When I wrote up my review of “The Prisoner” on Saturday, all I could do was promise you that even if the series didn’t immediately seem to be distinguishing itself from the Patrick McGoohan original, writer Bill Gallagher had his own unique agenda to put across.
Now, with all six hours in the books, I feel inclined to at least briefly delve into some of those themes, because I find the miniseries so very intriguing, if not wholly successful in its execution.
Since I know that some people will plan on watching “The Prisoner” in a big block this weekend or maybe catch it on DVD or possibly download the whole thing off of iTunes, all spoilers will be reserved until after the break.
In my review, I warned y’all that the entire theme of the miniseries (or one strong theme of the miniseries) could be encapsulated in the lyrics of the closing song.
That song? The Beach Boys’ “I Know There’s an Answer,” off of my pick for the greatest album of the 20th Century.
I could just cut and past Brian Wilson’s lyrics here and call it a day, but let’s just go with the first verse and move on.
“I know so many people who think they can do it alone
They isolate their heads and stay in their saftey zones
Now what can you tell them
And what can you say that won’t make them defensive
I know there’s an answer
I know now but I have to find it by myself”
While the original “Prisoner” gave its viewers a mish-mash of trippy, ambiguous endings that have been read and reinterpreted for four decades (and more to come), AMC’s “Prisoner” gave an answer. A concrete, if slightly baffling answer.
The Village? It’s all in their heads.
First reaction: How the heck does that work? Literally, I mean. There was still one level of practical reality that the miniseries skipped out on, the pull-back reveal of bodies in capsules with their heads all hooked up to wires as freaky octopus creatures fed on their emotions or some other “Matrix” or “Dark City”-style construct.
I don’t have an answer for that. I also can’t really be bothered to try to figure it out. What would that gain?
A better question is: Why? Don’t just say “It was all in their head” and walk away as if that’s some sort of answer for that Gallagher and director Nick Hurran were trying to do with “The Prisoner.” This wasn’t a series that was building to a shocking twist ending. “It was all in their head” wasn’t a twist for the sake of a twist. It was a twist that tied together everything that this “Prisoner” was that the original “Prisoner” was not.
Because this is my blog, I’m gonna give my reading and folks are free to disagree as they see fit.
Like the original, this “Prisoner” was about surveillance, but it was about a world in which we’re constantly being watched, but nobody’s really seeing or processing anything. What good is it to have cameras everywhere if those cameras can’t prevent tragedies? It’s not a coincidence that the Summakor buildings hovered on the outskirts of The Village like reanimated Twin Towers or that the heart of the story’s alleged “real” world was New York City. We can watch all we like. We can film everything we like. But vigilance has its limitations. And it’s not just the big things we’re missing, the terrorist acts that we spy too late to take action. We’re not noticing the people around us. We live in bubbles of our own devising. We’re encouraged to peep and then punished for peeping (just like 1100, the little Village girl in “Anvil”).
Jim Caviezel’s Six (or Michael) was targeted because he was a professional observer, but more than that, he noticed people. His job was surveillance, but he actually was able to recognize that some people under his watch had change, that they’d transformed.
The transformation was seemingly one for the better. The Village was a psych experiment which, we’re told, left people feeling better.
The Village was the ultimate placebo, but it’s reflective of a society in which people prefer to handle their pain and emotional troubles in any way other than actually feeling that pain and facing those troubles. It’s communal healing without any sort of real world community, an artificial way of feeling like you’re connected to a larger group without ever truly leaving your living room or ever getting out of bed or ever taking the needle out of your arm.
The Village is Second Life. The Village is World of Warcraft. The Village is Facebook or Twitter. But, perhaps even more so, The Village is Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz, with Number 2 as a seemingly benevolent paternal figure providing cryptical platitudes and empty smiles and meaningless distractions. No, the new “Prisoner” didn’t have the entertaining series of 2s that fans loved in the original, but it also left no doubt that Ian McKellen’s 2 wouldn’t be the first or last 2. How many people are content to let Glenn Beck be their 2? Or Oprah? Who will be next week’s 2?
So “The Prisoner” puts viewers in an interesting position: For five hours, 6 ran around trying to tell everybody that they were trapped in a prison, while the other inhabitants just smiled and went on with their lives, lives in which they didn’t crave self-destructive vices or in which lost loved ones were still present. And in the last hour, we seemed to see that, in the real world, The Village really was having beneficial effects. With the help of The Village — however the heck it works — the characters played by Lennie James and Ruth Wilson were, once again, functional happy members of society. Disconnected from The Village, the pain returned.
Happiness in a lie with no free will? Or pain in a harsh real world in which free will is frequently fickle or artificial? How many people would take the easy out and just say “Screw free will, I want to eat wraps, sight-see and get a nice tan.”
“The world is not a pretty thing when you look at it too close. We fell in love with atrocity. We make pornography and call it news, the daily fix of horror,” 2 tells 6.
Well screw the world.
That leaves Michael/Six with a choice at the end: He can either destroy the whole thing and send people back to their lives or he can sacrifice his real life to stay in The Village. And would you expect Jim Caviezel to make anything other than the Symbolic Jesus Choice? Michael’s first order of business will be stopping those darned sinkholes, within the sinkholes presumably representing the unwanted incursion of reality. Away, sinkholes! He vows to do a better job than Ian McKellen’s 2 did. But what would that even mean? And how damning was 313’s dead-eyed stare at the end, as they sit “happily” and psycho-medicated on a sand dune? It’s a horrible choice he’s made, but it’s also an honorable choice, of a horrible sort. But mostly horrible.
I’ve seen people making the “Matrix” comparison, but I think “The Prisoner” probably has more in common with “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “Dollhouse,” dramas in which people choose escape over coping and forgetfulness over the agony of experienced memory. “The Prisoner” fits into a discussion that’s been very central to the popular culture of the new millennium. It’s like I said in my original review when I said that one possible criticism/comparison is that the original “Prisoner” was both reflective and prescient, while the new one is mostly reflective.
I can live with that.
Anyway, as I mentioned in my review, I wrote multiple grad school essays on the original “Prisoner” and I think it would be easy (and not unrewarding) to do the same on the new version, since I’ve barely discussed the tip of the iceberg. But I have other work to do today, darnit.
But first… One last listen to “I Know There’s an Answer.”
Chime in, readers… What did you end up thinking of “The Prisoner”?