...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Day 3987: THE PRISONER 42nd 44th ANNIVERSARY: Living in Harmony


Daddy's put the wrong disk in the DVD player.

He says that this may LOOK like a Western but really it IS "The Prisoner" after all.

I say it's STILL the wrong disk… I wanted GOLDFINGER!

But apparently we're going to watch THIS…

welcome to harmony

A sheriff rides into town, storms into the Marshal's office and throws down his badge and gun. As he walks away, he is surrounded by toughs who knock him down and carry him off to a small town in the old West, a town called Harmony. D'you see what they did there?

There's no getting away from it: this week, "The Prisoner" goes completely bonkers, substituting an entirely alternative universe version of itself, where McGoohan uses his American accent a lot and punches people also a lot.

Harmony contains all the clich├ęs of the Western: the saloon bar with the whiskey in straight shots and the girl in silks and feathers; the jailhouse; the lynching; the corrupt city official with the black hat; the shootout with the sinister sharp-shooter; even the Mexican bandito!

What it doesn't have is anything particularly interesting to do with all these tropes once it has collected them.

As usual on these occasions, real men can drink prodigious quantities of whiskey without suffering the slighted impairment to the quick draw.

silver dollar saloon: prickly pear beers

We are now into the third phase of "The Prisoner". Previously we have had "Arrival", "Dance of the Dead", "The Chimes of Big Ben" "Checkmate" and "Free For All" as the first phase when he was "new here"; and then, in our revised order, "The Schizoid Man", "Many Happy Returns", "The General" and "A. B. & C." in the second phase.

We now have six more episodes before the final two-parter. Arguably all six see the Prisoner scoring victories over Number 2, but in three of them –"Hammer into Anvil", "It's Your Funeral" and "Change of Mind" – there is a distinctly personal nature to their conflict. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the most Village-centric episodes. In the other group – "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling", "Living in Harmony" and "The Girl Who Was Death" – we have what could be called the "out of Village" episodes, as all of them see the Prisoner in unfamiliar environments outside of Portmeirion (a jaunt to the continent; a Western town; and what Alex might call Englandland, a hyper-real "Avengers"-type version of the Home Counties).

We think that it is reasonable to infer that the former group belong later in the sequence, because they feature the Prisoner becoming proactive against the Village, reaching the height of his power against Number 2, able to use the machinery of the Village, turning it against and overthrowing Number 2 almost at will. In contrast – although we might make an exception for "The Girl Who Was Death" – the "out of Village" episodes still see a Village that is powerful, using its most blatant mind-control experiments with the Prisoner still on the defensive.

Let us therefore assume that our next episodes are the "out of Village" ones, because increasing drugs and mind-control feels like a logical extension from the events of "A. B. & C." We then have a choice of "Living in Harmony" or "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling". We're going to put "Living in Harmony" first because it seems like the Village contrives its own defeat as much as the Prisoner scores a victory over them compared to "Do Not Forsake Me…" where, even if he cannot escape himself, he can arrange for another inmate to get properly away.

Placed immediately after "A. B & C.", "Living in Harmony" might feel like a bit of a jump. In "A. B & C.", Number 14 described the process as untested and experimental, whereas in "Living in Harmony" the seemingly much more elaborate illusion is said by Number 8 to have worked before.

But it seems – from the outcome – that this process is more risky for the Village agents requiring their active participation, with accompanying risk of psychosomatic feedback, compared with the passive observation of "A. B. & C." which suggests a more extreme and therefore later attempt.

Alex suggests the creditable resolution to this conundrum. The process in "A. B & C." involves infiltrating the Prisoner's actual dreams, that is these are his real memories that they are influencing, whereas the events of "Living in Harmony" are an entirely created dreamscape, supported by props and actors. We might infer, therefore, that Number 14's experimental procedure in "A. B. & C." is actually a refinement of the drugs and brain-washing used more routinely here.

Because of the dangers involved, they've held off on this process until now. But once the milk-drinking Number 2 has exposed the Prisoner to the possibility that they can do this, they quickly move to use the technique in its proper guise rather than allow him time to compose a defence.

the Judge

David Bauer will, for me, always remain Mr Morten Slumber, proprietor of "Slumber Inc" crematorium and garden of remembrance in the James Bond film "Diamonds are Forever". When talking to Bond he's gloriously unctuous and totally, deliciously fake (he's almost certainly a member of the diamond smuggling pipeline masquerading as the real Mr Slumber in order to collect the diamonds from Bond's – improvised – method of smuggling them inside a convenient corpse) and later put upon, harassed and somewhat cross to discover the smuggled diamonds are fakes.

There's some of that in each of the two distinct turns he gives in "Living in Harmony".

As the Judge, he is assured and sinister, a powerful understated performance, with the nice touch of him seeming more interested in his games of Patience than his nefarious plots. In a way, he is the most blatant representation of the establishment using his position of power to arbitrarily change the rules on a whim so that he can get what he wants. His kangaroo court where he suddenly puts Kathy on trial in order to blackmail the Prisoner with her fate is case in point.

But then once he's revealed as Number 2, he's a much less impressive figure. He's not a little reminiscent of Colin Gordon's performance in "A. B. & C." possibly suggesting a well-founded fear that he will go the same way. Clearly trying to shift the blame and cover his own arse, he seems less in charge of the scheme, rather more that he has been persuaded to go along with a plan of Number 8's. He genuinely seems ill-prepared for the psychological feedback from the scenario they've been playing out, and shaken by the outcome, though not as disturbed as Number 22 (or, as it turns out, Number 8). But then that might be because his character was the only one to "survive" the climactic fight to the death.

I wish it had been real

"Living in Harmony" was written, directed and produced by David Tomblin, and it might well have been very funny for him to force McGoohan to play the Prisoner as a man who drinks too much and won't do his job… but for the rest of us, this is less entertaining.

It is by turns bafflingly mental, actually quite nasty and for the most part surprisingly boring.

Once you've got past the "it's 'The Prisoner' if the genre was swapped from 'Spy' to 'Western'," high concept – which takes all of two seconds – then not a lot happens, interspersed with a very disturbing lynching and some even-more-disturbing sexualised violence and murder.

In a typical episode of "The Prisoner" – and let's for the moment not dwell on the fact that from here on in there are no "typical" episodes – you would expect the Village to come up with some scheme in an attempt to get the Prisoner to crack. Here the entire scenario is the attempt, which may be why someone forgot that if this was the "The Prisoner as Western" then there ought to be an attempt to crack him within that "episode" too. It's not like you would have an episode in Portmierion that just had him sat around not being a spy, with Number 2 occasionally saying "be a spy!" at him and having him beaten up.

What is particularly odd about this, as Alex pointed out to me, is that this is not the usual modus operandi for the Village. Ever since "Arrival", either as an end in itself or because they've been convinced that they can crack him if only they can get him to answer, the question they've been obsessed with is "why did you resign", until here where suddenly they seem to be wanting him to "un-resign".

If nothing else this is a bit obvious in giving away that they are "our" Village. It's not "why not come and be Sheriff for our side"; it's clearly "come and be our Sheriff again".

On the one hand, this allows them to appeal to his sense of dereliction of duty, not something they've tried before, suggesting that he's "letting the side down" or that he should be doing it "for England" or to defend the people or for his honour.

On the other hand, they actually don't really try that. They ignore his patriotism or his humanism and instead go after him again through his chivalry, falling back on the make-it-about-a-woman kind of blackmail that they really have tried several times. They ought to know by now that he doesn't fall for that sort of thing. Except this time it seems he does. Perhaps it's because Kathy doesn't try to form a relationship with him, but instead has her own personal tragedy – her murdered brother. Having said that, it's not really the "give him love, take it away" that Number 2 sneers about once the scheme is blown. McGoohan doesn't play it remotely romantic. Without that line from Number 2, the script might be suggesting he thinks of himself as a substitute for her murdered brother. But with it, that isn’t strong enough; or is verging on the icky. If anything, it's a paternal care he shows to Kathy, and it's the wrath of a grieving father that pushes him over the edge.

Which brings us to the fact that this is the first time we have seen the Prisoner actively kill someone, and in particular in so crude a way as to shoot them. McGoohan had a particular horror of gunplay, and made a point of his heroes using fisticuffs rather than pistols, a point possibly satirised by the number of times that his character in "Living in Harmony" picks a fist fight with someone.

But to then have him pick up a gun and shoot someone is jarring and deeply unpleasant.

So there's this deep sense of confusion about the symbols of the Village. For example, the episode clearly wants to equate the Prisoner's refusal to wear the Sheriff's star with his usual refusal to wear a "Number 6" badge, but these things aren't equivalent. The star empowers the Sheriff; it enables him to do his job. Wearing the star is about actively doing something unlike the "Number 6" which is about passively accepting society's labels.

It must be possible to read more into this episode, because something got it banned in America.

Ostensibly it was the reference to drug use, but this is fleeting and no more than a McGuffin to allow the story to step outside the usual parameters. It's certainly not a heavy-handed "bad trip" metaphor. And if anything the person who is given the drugs is the one least traumatised by his "trip" to Harmony.

The other suggestion is that this was read as an anti-Vietnam story: the corrupt authority figure and the hero refusing to take up his gun just like those kids in universities… Except that he does take up his gun and the only Kid here is a psychopath. Once again, this isn't about patriotism, it's about small-time bullying.

If it's an attack on anything, it's on the American myth of the West and of the power of the gun. If anything might have persuaded McGoohan to do this script it is this: the best gunman is a madman; the hero doesn't get the girl and the minute he picks up the gun he is bound to get killed; technically the black hat wins, but by shooting the hero he actually loses in the "real" world. Ultimately the guns corrupt and destroy everyone who touches them.

Or maybe it's just a big metatextual sign to say "it's all a story": look, look, it's on a set and they're all actors! In which case, "A. B. & C." did it first and did it better.

At best "Living in Harmony" is a pastiche of other Prisoner episodes (it's certainly not an "allegory" whatever the Wackypedia might think, since it no more "explains" the series than any other episode does; at a pinch you might call it an "analogue" of other episodes).

And, ultimately, the episode bottles it, with the revelation in the last ten minutes that it was all a drug-induced hallucination within the "normal" framework of the "real" Village. It's the equivalent of "it was all a dream", tossing aside the surrealism of the experiment for the crutch of an "explanation". It shows a lack of confidence in the audience and in the strength of the show. Surely, the idea is that "The Prisoner" is such a powerful idea that you can translate it into any genre.

the ace of spades

Well, that would be Alexis Kanner in a special boxout in the titles as the Kid.

Kanner is an unusual actor, appearing in several roles across three episodes of "The Prisoner" but famous for almost nothing else. In a way, even though he's never a Number 2, he's the "face" of the latter half of the series, as his speciality would seem to be "being crazy" and as the series goes rapidly round the bend so it seems apposite that he crops up more and more in differently demented ways.

As with David Bauer as the Judge/Number 2 (or for that matter Valerie French as Kathy/Number 22) Alexis Kanner plays two distinct roles in "Living in Harmony": in Harmony, he plays "The Kid", a mute gunslinger and frighteningly accurate pistol shot, who has formed a dangerous obsession with Kathy the saloon girl; while in the Village he is Number 8, clearly the brains behind the current scheme, and apparently the least affected by the sudden crushing failure. Where Number 2 is visibly shaken, and Number 22 is in tears, Number 8 remains collected enough to essay a post-mortem on their efforts.

With that failure of their scheme, the first appearance is that it's down to Number 2 panicking and shooting the Prisoner dead in the dreamworld, thus breaking the spell. That's certainly the story that Number 8 is selling.

The final shootout is itself precipitated by the murder of Kathy and again the Judge/Number 2 could be said to culpable for this, having incited the unstable Kid to abduct her.

Except of course that analysis hangs on the assumption that the Kid is not an independent actor in this scenario.

The conclusion sees the psycho-drama repeat itself. Number 22 is seemingly drawn back to the backlot where the town of Harmony was staged. She returns to the saloon and curls up on the stairs where, as Kathy, she died earlier. Then, in one of the nastiest moments in the series, Number 8 suddenly appears in the gap between the treads of the stair. Number 22 is terrified and tries to flee only to end up being strangled for real.

As the Kid, he uses the character's silence (playing the Kid as a mute was apparently a choice) to create a childlike innocence – he cries easily and openly – that makes the sexual element of his menacing of Kathy all the more disturbing and wrong.

It's not a "naturalistic" performance, but in a dull episode it is an eye-catching and oddly sympathetic one.

In a way, his short scene as the "normal" Number 8 is more striking, because he plays it as normal, when anyone familiar with the series will be more likely to remember him as a crazy person.

So in spite of him being quite the most dangerous and frightening person in the Village this week, you sympathise because it is clear that he, not the Prisoner, is the one who has broken and gone mad. In the strange and ugly world of "Living in Harmony" it seems apt to pity the victim of his own dangerous experiment.

next time…

That would be telling.

Be seeing you.


1 comment:

Moor Larkin said...

The event that caused one week of the 17 weeks of The Prisoner to be lost was the June 8, 1968 State funeral of Senator Robert Kennedy. The passage of the funeral train and the night-time Arlington interment was covered by the prime-time American networks on the very evening that 'Chimes of Big Ben' was due to be shown.

Not surprisingly the postponement of an episode of a new summer season TV show passed by entirely unremarked upon at the time. The loss of one week of the schedule did however mean that one episode had to be dropped, sooner or later. We are still left with the question why did CBS choose to drop the cowboy episode. Perhaps the reason was exactly because in the land of the cowboy this episode seemed most disposable, but that would be my speculation. What is demonstrable is that the dropping of an episode was actually not even noticed in the whirl of those historically tragic but then current events. If you take a closer look at the article scan I posted on my last blog, you will see that even after the 1968 broadcasts were completed the commentator is still referring to the 17 weeks of the series.