes de facto proof that insubordination or worse may be in the offing from such a formerly trustworthy operative. They must be subjected to disciplinary action.
Last time around I highlighted how hard McKern had to push for Degree Absolute to be authorized AND I reminded readers of how often we’ve seen that the Villagekeepers do not look favorably on any form of insubordination. Typical of the villains’ Head Games, if any Number Two pushes for Degree Absolute they become expendable but are blissfully unaware that they are inviting punishment upon themselves.
During the seven days that the Degree Absolute ordeal lasts the entire Board can be convened to weigh what action should be taken. Number Twos are high enough in the Villagekeepers’ conspiracy that punishment for one of them cannot be decided upon lightly. It doesn’t matter to the Board which combatant dies in the Embryo Room, the captive or the Number Two …
… Because as we learn now the Villagekeepers’ technology is so advanced they can even bring whichever combatant dies back to life! The first time I ever watched Fall Out I literally thought “Holy crap! Not even DEATH is an escape from these scumbags if they decide that they aren’t finished with you yet!” Anyway, Number Two is brought back to life to face further punishment.
(If you are asking why the Villagekeepers care in other episodes about not killing people before they get the information they want from them, we can assume that the procedure is cost prohibitive and therefore used ONLY for Degree Absolute. Or that to be resurrected the subject must first be unknowingly exposed to certain radiation for seven days in the Embryo Room. OR, given the Villagekeepers’ deceptive nature, maybe the person isn’t really dead in the first place but is merely comatose and the villains just want you to THINK they brought someone back from the dead.)
Another internal disciplinary problem is also to be dealt with at this meeting of the entire Board. Number Forty-Eight (Alexis Kanner, who played the insubordinate Village Agent in Living In Harmony) is now summoned up. The Prisoner is told that this formerly trusted operative has also transgressed against the Villagekeepers but his offense is not as bad as McKern’s since McKern had risen to the level of a Number Two.
Since Patrick McGoohan seemed to be partially channeling Aleister Crowley for this episode I’ll mention the abundance of Masonic imagery in Fall Out. I’ll also point out that the elaborate layers of deception employed by the Villagekeepers in their Head Games make more sense if we think of them as Machiavellian variations on old-school Masonic Initiation ordeals. Think “Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn meets The Prince.”
Back to this Outline, Number Two and Number Forty-Eight are made aware of the charges against them and then are imprisoned in glass tubes to await sentencing. Number Six is now told that since he has withstood all attempts to break him he is given a choice – “Lead us, or go.” (Again, since the Head Game continues this is a meaningless offer.)
The Prisoner, after having resisted all attempts to have others impose their will upon him, refuses to take a role in which he would be imposing his will upon others. He chooses to go. Next, McGoohan is told that before he is set free he will get his wish to meet the never-seen Number One.
Our hero is escorted through labyrinthine corridors past the glass-enclosed Number Two and Number Forty-Eight. The midget Butler (Angelo Muscat) is on hand, too. Ultimately McGoohan is allowed to enter the bridge of a rocketship/ missile.
Seated before him near the control panel is a robed and masked Number One. The Prisoner tears off the mask and finds the crazed face of a primate making animal noises. He tears off this mask, too, and sees that Number One is … himself. (With the Villagekeepers’ technology this could just be a disguise or an android or whatever.)
We now realize that – as regular viewers would have suspected – all the preceding events were just ANOTHER of the Villagekeepers’ Head Games. We have arrived at what would normally be the conclusion of a typical Prisoner episode. However, our protagonist’s absolute refusal to ever say die – coupled with an inspired decision to use a fire extinguisher as an improvised weapon – enable him to drive off his double in the Number One robes, defeat the nearest Village thugs and free Number Two and Number Forty-Eight.
These three are joined now by the Butler, inspired to rebel by Number Six, just like the Village’s subculture of Jammers were in It’s Your Funeral. They set the rocket to take off, exit that rocket, then proceed to mow down Villagekeepers by the carload using the mounted machine guns seen earlier. While the slaughter goes on and on All You Need Is Love is playing.
Rover and its delivery mechanism are destroyed. Those Villagekeepers not already dead flee in black helicopters. In their blind panic they are following the Number One rocket/ missile that the Prisoner and his fellow rebels launched, even though it means following their metaphorical leader to nuclear oblivion.
Amid the chaos, only the Butler, Number Two and Number Forty-Eight are courageous enough to escape with McGoohan. The other Villagers, like so many conformists in the world, may not like their captivity but apparently feel safer with strong rulers riding herd over them and desperately follow the fleeing Villagekeepers, even though it means sharing their fate.
This total collapse is the fallout from the anarchic forces unleashed by the purveyors of oppression putting free-thinking people against the wall by denying them any space for individual freedom. A balloon can only be inflated so much before it bursts.
It can also be argued that this destruction and anarchy are the fallout from what would result if all people followed the example of our protagonist by refusing to be ruled over. After all, no society would survive without sufficient numbers of cowed, browbeaten conformists “knowing their place” as it were. Luckily for The Powers That Be there is never any lack of such timid sheep willing to be ruled over.
McGoohan, McKern, Kanner and Muscat escape by using the subterranean rail line that connects the Village with England (and presumably mainland Europe plus other destinations).
The Villagekeepers and their plot to impose a Global “Village” have been thwarted for now but, totalitarian forces being what they are, may eventually rise again, albeit in a different form and under different leadership. (This reminds me of the finale of Robert Ludlum’s Matarese Circle, which ends with hints that the defeated corporate globalists may already be rising from the ashes.)
McGoohan informs the authorities about his adventure but who knows what they’ll be able to do about it. McKern returns to the political arena, Kanner wanders off to wherever fate will lead him and Muscat graduates/rises to assume McGoohan’s role as a rebel, inspired by our hero’s example to defy and resist The Powers That Be. He even gets McGoohan’s old home in London, cementing his inheritance of that role.
The Prisoner, freed at last from the literal prison of the Village but still confined in the figurative, inescapable prison of society itself, recognizes that he can never settle down again in his old home. He will likely spend the rest of his life on the run but at least he has a million British Pounds in the Villagekeepers’ money with which to disappear.
Our protagonist rides off in his beloved Lotus 7, the kit sports car he built for himself long ago. +++
FOR MORE LOOKS AT NEGLECTED TELEVISION FROM THE PAST CLICK HERE
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50 responses to “THE PRISONER: FALL OUT (SERIES FINALE)”
“Our protagonist rides off in his beloved Lotus 7, the custom sports car he built for himself long ago.”
You might have missed the significance of what I meant by The Prisoner being the assembler of the machinery, but not the designer, in another way that shows the point even better …
The Lotus 7 is also a kit car, and you can purchase one from Caterham Motors today. There are even faster versions now, although I prefer the slower ones for whipping around curves on island roads.
You can purchase the model you want with the engine and gear box you want — I like the Ford 1.6 litre engine with the automatic gear box, for instance — but there are considerably more powerful versions on offer today than that or the one that Patrick McGoohan drove in the series.
As for my earlier … “Prisoner theories” … what makes you think they’re theories? *guffaw*
There are two ways to resign, in case you were unaware: one involves leaving after working for an extended period whereas the other involves never working for them at all and leaving them well enough alone.
Giving leave in advance of never working for such people also can get you sent to a different kind of Village. It co-exists with the world you know, but among those who know it’s referred to as “the secret world” with its own special passports and special privileges.
They’re so afraid of anyone highly competent and capable being left outside that spinning wheel that they actually bring you to the centre of it, and so your work starts with your resignation and eventually ends with an interview …
They even do this in a way you might enjoy: they give you a really big budget, some reasonably competent minions (who fortunately you are free to let go), and a useful end they’d like to see come about that they know you also happen to agree with, without once ever getting you to sign a document of employment.
In fact, some of them may come to work for you one day.
As for the really big budget, anything left over may be spent on Caterham kits just as long as the tax payers never find out …
For some of us, “The Prisoner” isn’t just a fanciful television show: in some ways, it’s also a documentary.
Be seeing you. 🙂
That is great! I like that take on it and – like so many other versions of what’s really going on – it is just as valid as any other. Hearing other people’s interpretations of this series is one of my favorite activities, especially because unlike Damon Lindelöf’s works I think there really are specific ideas being explored in Fall Out. It’s not just smoke and mirrors. “A true initiation never ends” after all, and “A trial never really ends” either as Q reminded Picard in the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
It’s enough to make you wonder if the Continuum really is supposed to represent the entities revered by the Rosicrucians and long-ago Freemasons (not the current incarnation of Freemasonry). Especially if you throw in the way the altruist’s “tomb” in Roddenberry’s Questor Tapes lies in the supposed region of Christian Rosenkreutz’s tomb.
I like this as a concrete base to build the ellegories on. How did you get the whole bit almost was another headgame of the people who run the Village?
Thanks. The very first time I watched Fallout I was just assuming the whole way through that the whole ritual was just another Head Game like in Free For All. Since that was my first blush impression and not a labored re-reading of the events in the episode I have always gone with that. Naturally nothing is definite since even Patrick McGoohan used to mix up Fall Out’s shooting script with what actually happens in the completed episode. He mistakenly recalled that the Prisoner reentered his old home at the end of the episode instead of riding off in his car.
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I thought it was just aliens behind the show’s stuff.
The symbolism is left vague enough that you could read aliens into it without losing the metaphorical meaning.
Too confusing for me.
Interesting interpreteation of the final episode.
I got what you mean here. And your right it doesn’t take away from any subtextual meanings that can be read into the Prisoner series.
Thank you very much for saying so.
this whole show sounds over my head.
Too complicated a show for me to understand.
You took a interesting angle to this final episode. You eliminate a lot of the problems with interpretation by just proceeding from the assumption that it’s all a setup like the fake election from Free for all.
Thank you very much for saying so.
I like this take on the finale. It does help to consider a lot of it just another headgame from the villagekeepers.
Thanks for saying so!
Very thought provoking! This is the least contrived interpretation of Fall Out that I’ve ever read! Like the other person said you eliminate the need for a lot of contorted explanations by going with the notion that the entire ritual is just a headgame like the election in Free For All. Great read!
Thank you very much for saying so.
Very thought provoking interpretation of the Prisoner finale.
Quite a trek through all these concepts.
I know what you mean.
Meh. It’s as valid as anybody else’s theory.
Excellent take! I can never get tired of reading what other people think about this show!
Thank you very much! Me neither.
I need to give this series a try.
I hope you like it.
I always hated this show.
I don’t like shows that are open to this much interpretation.
like life or existence?
Yes, exactly like life or existence.
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You think your interpretation matters more than other people’s?
At no time did I say anything like that.
Your take on this episode rings more and more true to me the more I think about it.
Thank you very much.
Fortunate to see most of the series as a child, age 11, on Saturday evening television in New York, it was always a favorite! When VCR technology arrived, local Public Broadcasting station was doing its annual fundraiser and presented the entire series over a week commercial free, and I was able to bootleg record it. Then when DVD arrived, eventually I was able to purchase the set from Arts & Entertainment in the US which bought the rights to the series. It is the one series that has followed me through 5 decades of living. Your interpretation is novel, and fresh, still after several years. I’ve enjoyed it, thank you very much. I wonder if Patrick McGoohan was himself a Freemason.
Thank you for all the kind words! I love hearing from other Prisoner fans and their experiences with the show! Sounds like you were there pretty early after the initial ITV run. Good question about McGoohan. And I agree that this show’s themes have held up very well over the decades.
This show seems more relevant as time goes by. I enjoy reading your thoughts on it. I watched today and noticed the throne was the same shade of blue the U.N. seems to like.
Thanks! That’s an interesting note about that color being used!