Revisiting The Prisoner, The End: Where we find out who Number One really is

I grew impatient over this past week and decided to cut right to the chase – rewatching the last two episodes. Here’s my thoughts on the series finale, and if I have time I will post additional thoughts on the remaining episodes.

“Fall Out”

This episode is not intended for All Audiences – any viewer who needs things Spelled Out For Them need not apply.

One thing I love about The Prisoner is how it resets viewers expectations at almost every turn. Think that the hero will win? Nope. Think that the show will follow conventional narratives? Uh… no. Think that the bad guy will be revealed in typical James Bond spy fashion, like finally seeing Blofeld in You Only Live Twice? Well…

As many reading this may know, the reaction of viewers when this episode was first aired in the UK was… let’s just use the word “unhappy” as a catch-all. People were pissed off. McGoohan was assaulted on the street by viewers the month following the episode’s airing. I can only imagine what was screamed at him during the incident.

“What was all that? You call that an ending? What the hell did it MEAN?”

Quite a lot, actually, and McGoohan famously never tried to explain it to anyone for the rest of his days on earth… though he did use one phrase in describing Number I that is descriptive in its simplicity:

“Number Six’ alter-ego”

That in the end is what I think is the point of all of it – that the rebels ultimately become the leaders, and that individuals are drawn, ultimately, to become members of the collective – often, to lead them. “Lead us, show us the way” the judge says in the finale, playing to the ego we see on display in so many episodes before. McGoohan accepts… and then rejects, violently, which in turn brings us back to square one – the last shot of the series is the same as one of the first shots of the series – McGoohan driving his car through a desert, defiant and about to resign, again… and so it goes, forever.

“You accepted”
“I rejected!”
You accepted before you rejected!”

– dialogue from “Once Upon a Time”

The independent man rebels, conforms…. and then rebels again… Because he needs society as much as society needs him. As much as he resists, he eventually conforms… but sometimes it is not without a fight.

“The lone wolf belongs in the wilderness!” – Number Two, Once Upon a Time

Who is Number I? well, it’s McGoohan – the free man, who became the leader of the very thing he rebelled against – the establishment. The power of control was too tempting, so he accepted.. then he rejected… Like a moebius strip, the show folds into its own self… he was rebelling against his own ego, his own prison, all the time. The ego of self.


The being we observed through all 17 of these episodes was a leader – and we all crave leadership. That is the secret of the Village – that to some extent all of us want someone to take charge and be in control – it’s EASIER than being responsible to your own self. Being free comes with its own burdens… if you fail, no one helps you. You are all alone. Wouldn’t it be easier if someone took care of things for you? That is what the Village represented. That is what many people wants our world’s government to provide.

That is what I am afraid we have become: Children who want someone else to to take Control for us. So we can enjoy our bread and circuses – read our cheesy novels like Twilight, watch American Idol… A world where we can have all of our needs attended to.

Like healthcare, for example.

“So, what’s it all about?!” – McGoohan, “Arrival”

What does it mean? Well, it means what it is, as McGoohan stated in the episode “Chimes of Big Ben”. It is an epic of imagination and a singular vision, a series that spoke to the need of individuals to be individual, no matter what the consequences. It is a series that in alternating episodes rejects violence and then embraces it, as a necessary part of revolution. It is a show that will be remembered and referenced decades from now (unlike the recent AMC remake).

It is. Like all art, it needs to be interpreted and understood on its own merit. Is the Mona Lisa smiling? And why? We bring our own answer – and my answer to what The Prisoner means is as legitimate as anyone who approaches the series with any degree of seriousness.

So, did he escape? Yes and no… but as Patrick McGoohan is no longer with us, we can at least say with some degree of confidence that he’s on parole.

Be seeing you.

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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