Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: Many Happy Returns

Many Happy Returns is one of the most interesting episodes of The Prisoner. The first time I saw it I was gripped all the way through, because even though I knew I was less than half-way through the series it looks very much as if Number 6 has escaped from the Village.

Note: I would say this episode is particularly vulnerable to being spoiled if you know what happens in it, so if you haven't seen it yet then you read on at your own risk.

The episode starts with Number 6 waking up to find the Village abandoned, so he is free to do what he wants with nobody else there to get in his way.

Big Gay Longcat says: except for the cat! The cat is still there!

Number 6 immediately attempts to escape, as you would expect. He makes a raft, and takes photographs of the Village before he goes (these days this scene reminds me of myself taking photos of Portmeirion when I was there on holiday) as proof of its existence.

While sailing the raft he keeps a careful log so he can trace his way back to the Village. When at least 18 days have passed Number 6 passes out and then the raft is found by some sailors, who take his food and things from the raft and toss Number 6 overboard.

But he gets on board their boat and finds out they are German-speaking arms smugglers. In the days of the Cold War, of course, Germans could come from either side of the Iron Curtain so Number 6 still doesn't know which side of it he's on.

After distracting them with smoke from a fire so he can take them on one at a time, Number 6 gets control of the boat. As it approaches land, they get free and struggle with Number 6. When one of them pulls a gun Number 6 jumps overboard to get away.

He makes it ashore and then wanders around until he finds some people - gypsies who don't speak any English. Unable to communicate with them, Number 6 moves on.

He finally gets confirmation he is in Britain when he sees a British policeman, but as they are a symbol of authority (which his time in the Village has taught him to be wary of) Number 6 decides on discretion and avoids them. He hides in the back of a van and this takes him to London.

Having finally escaped from the Village and made it back to London, what does he do? He goes home - to the house we see him get gassed in every episode in the title sequence.
But somebody else lives there now.

His car (again, the one from the titles) pulls up and Mrs Butterworth gets out. After convincing her he knows about the car she invites him in. Obviously her living room looks just like Number 6's house in the Village - that's what it was modelled on, after all.

He gives his name as "Peter Smith." Mrs Butterworth believes he is in some kind of trouble and she gives him a change of clothes and a lend of the car. His old car. The scene that follows echoes the title sequence precisely - the car follows the same route Number 6 travelled to his resignation; he enters the same room.

Thorpe and 'The Colonel' are skeptical of Number 6 when he tells them of the Village and shows them his photographs of it. Thorpe calls it a "holiday resort" which is something of a fourth-wall breaking statement (these days, if not necessarily at the time the episode was made).

"You resign. You disappear. You return. You spin a yarn that Hans Christian Andersen would reject for a fairytale," Thorpe sums up their view. But his story checks out along the line as far as it can be checked, and they begin hunting for the location of the Village using his log.
If correct it puts the Village "Coast of Morocco, south-west of Portugal and Spain," as the Colonel puts it.

That is the best they can do from London with what Number 6 has supplied them with. The next step is to fly over this area and look for the Village from the air. Number 6 keeps a look out and navigates while a pilot does the actual flying. But then when they sight the Village the pilot says "Be seeing you" and ejects Number 6 from the plane, landing him on the beach.

Big Gay Longcat says: the cat watches him return to the Village.
I think the cat is in charge. He is Number 1 Cat.

Mrs Butterworth, revealed as Number 2, comes in with a cake and wishes Number 6 "Many happy returns." It is his birthday.

It would appear that the location of the Village is revealed in this episode. But is it? Certainly the events of Fall Out show it can't be off the "coast of Morocco" and we have already had one red herring as to the location of the Village in The Chimes of Big Ben.

I am of the opinion that the Village was in control of the situation throughout this episode, and so they could easily have led Number 6, through their usual combination of drugs and brainwashing, to put the location of the Village at wherever they chose to.

But if we take The Prisoner at the higher levels of sci-fi that it seems to operate at in episodes such as The General, or the allegorical level it comes to in Fall Out, then there are other explanations.

There could be several Villages, identical in all respects (except, perhaps, the people in them - hence the interchangeable individuals occupying certain Numbers), throughout the world - one in Lithuania, one off the cost of Morocco, one in Kent, one in North Wales, etc. Number 6 could be moved between them while asleep (drugged, naturally).

Or perhaps the Village can move around. After all, "anything's possible in this place," as Number 6 remarks in The General. Or perhaps the Village can be anywhere because it is everywhere. Who knows?
"All I know is there's no escape."

Aside from the question of whether or not Number 6 has discovered the Village's location, there is also, arising from Many Happy Returns, the question of just how in control of the situation Number 2 and the Village were?

They seemingly allowed Number 6 the freedom to do whatever he wanted - it must have been obvious to them he would have tried to escape the Village as quickly as he could. But after that? Did they take steps to ensure he took a certain course of action, or did they just predict - with frightening accuracy - exactly what he would do?

Both questions are not answered explicitly in the series and so are up to the individual viewer's interpretation. In this respect I would say Many Happy Returns is the most ambiguous episode prior to Fall Out (though that one leads the field by a mile).

My interpretation is that the Village must have known exactly what Number 6 would do, so placed Mrs Butterworth/Number 2 in his house so that he would, to all intents and purposes, run straight to her.

And then at the end, with the ease with which they put him back in the Village, this is a demonstration of their power - the extent of their control and their reach. In this respect it is similar to Free For All, but I find this episode much more effective because, right up to the point at which he is ejected from the plane, Number 6 is in control of his own actions but he still plays right into their hands.

This is an excellent episode, and although subsequent viewings cannot quite live up to how good I thought it was the first time I saw it, that's the greatest criticism I can think of.

Next: Dance of the Dead

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