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The Prisoner: Free For All

"It looks like a unanimous majority."

It's Election Day in the Village, and the latest Number Two suggests that Number Six run against him. In a dictatorship, elections are a farce. In the Village, it's worse.

This is a series about the struggle of the individual against the collective, and elections are all about the collective. We choose someone to represent us, but that person often lies to get into office and often doesn't represent us when they get there. (No, I'm not cynical.) Six decided to play along in order to use a public forum to sound out as many of the Villagers as he could, hoping to discover who was on what side. Instead, the tables were turned and Six was brainwashed into becoming the perfect candidate. The campaign cliches were thick on the ground as the crowds shouted slogans like "Six for Two!" The posters were already printed, the article about Six's candidacy in the Tally Ho already written. They knew what Six would do; they were several steps ahead and didn't even try to conceal that it was all choreographed to demoralize him.

The brainwashed Six won the election, achieved his goal of freedom and releasing all the prisoners, but it was just a mind game. Everyone was against him, even his sweet dippy personal maid who didn't speak English... until she was revealed to be the new Number Two. She struck him repeatedly, saying, "Tick, tick." I really don't know what that meant, but it was creepy. Six lost control, was beaten, and had his mind taken from him because he tried to outwit them. It was a painful way to discover boundaries. In the contest between Number Six and the powers behind the Village, the powers certainly won this time.

There was a lot of fascinating dialogue in this often confusing episode, and many wonderful details. I particularly enjoyed the banter between Six and first Two, the delightfully named "Cat and Mouse" pub with the non-alcoholic alcohol, and the secret cave that contained real booze -- except that what it actually had was much more brainwashing. (All of the establishments in the Village have no name. "The Cat and Mouse" should have been called "The Pub," shouldn't it?)

The records they have on Six are so complete that they know when he gave up sugar, and they theorize it is because he is afraid of death. And yet, they needed to use a lie detector on him. Fascinating how they did this, with pictures of Six's silhouette on a screen, and a circle and a square to represent truth and lies. There are many silhouettes in the episode: the election ads on television, Two watching Six's interrogation and brainwashing. At one point, you see Two and Six on television in silhouette, mashed together. And the fluffy lapel "ballots" are black and white.

McGoohan did a wonderful job in this episode. The angry banter with Two, the way he insulted the Villagers, the manic gleam in his eye when he was brainwashed. I felt bad for him when he was carted away at the end, defeated.

Ben P Duck No. Five says...

Number Five: I have my slogan ready. "Twelve for Five."
Number Two: You are already Five. That makes no sense.
Number Five: How about Five for One?
Number Two: What are you talking about? GIVE US INFORMATION! What position are you running for?
Number Five: I was actually just hoping to manage the Village's new Subway, and I thought that was the promotion this month...

Elections are a joke, and not a particularly good joke at that. This is something that many Americans essentially take for granted today and from which the 2012 Republican primaries did little to dissuade us. (Oh, wait -- was Ron Paul starring as the Prisoner and Mitt Romney as Number Two?) This episode has the same premise, which was both more and less in vogue in 1967, more because it was a hot topic among counter-culture types but much less because faith in the system for the great mass of people was only beginning to come under threat.

For the Prisoner, elections were just a distraction from the iron cage of rationality within which Number 6 found himself. The world he lives in has more in common with Huxley’s Brave New World than Orwell's 1984 -- everything is a co-opted part of the system. Take journalism. To every question Number Six is asked, he replies, "No comment" and they fill in the gaps -- except for what he thinks of life and death, to which they list his answer as "No comment." The newspaper is already printed before the interview, and doesn't matter at all. The government is a group of blank-faced nobodies without volition, and slogans are ridiculous and meaningless: "Six for Two!"

And yet, even Number Six is drawn into believing that it might matter, and does his best to free everyone when he finally has the "power". This is one of the great ironies of politics, that they are all too often either nothing but kabuki plays for those on the outside, but that those on the inside also come to believe that they matter. Of course, the rest of the villagers are happy to teach Number Six this lesson when they aren't interested in the freedom he offers, too timid or scared or just too listless to seize it. No continuing relevance there.

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

-- This episode was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan. His writing credit is under the pseudonym Paddy Fitz.

-- "Free for All" aired fourth, but was produced second and is second in the DVD set. I decided to go with the DVD order because this felt like a second episode; Six appears to be very new to the Village.

-- The local paper employed Number 113 as a reporter, and Number 113B as a photographer. Number Six saw a "clone" of Number 113B, wearing the same pink jacket.

-- There is a brief glimpse of four guards sitting around Rover. Weird.

-- The "Council," none of whom ever spoke, wore stripes like prisoners and top hats like guards. Six referred to them as tailor dummies. Six's campaign photo was the one that was X'd out in the opener, not one of him in Village clothing.

-- There are touches of futuristic technology all over The Prisoner. Number Two's image was on the television while he was speaking with Six on the phone. There was an electronic eye (shaped like an actual eye) above Two. Was Number One watching?

-- What language was Number 58 originally speaking? Was she the real Number Two the entire time? Does it matter?

-- Number Six and the first Two were wearing the same color clothing, only reversed.

-- The opening credits begin with a thunderclap, and now include a verbal exchange with Two that ends with "I am not a number! I am a free man!" and Two's laughter. The last images in the end credits are Rover rising from the water and skimming across it. I really do love these credits. I like Six coming right at the viewer in his car, and the wonderful use of shadows as Six marches down the corridor to the office to resign.

-- This episode featured our third and fourth Number Two. I'm not counting Six's brief reign, since it wasn't real. The second Two said to the first Two, "Give my regards to the homeland." The homeland?


Six: (on the phone) "The mountain can come to Mohammed." (hangs up)
Two: (instantly at the door) "Mohammed?"
Six: "Everest, I presume?"

Two: (re: the election) "Are you going to run?"
Six: "Like blazes, first chance I get."

Six: (giving a speech to the Villagers) "Unlike me, many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment, and will die here like rotten cabbages."
Two: "Keep going. They love it."

113: "How do you feel about life and death?"
Six: "Mind your own business."
113: (writing) "No comment."

Six: "Can you laugh? Can you cry? Can you think?"

26: "Everything you think here is in the strictest confidence."

Barmaid: "Gin, whiskey, vodka. Looks the same, tastes the same."

Four out of four rotten cabbages,

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


  1. Although I am still not completely sold on Patrick McGoohan the actor, I am on Paddy Fitz the writer. His use of metaphor, allusion and word play is absolutely brilliant.

    During the course of the episode, I caught references to Thomas Hardy (the "maddening crowd"), Charlotte Bronte (the Red Room) and William Shakespeare (Shylock's "If you prick us" speech). That's quite an interesting mix of writers.

    There were all the allusions to games and game play. Number Six mentions Hoyle at least twice. This was ( and may still be) the definitive book of rules for card games. So, while Six is pretending to play the game by the rules (at least until he is brainwashed), he is slyly telling us and Two that he is not.

    But, my favourite bit of word play is the title itself. On the one hand, "Free For All" means free elections for all, something that is obviously not happening. But, it can also mean Free[dom] for All, something that, as Ben so rightly points out, none of the villagers were willing or able to take advantage of. Finally, a free-for-all is melee, which arguably huge parts of this election were. The parades down the main street felt and sounded as though the circus had just come to town.

    Outside of the writing, I loved the use of the cave as the pub. It made the drinking of alcohol seem illicit and, therefore, underground. Although only two episodes in, something about it felt off from the beginning and I was not surprised when Two sobered up very quickly at the end of the scene.

    One other thing has struck me. Considering that this show was shot in the sixties, I have yet to see someone smoking on screen. As the vast majority of adults smoked at the time, I find it an interesting choice. And yet, it ties into the idea that any sort of vice will be driven underground.

    I am still not completely sold and I think it's because I am having trouble with the character of Six. I find him unlikable and so am struggling to root for him. I am, however, fascinated by the themes being explored. Certainly this show was light years ahead of its time.

  2. @ChrisB: I certainly wouldn't want to be friends with Number Six, but I can respect how formidable the man is. Part of the fun (for me) is to watch the unstoppable force (of the corrupt system) running into the unmovable object (his iron will)... Other articles on the Web discuss how studio execs get caught up with making the main characters "likable", when they should worry about making them "interesting". And "likability" fits in with the theme of the series: how society traps people to conform and be inoffensive. The other Villagers are certainly pleasant, but that falseness just makes them creepy. Later episodes will show that Number Six can be nice, but he is in a situation where he can't afford to completely trust anyone.

    @Billie: For the episode order, it seems like most fans are happy with the (A&E ??) DVD order. Except, most recommend watching "The General" before "A. B. and C.". (The same actor is playing Number Two, and that episode order works a bit better for his character.)

    The Companion book mentions:
    - McGoohan's pseudonym was derived from his mother's maiden name, Fitzpatrick.

    - The photograph used in the newspaper was not made for the Prisoner, but McGoohan's publicity photo (and the same one typed over in the opening sequence).

    - "It should be noted that there is no clear evidence that Number Six actually decided to run for office; he was just caught up in the clamor. Some people believe Number Six had no sights on the office of Number Two; he simply wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to make his thoughts known to The Villagers: to shake them up. Indeed, many people believe that it would be violently out of character for Number Six to actually run for office."

  3. @ChrisB: I think I was overly harsh when commenting on your dislike of Number Six (so far). Keep in mind that the first time I saw this series, the episodes were close to the broadcast order. So I already had several more "heroic" episodes in mind when I came to this one. (And I do remember being disturbed by Six's drug-fueled rantings as the election ended.)

  4. Mark -- no worries! I think you make a good point. I do find Six interesting and I am fascinated by the show itself with the themes it introduces.

    To date, however, I am interested in the show on an intellectual, not emotional, level. And, that is simply because I have not yet invested in Six.


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