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The Prisoner: Checkmate

"Rook to Queen's Pawn Six, check."

There is something delightful about a chess game with human pieces. Here, it's such a totally obvious metaphor. There was even no distinction between black and white, because in the Village, you can't tell whose side anyone is on. I thought this particular detail was inspired, because determining who was on which side was the main plot point of the episode.

During the chess game, the Rook showed audacity and disobedience by moving himself, and was taken away and tortured. Number Six finally knew for certain that someone was definitely a prisoner like himself, and realized that he could tell prisoners from guardians by giving instructions to someone. If they obeyed, prisoner. If they refused, guardian. Quite clever.

Six used his new method to recruit his own "pieces" and play a new game. His escape attempt was much better coordinated this time, with a raft, a radio, and a rescue at sea. To no avail, of course, since the Rook applied Six's own reasoning against him. The Rook thought that Six couldn't be a prisoner, since he was even more arrogant than the guardians. Six was the exception that didn't prove the rule.

Number Two again tried to use a woman against Six. The "Queen" was brainwashed into loving Six so that she would follow him everywhere and keep him from escaping. Apparently, any woman that Six is even marginally friendly with will be used against him. Even though everyone has a number, it's interesting how they get un-number-like designations for people in every episode. The queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard, of course, and the rook is often sacrificed.

I initially saw The Prisoner when I was a teenager and it was running on a public broadcasting station in the middle of the night. I don't remember every episode well, but I remembered this one. And I absolutely remembered the delightful free association scene. It said some interesting things about Six, especially the references to hope, and to games. For Six, love is a game. Using women against him is futile.

The Doctor and Six:
"Cat." "Dog."
"Rain." "Shine."
"Desk." "Work."
"Hope." "Anchor."
"Anchor?" "The Hope and Anchor. It's a pub I used to drink at."
"Tree." "Leaf."
"Home." "Away."
"Return." "Game."
"Love." "Game."
"Game?" "Tennis."
"Table." "Chair."
"Ship." "Shape."
"Red." "Sails."
"Free." "For all."

Ben P Duck No. 5 says...

Number 5: You know, the first thing I thought of when I saw this episode was the time Bill and Ted defeated Death in a game of Battleship.
Number 2: (yelling over her shoulder) Did someone damage his brain through interrogation?
Number 5: No, no, seriously, it's such a classic theme and never done better than when Bill and Ted go on to win at Twister.
Number 2: I am beginning to doubt we will ever get useful information out of you.

You can't have a Prisoner unless you have a prison, and this episode emphasized the reality of what a prisoner can do to resist the keepers of a prison. In fact, this episode starts a run of much more "normal" episodes, if you can say that about any episode of The Prisoner, in which it's really Number Six against captors. Number Two practices his karate chop and there are guards in the towers and in boats. So if you have a real prison, you can begin thinking about a prison break, whether it might succeed or not.

Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian Anarcho-Communist thinker, captured the situation perfectly when he argued that in prison one is permanently engaged in a "war of position" with your captors. When we are told that the fight must be kept up "just to defy them," this gets to the heart of the episode. If you are imprisoned, you never stop fighting back, or you're lost. As they said, it's "to keep your mind alert" and avoid the easy path of conforming. Accept the common sense of the captor and you are lost; it's a constant battle not to become (as they said in The Shawshank Redemption) "institutionalized" or an "institutional man," someone who has found some measure of comfort or at least some way to exist outside of constant misery in prison. Your fellow prisoners may be engaged in the same conflict, but the jailer (or I guess, gaoler, in this instance) always possesses the advantage of knowing more than the prisoners and being able to constantly unravel trust between them.

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

-- There was a reference to not lobotomizing Six because they needed what he knew. There was also a reference to an historical live game where the pieces taken off the board were beheaded.

-- Everyone came to a halt and stood like waxworks when Rover blew through town. Except for the chessmaster, who kept walking. Why didn't Rover attack the chessmaster?

-- Our sixth Number Two was into karate, and sat alone on the emptied floor of the Dome in front of a board, which he smashed. Rather funny. Not an effective Number Two.


Control: "Number Six looks very placid."
Two: "He's just a pawn. One false move and he'll be wiped out."

Six: "Why do you use people?"
Chessmaster: "Psychiatrists say it satisfies the desire for power. The only opportunity one gets here."

Two: "And remember, if you get another attack of egotism, don't wait. Go back to the hospital immediately."

Four out of four pawns,

Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. More from the Companion:
    - (Yes, the book printed the entire free association scene, too.)
    - "The only person not frozen by Rover's presence at the beginning of this episode is the man with a stick (who is a descendant of royal lineage). Unlike most people who refuse to freeze, this man walks deliberately onward, and Rover passes him by. No reason is given for the immunity of this man to Rover's power, but it gives ammunition to the theory that certain men are by nature supermen, endowed with a uniqueness of mind that separates them from the masses."
    - "It should be noted that while Number Six doesn't trust women, he is very willing to protect them; as Number Two notes in "A Change of Mind", he's a sucker for a damsel in distress."
    - "Number Two is seen meditating in one of the scenes and then, like a martial artist, splitting a piece of wood in two with his bare hands. The script in this episode calls for the meditative trance but not for the splitting of the wood, which must have been improvised on the set."

  2. In a series based around being imprisoned, a chess episode seems almost inevitable. The metaphors were thick on the ground and, I must say, not so subtle. In fact, I thought they used a few too many "pawn" comments. At one point, I wanted to shout at my television, "OK, I've got the point!"

    Having said that, I thought the lack of black and white pieces was, as Billie says, inspired. I noticed it at the beginning, but only began to pick up on the significance as the episode progressed.

    I also liked the idea of Number Six's partner being the Rook. Like so much of the wordplay in this series, it was an interesting choice. The Rook, in chess, is the castle. But, the piece is only able to move in a straight line, and cannot deviate from the path it is on. If one is trying to escape, one must be able to deviate a great deal.

    Used as a verb, rook also means to cheat or swindle. It is commonly used when someone has bested another at his own game -- again, very apt for what happens in this episode.

    Speaking of word play, I too really enjoyed the free association game. The Hope and Anchor made me smile. There is one not far from my house that my friends and I have been known to frequent on occasion.

    One of the things that has struck me in both this episode and the last is that women are given positions of much more authority than I would have assumed for a show made in the sixties. Last week, we had a female Number Two; this week, a female doctor. For a man who plays such a misogynistic character, Patrick McGoohan certainly appears to be ahead of his time as a producer.

    Finally, is it me or did the music sound a lot like "Pop Goes the Weasel" in this episode? I have that bloody tune stuck in my head now!

  3. Thank you for your posts about The Prisoner episodes!
    Have just recently watched the whole series for the first time, fascinated and eager to read all the discussions.
    Are you able to figure out a couple more associations that followed after 'Free - For all'? They are heard not very clearly behind the conversation of #2 and the doctor.


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