Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: Living in Harmony

One of the strongest episodes of the series, Living in Harmony stands apart from the rest of the series in more ways than one, firstly by managing to tell the whole story of The Prisoner in a single episode, and secondly by being set - for the most part - in a different time and place; the American 'Wild West' instead of the Cold War Village.

There are not even any of the usual Prisoner titles. It begins with a sheriff (McGoohan) resigning by handing in his badge and gun to a Marshal, a direct parallel to the resignation scene shown as part of the usual title sequence.

Ambushed by a group of men, knocked out and taken away slung over a horse, 'Living in Harmony' appears on screen as the only title. "Harmony" is the name of the town (village?) that the former sheriff is taken to.
"Welcome to Harmony, stranger," is the first dialogue of the episode.

The music stops when he enters the saloon. Now I'm no expert on westerns, but I know this for one of the clich├ęs of that genre, and it is already clear by this point that this is being played as an all-out western, to be taken as such just as much as it is an episode of The Prisoner.

Valerie French as Kathy

David Bauer as the Judge

Alexis Kanner as the Kid

There he meets Kathy, the friendly barmaid, the corrupt Judge that runs Harmony from his table in the saloon, and the creepy Kid, one of the Judge's henchmen and the best gunfighter in the town. The Judge is quick to offer the former sheriff a position in Harmony.

"I'm not for hire."
"You turned in your badge..."
"And my gun."
"What were your reasons?"
"My reasons."
"You've already taken a job?" the Judge assumes. "Who with?"
"'With whom?'" The question is evaded, not denied.
"Look, I'm offering you a job. Harmony's a good town."

He refuses but, just as with the Village, leaving Harmony isn't easy. When the townsfolk turn ugly he's taken into "protective custody" by the Judge, locked up, and another man is lynched in his place.

It's an ugly, menacing scene that reminds me of the closing moments of Dance of the Dead when the screaming mob of villagers pursue Number 6.

A first abortive escape attempt with the assistance of Kathy - sister of the lynched man - parallels the ending of Arrival. But when he is brought back to Harmony the Judge puts Kathy on trial for helping him escape, and she is found guilty by this crooked court. The price for releasing her is the former sheriff has to work for the Judge.

He doesn't give in straight away, but the Judge applies more pressure by putting the Kid in charge of the jail, with the unspoken threat that Kathy isn't safe from his unwelcome attentions.

Reluctantly he takes up the post of sheriff once more, but at the same time refuses to touch the gun the Judge offers him:
"I agreed to wear the badge but not the gun."
"It's a start," admits the Judge. "You'll find this a rough town without a gun."
But even when the Judge sends his men to beat up the new sheriff, he still refuses to carry a gun to protect himself.

Meanwhile the Kid is showing signs of becoming ever more unhinged and obsessed, killing a saloon patron for being over-friendly with Kathy, the object of the Kid's obsession.

When the Judge has a man killed for talking to the sheriff, it doesn't provoke the sheriff in the way the judge hoped - instead of pushing him into taking up the gun, he plans an escape with Kathy. But while he sets things up by taking out the Judge's lookouts on the edge of town, the Kid murders Kathy in a jealous rage.

When Kathy fails to make their rendezvous, the sheriff returns to town and sees the Kid leaving the scene of the crime. Finding Kathy's body, finally he is pushed into taking up the gun the Judge provided for him.

In a shootout the Kid is finally out-drawn. The sheriff goes into the saloon and the Judge congratulates him. But Kathy's death means the Judge has nothing holding the sheriff to him, and he informs the Judge he has quit. This provokes a revealing response from the Judge:
"Nobody walks out on me. I'm not letting you join some other outfit. I'll kill you first."

The former sheriff out-shoots three of the Judge's men before he is shot by the Judge himself. Clutching his head, he collapses to the ground. It seems as though the Judge has carried out his threat to kill the man rather than let him leave Harmony.

But this is not the end of the episode. Number 6, his hands to his head, wakes up. He is in the saloon, lying where the sheriff collapsed, being confronted by a cardboard cut-out of the Judge. He runs around the abandoned town of Harmony until he hears familiar Village music and soon finds himself back in familiar surroundings.

In Number 2's house he sees the Judge (Number 2), the Kid (Number 8) and Kathy (Number 22), alive and well. When he departs these three begin their recriminations about the failure of their latest project. But while Number 2 and Number 8 argue, Number 22 is simply upset.

She leaves and makes her way to the Harmony set, the scene of 'her' murder. But Number 8 is there waiting for her. Calling her "Kathy," he strangles her. Number 6, who is looking around the Harmony set, hears her scream and comes running. He punches out Number 8, but Number 22 dies in his arms saying only "I wish it had been real."

Number 2 arrives on the scene and Number 8, calling him "Judge," kills himself in front of Number 2. Number 6 walks out of the room, leaving Number 2 there with two bodies, and the saloon doors swing closed behind him.

This is just a brilliant episode - an exceptional story played straight with four outstanding performances at the centre. It works as both a western (up to the point at which the sheriff is killed) and as part of The Prisoner series once the 'Virtual Reality' aspect is revealed.

The execution of the Virtual Reality, with cardboard cut-outs and strange electronic headsets contrasting with a very realistic set to stage it within, looks quite dated now, but I can't help but think that this must have been very ahead of its time in 1967, with VR being at about the level of the mindswapping of Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling in terms of sci-fi concepts.

It is the performance of the actors that sells its plausibility to me - however the VR looks, the idea that they could get so caught up in their roles that it results in two deaths is conveyed very believably. Alexis Kanner in particular I would single out - as the Kid he was creepy and menacing and had no lines, but when he speaks as Number 8 just the way he says "Kathy" conveys everything it needs to about his fucked up mind.

I am given to understand, though it is difficult for me to appreciate in 2010, that this episode hit so close to home in the USA that it was banned at the time of The Prisoner's first showing there, due to the Vietnam war and the political situation of the time and the strong anti-war message of this story.

I would say that Living in Harmony has the same message as the rest of The Prisoner, but it is not difficult to see why this one episode would be singled out - more than any other by far, it speaks the language that Americans would be familiar with, westerns being far more a part of their culture than in the UK. And so it would hit much closer to home than episodes set in and around a welsh village...

For me the cleverest part of the episode is the way the western story parallels the overall story of The Prisoner, from his resignation to his death - a point still to come for Number 6 but a possible future nonetheless. The fate of the sheriff is surely the fate that awaits Number 6 if he resists the Village indefinitely.

One of my two favourite episodes, second only to one...

Next: The Girl Who Was Death

1 comment:

  1. The story of the "Harmony" episode offending the network in the USA is old-school blarney, so you were right to find it difficult to believe. The story seems to have been made up in the 1980's to help promotes sales of the early video releases.

    If you watch the 1977 interview McGoohan did in Canada,you will notice that this *censorship* is never mentioned and it would otherwise have been a big talking-point.

    I have a blog here, which explains what actually hapened: