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.
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. +++
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