Revisiting The Prisoner, revisited: “All the world’s a stage” in a strange bedtime story

As I was looking over my posts on The Prisoner, I realized I didn’t write much about the penultimate episode. I correct that oversight now…

Once Upon a Time

Once Upon a Time is unique in several aspects. It again features the great Leo McKern, reprising his Number 2 from the second episode (effectively “bookending” the series). The majority of the plot takes place in a single room, and it is also one of the few episodes that doesn’t feature a female character. It’s also an episode that drops some very clear clues as to why McGoohan is in the Village… a topic I will cover later.

Finally, it’s an amazing piece of storytelling. The premise is simple – the new/old Number 2 returns, apparently not by choice. He calls McGoohan and asks, directly, “Why do you care?” About what? People? Principles? Why do you resist? Or all of the above.

He shouts out to his master (Number 1?) on the phone “We have to use extreme measures… I am a good man… But he will be better.”

He speaks about recruitment, and a transition of McGoohan to a leadership position… Not about interrogation. Hmm.

“Degree Absolute. Deny it, please.” Number 2 asks,

His master(s) do not deny it, and so he and a (brainwashed and brand wiped) McGoohan have to face each other in the Embryo Room, where McGoohan evolves through the seven stages of man, from Shakespeare, from As You Like it: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, and second childhood. Well, he actually doesn’t go through all seven. He only goes through the first five. One could argue that he becomes a pantaloon in the final episode…

Is McGoohan reliving his own life in these scenes? Or are they metaphors? We don’t know but they are still riveting.

In the end McGoohan ends up as judge over Number 2… And calling for his execution. Or does he?

“Die, Six, Die!” is the words McGoohan uses as Number 2 literally runs out of time. Is he killing Number 2, or striking out against the number the warders have given him? I think it’s the later, and that the death of 2 is not a result of any action on McGoohan’s part. At some point I’ll seek out the shooting script to see what it says about this scene.

In interviews about this episode McKern stated that it was one of the most grueling acting efforts he had ever done and it almost drove him to have a nervous breakdown. You can tell – the electricity and the tension between he and McGoohan is palpable on screen, and it makes for riveting viewing.

And then, next episode, The End, where we find out who Number 1 really is…