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The Prisoner: Many Happy Returns

"Don't forget to come back."

This was essentially "The Chimes of Big Ben" but with a lot more sweat and frustration.

What was the point? To completely demoralize Six and again make him feel that escape was utterly futile? After I saw it, I kept thinking that maybe it was just a bizarre birthday present for their most important prisoner. And he's certainly important, because moving all of the other prisoners out of the Village for a couple of days was a lot of trouble to go through for one man. Were the gunrunners a set-up, too? (Were they eating their own Village food, or Six's?) What about the gypsies? Was the road block actually intended for Six? How did they know he'd go home to confront his former bosses? Maybe they wanted him to know that his own people were behind the Village. Maybe they wanted him to know where it was, although that seems unlikely.

The level of paranoia suggested by this episode is immense. It's like the entire world was on the side of the bad guys, like the fantasy we've all had at some point that the world was created as a backdrop for us and we're being deceived and manipulated for some strange reason. (Or maybe that's just me.) Why didn't Six suspect that Mrs. Butterworth was a plant? She seemed so nice that it had to be inevitable. Maybe seeing someone else living in his house and driving his car threw him.

All that said, this is an interesting episode. We like Six by now, and we admire him. We want him to escape, and we want what is happening to be real -- even while we know it cannot be. It's even possible that it was all in his head. The cat was sitting on the table with the broken teacups when Six left, and was still sitting there when he returned.

We did get a lot of fun stuff, mostly of Six going all action hero. He drove the golf cart like a sports car, chopped down trees, built a raft. He created a homemade compass and kept a log. He captured the gun boat runners (but wasn't smart enough to keep them from getting free, which seemed odd). He was smart enough to take a complete set of photos of the Village and keep them hidden on his person, and honest enough to leave an IOU in the Village store. He really rocked the windswept curls, too, when he usually looks so debonair.

Ben P Duck Number Five says...

Number Five: Hellloooo, is anyone here?
Number Two: (whispering) Shhhhhh, everybody stay quiet.
Number Five: Seriously, where is everyone?
Number Two: (whispering) We'll let him sneak out for a month or so and then trick him through a really elaborate scheme which will reveal exactly where we are, how to get back here, and the extent of our organization.
Number Five: (whispering) Does that really make sense?
Number Two: Shhhhh, he'll hear.
Number Five: Oh, sorry.

What's really striking about this episode is how good it was, and how it points up a difference between television then and now. Continuity, as we think of it in serialized drama today, was not exactly a critical issue for television production then. This is the kind of episode which would have driven Lost fans to decide that the characters were really in Hell.

I actually think the comparison with Lost is a really good one, because we saw a number of similar episodes on Lost where one or more characters escape the Island and yet end up back on it. In Lost, there were elaborate multi-episode arcs and convoluted plans to move characters on and off the island. Critically, they all fit together and made sense (at least in the short term), a fact testified to by the legions of fans who would leap on any apparent disruption in logical continuity. The Prisoner suffered from no such scrutiny. The variation in tone, loss of continuity and episodes like this one (where they empty the whole place out for what can only be described as an elaborate practical joke on Number Six) are commonplace.

The people who made The Prisoner were focused not on stringing out detailed mysteries or even giving the illusion that every detail would be explained. Rover and Lost's Smoke Monster are perfect examples in the differences. The former is widely seen to have inspired the latter, and as one would expect of Lost, Smokey had an elaborate backstory (and one which was ultimately not very satisfying). Rover, on the other hand, is never explained and exists entirely to satisfy the need to make the Village a really difficult prison. In terms of popular television, Lost created an incredible ride for the audience, no detail of the plot or the mysteries could be dropped. Despite this one has to admit that in the end an awful lot was either just dropped or resolved in an entirely half-assed fashion, and you are ultimately left asking what was the point of it all. The Prisoner was never interested in the details, its stories were variations on a theme of imprisonment and resistance, and of the individual in modern society. Repetition and variation was fine and served to create emphasis. The result is, despite a decided lack of continuity, the story is ultimately very satisfying.

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

-- In order to make the final reveal of Mrs. Butterworth as Number Two a surprise, the opener featured a former, male Number Two. Apparently, Number Two/Butterworth was trusted enough that she was permitted the freedom of the outside world.

-- The date when Six arrived in London was March 18. The date in the previous episode was February 10.

-- The Village is off the coast of Morocco. Or on the coast of Morocco. Maybe.

-- Six used the alias "Peter Smith".

-- This episode was directed by Patrick McGoohan using the alias Joseph Serf.

Three out of four birthday cakes,

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


  1. I think with "Lost", the storytelling was constructed so that a reveal was expected. Which frustrated the viewers when it was slow to come, or not given at all. In the "Prisoner", there isn't a mystery built up around Rover. It's a tool to be used, like phasers and warp drives in Star Trek. (In Rodenberry's series notes, he mentions that a cop on the street doesn't have to explain chemical reactions before using a gun. In the same way, Star Trek just had to make clear what the tool was and its limitations, not be a science lecture. Which is odd, given how much technobabble later writers used.)

    For emptying the village, I thought it made a strong statement about the massive resources available to the Village (and what Six was up against) that they could go to such lengths for a bizarre birthday present. (March 19th, same as McGoohan.)

    More Companion notes:
    - "Although it is fairly clear that the British superiors weren't in on it this time, we can't be certain." In Chimes of Big Ben, they are clearly in on it. In this episode, it is implied that the milkman took out the real pilot, in order to get Number Six back to the village.
    - When Six gets back to England, he is still surrounded by images of imprisonment (barbed wire on fences and bars on the windows of a moving truck).
    - "Mrs Butterworth... wears a black badge with a reversed-out white penny-farthing symbol. This is the only Number Two in the entire series to sport a black badge. No reason is ever given."

  2. The first episode was already a proof that the village only exists Mr. Smith alias Nr. 6's mind. I mean, one can order people to stop on the street. But can you stop the water flowing ?! No, so no village. It's that simple.
    Here, in this amusing episode the inconsistency is at the end, where Nr. 6 gets unwillingly ejected from the plane. The script editor was not attentive here: It's true that pilots get these black 'visors' down before ejecting, but Nr.6 had no idea that he was leaving the plane, so he shouldn't have lowered his visor...
    That just adds another confusion in an overall very confused story which is as absurd as fascinating.



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