Monday, 20 December 2010

The Prisoner Challenge: Once Upon A Time

Leo McKern returns as Number 2.

This Number 2, last seen in the second episode The Chimes of Big Ben, has been brought back to the Village for the second-to-last episode, and he's not happy about it.

It seems from his single-mindedness that he has been brought back for one purpose only - to break Number 6 - and to achieve this he demands to use a method called "Degree Absolute." Although, as always, we don't hear the voice of his superior (Number 1?), it is clear that he is unwilling, but eventually acquiesces, granting Number 2 one week to try his plan.

Number 6 is hypnotised and regressed back to his childhood. Number 2 and the Butler take him to a sealed room below Number 2's house. And for the great majority of this episode it is only these three - Number 6, Number 2 and his Butler - that appear.

A strong, constant light seems to keep Number 6 hypnotised, following him around the room as the age of childhood plays out, the sealed room full of schoolroom and playground objects.

If you know this episode then I'm sure you'll know from this point on it's all in the dialogue between Number 2 and Number 6 (the Butler silent as ever). Every time I watch different lines, interpretations and meanings stand out for me: what follows is just for this time. And if you don't know this episode...

"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon's mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound."

Number 2 takes Number 6 through his childhood to the point of his graduation, all the time taking the roles of father, teacher or mentor, and then asks why he resigned. But Number 6 can't - or won't - answer, and becomes violent with Number 2 until the Butler clubs him unconscious.
"I'm beginning to like him," says Number 2 when this happens.

Number 2 takes Number 6 through his days of boxing training to the point of him being "the champ" and then asks him why he resigned. Again violence is the response.

Next it is fencing. And by this point the intensity of the two actors - McGoohan and McKern - is incredible. Number 6 disarms Number 2, and McKern taunts McGoohan and dares him to kill, but McGoohan refuses. Just look at their faces in this scene:

McKern, in particular, was supposed to have been brought to the brink of either a nervous breakdown or a heart attack (accounts differ, according to Wikipedia). I can believe it of either. Just look at the difference between here:
and here:

But even if not true and it's pure acting; what acting!

Next Number 2 takes Number 6 back to a scene that could have been his recruitment into the secret service - as a cocky young man convinced the job he has applied for is a cover for the sort of work he really wants; that he thinks he's really qualified for.

This is followed by a scene that shows another side of Number 6 we have not previously seen - up in court for a driving offence, he tries to use his position to get off the charge, but the judge - Number 2 of course - isn't having it.

Amongst all of this rapid and intense wordplay is some kind of safeguard built into Number 6's hypnosis - he can't say or recognise the number "six" - and Number 2 tests this every so often to check the conditioning remains in place.

Number 6 is put behind bars. Number 2 again asks him why he resigned and this time seems to get an answer: "Peace... Peace of mind."
Then he begins to turn the tables on Number 2 until McKern says "I'll kill you!"
To this McGoohan gives the best response to that threat I can imagine:
"I'll die."
Number 6 gets a knife and hands it to Number 2, making it easy for him to carry out his threat. He lies on the floor to make himself helpless. But this time it is Number 2 that cannot kill; the reverse of the fencing scene.

Number 2 moves on to the next stage in Number 6's life - the war. We see scenes of Number 6 as a crewman of a plane dropping bombs on (presumably) Germany, until forced to bail out. He is then a prisoner of a German-shouting McKern in the place of those who captured him.

Both the times that Number 6 comes back to being himself are when he is behind bars - a prisoner, just as he is in the Village. But this time Number 6 has broken through his conditioning, and Number 2 realises it when McGoohan says the number six.

Number 6, now aware of his surroundings, has recognised the plan Number 2 is using as Degree Absolute, and he knows the risks being taken by Number 2 - in this 'doctor/patient' relationship, sometimes they can switch places.
"Why don't you resign?" he asks.

The light now follows Number 2 around, not Number 6, as he shows Number 6 around "the Embryo Room."

"Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

There are only five minutes until Number 2's week is up. Number 6 locks Number 2 behind the bars of the detachable living area. The Butler does nothing to interfere, indeed by taking the key from Number 6 he appears to have swapped sides along with the light.
"He thinks you're the boss now."
"I am."

As the clock counts down the final minutes the tables have turned completely and it is Number 2 that is broken by Number 6. The intensity of their duel - for the actors as well as their characters - reaches its climax as McGoohan counts down the last minute second by second.

In the final moments the desperate Number 2 almost succeeds by asking - with humility - why Number 6 resigned, instead of demanding the answer from a position of authority, but it is too late. "Six," he gasps, with six seconds left on the clock.
"Die, Six, die!" shouts McGoohan at this point, and presumably he doesn't mean himself.

And at zero, Number 2 (or is it Number 6 now?) dies.

The Supervisor stands at the open door. "Congratulations," he says. "What do you desire?"

"Number 1."

"I'll take you."

Is this it?

Next: Fall Out

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