Revisiting The Prisoner, part 4: Wherein McGoohan runs for office and, by winning, loses.

In anticipation of the re-imagined The Prisoner, coming to AMC November 15th, and in celebration of the new blu-ray release, I’m re-watching all 17 classic episodes. Join me, won’t you?

“Free for All”

“Obey me and be free!”

That’s a very quickly-spoken statement McGoohan says at the end of “Free For All”, the fourth episode of The Prisoner broadcast, and it goes by so fast I never noticed it until I rewatched it last night. And if you pay attention, it was dubbed in to the show in post-production and not recorded “live.”

That quote is a big Key to the puzzle, I think, and captures the subtext of the episode nicely. An episode that is about as damning an inditement of the electoral process as ever created.

(A quick sidebar – since I consider Number 6 to affectively BE McGoohan – as the show was his vision and all I have read about him sounds like he was a glaring raging guy in real life too, I refer to the main character as McGoohan in these posts. I think that is especially appropriate when discussing this episode, as he also wrote and directed it).

Here’s a short plot summary: The New Number 2 is running for reelection, and he wants McGoohan to run against him “for the good of Village morale.” Skeptically, McGoohan accepts, and soon after his public declaration is saddled with an assistant, Number 58, a cute young maid who can’t even speak English. McGoohan then gets swept up in a bizarre council meeting with Number 2 and his “cabinet” – 2a, 2b, 2c, etc… when he speaks back to the council he is drugged and subjected to The Truth Test, where they ask him why he decided to run.

We never hear McGoohan’s responses, but the person administering the test seems to as he monitors a visual of McGoohan’s profile and two sliding indicators on the wall. “You want to help them?” The man asks, and McGoohan both agrees and disagrees simultaneously – a key point to note – he wants his own freedom, but he also wants to help his fellow Villagers “wake up” and escape.

After The Truth Test (and making sure they don’t “damage the tissue”) he’s brainwashed, and becomes a “puppet candidate” who starts talking about how he will bring “freedom” to the Village… not literal freedom, of course, but freedom from fear and worry – security. Sounds familiar?

McGoohan fights the brainwashing, and tries to escape – I love that in the midst of even the weightiest of topics on The Prisoner they always try and work in an action sequence or two. After his capture and re-brainwashing, McGoohan wins, becomes the new Number 2, but we soon find that he’s really lost – the New New Number 2 is his assistant, who, after McGoohan is beaten (and posed, Christ-like) asks him in perfect English, “Will you ever learn?”

Interestingly, though the last episode “A, B, and C” was set mostly in a dream, it is this episode that is dream-like. It’s more a nightmare, and the instance that McGoohan is drugged before the Truth Test all the way through the end is a blend of both the realistic and the surreal. It’s powerful and provocative stuff, and one way of interpreting it – that elections only give us the illusion of control – is eye-opening.

Now, back to that quote. McGoohan says it after he is “woken up” so that is not programming – that’s his raw emotion coming through, when he thinks he has a chance to control The Village as Number 2. It’s both altruistic and egotistical at the same time – why do people run for office? To help people? Yes, some do… but many do it for the power, and that quote – “Obey me and be free” – refers to that darker egocentric reason. To be in charge, to take over, because you know what’s best for someone else…

To become Number 1.

It’s that ego, that part of him that makes him free and independent, also makes him susceptible to this type of plot – a lesson those in charge of The Village learned here and will reapply later (in the last episode “Fall Out”).

I could write hundreds more words on this one, but I’ll stop here. It’s one of my favorite episodes of any show EVER, and is one of the 7 core episodes that are must-sees for viewers if they want to even attempt to “get” what McGoohan is saying in his series. Though I love this episode it’s one that I can see some people not liking because of its structure and subtext. Like the best Art, it is open to interpretation and people’s reactions will vary.

Here’s the episode in its entirety (this is one you DON’T want to just watch a one-minute summary of):

Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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