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The Prisoner: "Dance Of The Dead" / "Checkmate"

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Starting with "Dance of the Dead," we've got our basic opening sequence locked in: a shorter version of Number 6 quitting his job and getting kidnapped, then him waking up in the Village and seeing the title of the current episode through his window. After the title, we follow him trying to escape on the beach, underscored by a conversation with Number 2. It's a longer title sequence than you get with most shows, but it works, partly for its basic coolness—it sets up the series central conflict efficiently, and looks great to boot—and partly because it changes sometimes. Clues are tough to come by in the Village. It's best to pay strict attention.

"Dance of the Dead"
I've been working at the same library for, let's see, eight years now. It's a great place to work for any number of reasons, and I'm lucky to work with a uniformly nice group of people. But I had to draw a line early on about holiday parties. If you've ever worked in an office, you probably know what I'm talking about. Or if you've been to high school and got sucked into a pep rally. Or, hell, Christmas time for people who hate the holidays. Parties can be swell, and socializing is part of simply being alive and human, but the appeal gets lost when you start feeling like someone's standing right over your shoulder, demanding you put on a good face. The obligation rankles. When you're not allowed to chose your own pleasures, you lose a piece of yourself. Because this isn't your party, it's theirs, and it'll last as long as they want it to.

"Dance" finds 6 still trying to figure out just what kind of trouble he's in. As always, no one is willing to answer his questions; the new number 2, Mary Morris, isn't proving any more helpful than the last. While most episodes of The Prisoner tend to follow a single thread, "Dance" is best viewed as a follow-up to "Arrival," that sets down once and for all just how screwed 6 really is. There is a party, though, and everyone's attending; it's a costume ball, with costumes provided at no charge (selected by others, of course), and, as the proclamation goes, "There will be music, dancing, happiness, all at the carnival. By order."

We've established that 6 has been kidnapped and put up in a blandly lovely home because he has knowledge that the overseers of the Village want; the question then is, given the resources available, why doesn't Number 2 just break him immediately? From what we've seen at hospital (a place that has nothing to do with healing), these are people well-trained in coercion and torture, but 6 is given basically free-rein to wander, occasional trickery aside. Nobody ties him to a chair and beats him till he screams. There are even limits put on what drugs they can inject into him.

The reason why 6 is relatively safe is that whoever runs the Village isn't just in this because they want to know what he knows; they also want him, committed to the cause and willing to betray whatever ideals are required of him. A very Orwellian notion—which isn't too surprising, judging by the signage. While we'll see the patience of various number 2s tested as the series goes on, for now, at least, they're willing to wait a little longer if it means achieving what they want most. Not everyone agrees: "Dance" opens with one of the scientists attempting to use some kind of mind control device on a sleeping 6, putting him on the phone with a former colleague, Dutton, and trying to zap him into answering questions about his past. 6 resists to the point of physical pain (one of things that makes him so dangerous, and such a prize to the Village, is that his individuality comes before everything else; you can't con a man into selling his soul when his soul is the only thing he values), and 2 has to break up the attempt before real harm can come to him. For now, she's confident he can be "won over" without recourse to more permanent methods. And while she isn't proven right in "Dance," 6 certainly doesn't end up on top in the end.

In the early going, 6 spends as much time trying to escape as he does asking questions. Escape is his main concern through the whole show, but the deeper in we get, we'll see how his methods shift from literal attempts to something more internal. At this stage, he's operating on the assumption that a.) the Village has limits and b.) if he can find a way past them, he'll be free. All he needs are the right tools. In "Dance," a night spent on the beach leads finding a corpse washed up on shore in the morning. The dead body has a radio and a wallet on it, which 6 pockets. The radio is discovered almost at once, but the wallet goes seemingly unnoticed. 6 arranges to leave a message on the body with his location and send it back out to sea. It's clever, but it's not quite clever enough.

And while 6 is putting together his doomed scheme, everyone's getting excited for Carnival. When the grand evening arrives, 6 is wearing his own tuxedo, but everyone else is costumed—because it's all about community, and 6 is the lone hold-out, and as such must be easily identifiable. The Town Hall is generally off limits to the public (pretending by a selective force field), but on Carnival night, everyone is permitted. After dancing half-heartedly, 6 wanders around the building, finds the body he'd tried to send back to sea, and learns his latest scheme was all for nothing. But the evening is not quite done with him yet; when he comes back to the party, he's put on trial for his possession of the radio, with 2 as his defense attorney. It goes about as well as you'd expect.

Even the character witness 6 calls, Dutton, can't help, drugged to the gills or worse and dressed in a jester's outfit. Dutton, see, is what happens to the people the Village decides they don't need whole. He's broken, and as he tells 6 earlier in the episode, even though he doesn't really know anything of importance, they won't believe him. It probably wouldn't matter if they did. If you ever needed proof of the horrors behind the Village's pleasant facade, here it is: when the group is all that matters and the group agrees on everything, everyone is expendable.

Or nearly everyone. 6 is a special case; he even has his very own Observer, a young woman who, certain qualms aside, is a loyal party follower. The Observer, who comes to Carnival dressed as Little Bo Peep and ends up in charge of prosecuting 6 in his trial, would be a romantic interest in a more traditional show. Here, she's something else. 6 ferrets her out early on, and he keeps pushing her; while she gives a stirring speech against 6's transgressions, she seems honestly upset when he's sentenced to death, even though that's exactly the sentence she asked for. Bo Peep is more evidence of how the Village works its way on people—she's not evil, and the things she says, about the importance of the rules, seem convincing until you think about them. ("Has anyone ever seen these rules?" 6 asks.) When it comes to consequences, she's troubled, but she's buried herself so deep in ideology that she can't break free.

So 6 gets the death sentence; he's chased by the angry mob through the town hall, and finally finds a hiding place in a room we saw 2 using earlier. For a moment, we think he's discovered Number 1, but it's just a teletype machine. 2, dressed as Peter Pan, finds him and tells him he's dead. The body he was trying to use to send a message will, after a few adjustments by the Village, be sending a message after all: that 6 drowned at sea. There's no help coming, and now he's stuck where he is, trapped behind the two-way mirror while the whole town cries for his blood. But he isn't broken just yet.

While it definitely has its moments, "Dance" always feels like a breather to me; some good ideas, but without that final punch of thematic coherence. "Checkmate" is more cohesive, built around a central metaphor—a chess game—that gets richer as it goes along. Number 6 now knows he can't count on the outside world for rescue. But that doesn't mean he's entirely without resources. If the Village is full of the, shall we say, "displaced," surely some of them have to be as unhappy about their current situation as 6 is. The trick is telling the prisoners from the guards pretending to be prisoners.

"Checkmate" opens with one of my favorite gags in the series: a living chessboard, with villagers standing in for pieces while the two players shout orders from the sidelines. (Actually, the episode really opens with everyone frozen as Rover rolls through town. 6 sees one villager moving on his own, and follows him—and finds himself on the lawn with the chess board, assigned the role of Queen's Pawn.) It's a perfect metaphor for what the Village wants in its citizens: people who play the game their told to play without question. Even better, every man and woman on the board thinks they're actually participating in something; when really all they're doing is walking where they're told and waiting. They're even redundant, as 2's little person butler (haven't really talked much about him—not much to say beyond, hey, little person butler. Cool.) plots out black and white's moves on a real board. When one of the White Rooks sees a chance for check, he takes it, without orders; and is promptly sent to the hospital for re-conditioning.

That first sequence introduces us to the main players for this round. There's 6, of course, the Pawn Who Would Be King, and the Rook. The Queen who 6 guards will be more important later. (His conversation with her while they wait is surreal, the dialog of people who can come up to the edge of what they want to say, but never dare jump.) We also meet the new Number 2, Peter Wyngarde. He's far hipper than any of the 2's we've seen; got a bit of a mod thing going on, and he even practices karate in his downtime. As always, though, he's infuriatingly chummy and smug, taking it for granted that 6 will eventually crumble. He gives 6 a chance to watch some of the Rook's re-conditioning, a nasty Pavlovian experiment involving dehydration, water coolers, and electric shocks. Of course, 6 won't have to face that treatment… yet.

6 sets about finding like-minded men to assist him in an escape. His method is ingenious: he finds likely suspects, then stares them down. The guards will respond with confidence, glaring back and demanding to know what he's on about, but the fellow prisoners, conditioned to be paranoid and insecure about everything, will be defensive, nervous, and submissive. Using this trick, 6 determines that the Rook has still not entirely given in. The Rook tells 6 that he was brought to the Village after inventing an electronic defense system; he thought the whole world should have it, but they took him before he could share the information with other countries. The joke, he says, is that the designs were stolen after all—but I'm not sure that's much of a joke. I'd be willing to bet the cabal behind the Village let the plans be stolen, because it wasn't really the plans they were concerned with; it was the Rook's desire to spread them around. Can't have that kind of egalitarian goodwill going around.

While 6 and the Rook go around recruiting a team, Number 2 has his own plans. The Queen from the chessboard is conditioned to think she's in love with 6, and he with her, and that she can't bear to be out of his sight for long. They provide her with a locket with 6's picture on one side and a transistor on the other; it's just one step closer in turning a human being into a machine, perfectly programmed to carry out the will of the state. (Or, in this case, the Village.) As the Queen stalks 6, even going so far as to come into his house and make him hot chocolate before bed, it's hard not to feel a little bad for her, especially when she breaks into tears at 6's persistent rejection. Which is the point, really. The Village can beat you down, but where it really shines is in using forcing you to betray yourself through your best impulses.

6 resists, however. (The woman trap is never going to be very effective on him.) He even manages to get the transistor away from the Queen and give it to the Rook for use in the transmitter he's building. Their plan: to contact any nearby ships with a supposed distress signal from a crashing plane. Once they manage to reach someone, then it's a quick trip on the raft out to sea and then away for good.

It almost works, too. They manage to find a boat, the Polotska, take out the spotlight tower that keeps an eye over the ocean, and even capture 2 inside his own mansion. But it's all for naught; the Rook turned 6 in before the plan got underway. 6's own arrogance betrayed him—the Rook assumed that anyone that confident and self-assured would have to be a guard, and he ratted the whole thing out to 2 because he thought he was being tested. 6 tries to take control of the Polotska, but while he manages to subdue the ship's crew (the whole thing belongs to the Village), Rover arrives to guide him back "home."

The moral here is that even if 6 can figure out who's with him and who's against him, in the end it doesn't matter. He can only count on himself if he wants to find a way out. The Queen thought she was helping him with love; the Rook thought he was just playing another game. People are used here, and they're often used without their knowledge. It's a bleak way to live—knowing that trust will always let you down in the end.

No grades, from here on out. Just assume every episode is worth watching, and that any problems I have with them, I'll talk about in the recaps.

Stray Observations:

  • Which do you prefer: "6" or "Six"? I know which one is traditionally correct, but it seems more in keeping with the show to use numerics.
  • 6, when confronted by his maid's old-fashioned dress: "Don't tell me that time travel is in it as well."
  • Another Orwellian touch: the televisions watch their audiences. When 6 tries to cover the screen on his set, it screeches.
  • 6 gets run through some word association tests, and names one of next week's episodes.
  • Next week, "The Chimes of Big Ben" and "Free For All."