Home Featured TV Shows All TV Shows Movie Reviews Book Reviews Articles Frequently Asked Questions About Us

The Prisoner: Once Upon a Time

"I'm no angel. But I'm very good at mathematics."

Two men enter. One man leaves.

This is exactly the sort of unanchored storytelling that drives me around the bend, but I thought they made it work. And it's at least possible to tell what's going on, for the most part. The "degree absolute" appeared to be a regression therapy with Six as the subject and Two playing the roles of everyone in authority — father, teacher, employer, judge, warden. As Six "grew up", Two constantly tried to get him to say the word "Six" and to say why he resigned. Six showed that he was just as stubborn a child as he is an adult. He kept going up to five and stopping. He refused to rat on a classmate, and chose death over dishonor. I thought it was hilarious that halfway through, Two said, "I'm beginning to like him."

Something like this only works when the actors are very good, and Patrick McGoohan and Leo McKern are indeed terrific. I particularly liked McGoohan's demented rendition of "Pop Goes the Weasel," and the boxing match in the playpen. It really is something of a stage play, a bottle show in a bottle we've never seen before, with costumes and props and lines. The first scene in the episode even shows a curtain opening before Two reviews on screen many of Six's best moments from the rest of the series.

The regression began with nursery rhymes, and the stages of life were taken directly from Shakespeare's As You Like It. But it is Two who ends up "sans everything," dead on the floor of the mock prison. With Two gone, it is winner take all. Six has apparently become Number Two, and the Supervisor is going to take him to Number One. This penultimate episode was supposed to be the first season finale, and it feels like one. When the show wasn't renewed, they reshot the final scene and came up with a series finale.

Ben P Duck Number Five says...

Number Two: HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!
Number Five: Ummm, whatcha doin?
Number Two: Just a little Leo McKern homage. Now, let's count to five.
Number Five: Four?
Number Two: One, two, three, four...
Number Five: Head?
Number Two: Then shalt thou count to five, no more, no less. Five shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be five. Six shalt thou not count, neither count thou two or three or four, excepting that thou then proceed to five. Six is right out.
Number Five: Four?
Number Two: HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA! I am kind of enjoying maniacal laughter.

Before I started working on these reviews, when I thought of The Prisoner, this was the episode I always thought of as THE episode. Not really a fair thing, since it was one of the more extreme and surreal episodes, and frankly, some of the dialogue was quite difficult to follow, much less make sense of. This episode is really where the end game begins. As I understand it, McGoohan originally planned out seven episodes including this one and its follow-up "Fall Out", which were to conclude either the season or the series (depending on who you asked), so many things I have to say here apply to both episodes.

This episode tries to deconstruct Number Six to find a point at which his unbreakable rebelliousness was, in fact, breakable. So its parents, teachers, bosses, commanders vs. Number Six, who will never give in and apparently never had. Of course, in this episode more than most, we are meant to see Number 6 as rather literally the spirit of the free individual as opposed by Number Two as the spirit of the collective. What's interesting is that we have Leo McKern, the most recognizable face on Number Two, who is in many ways the central character of the episode. What kills Number Two in the end is the idea that a person such as Number Six could exist.

This could just be another example of the same theme we seen throughout the series. But then in the end (and this is where you have to consider both episodes together) something really interesting happens. Having defeated Number Two in a battle of psychobabble, Number Six is faced with the ultimate challenge to his freedom: he gets what he wants. This episode and the final one were really about the danger of winning, defeating those who would control us and finding ourselves co-opted into the system. I don't want to say too much about the finale yet, but the enemy isn't simply the right or the left trying to take over our lives, it's all of the above. Interestingly, they are prescient in understanding that all of the rebellion of the 1960's leads inevitably into the me-decade of the 1970's and the selling-out of the 1980's as the Baby Boomers win their arguments with earlier generations. This episode is the one where we begin to see that a victory of the individual is problematic in its own right.

Back to Billie for bits and pieces:

-- Both Two and the butler were wearing weird shades to protect them from the regression.

-- There was a lot of Angelo Muscat as the butler.

-- This episode was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan.

-- Six: "A fool. Not a rat."

-- Two: "I'm big. But you're tall."

I'm not sure if this episode deserves a four, because it's not my type of episode. Three? Two?

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


  1. More notes from the Companion:
    - This was originally conceived as the final episode of the first group of thirteen. It is hard to think about this episode without thinking about the final episode, "Fall Out," as well. However, "Fall Out" was not even in the planning stages at the time this was filmed. The exact amount of time that elapsed between "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out" is open to some question, but it could be as long as six months. When it was decided that The Prisoner would last only seventeen episodes, "Once Upon a Time" was designated as the "penultimate" episode and shelved.
    - In this episode Number Six gives the most direct answer to the question "Why did you resign?" After intense interrogation, he says simply, "I resigned for peace of mind."

  2. This is my favorite episode of The Prisoner. I cannot watch it too many times, lest I wear it out. Top notch melding of pop psychology and Shakespeare. If writing on mainstream, network television in the US were half as good as this, then I would never stray from ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
    Sadly, it is not.
    Love your reviews, BTW.


We love comments! We moderate because of spam and trolls, but don't let that stop you! It’s never too late to comment on an old show, but please don’t spoil future episodes for newbies.