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The Prisoner: "Many Happy Returns" / "The Schizoid Man"

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"Many Happy Returns"
And once again, I have reason to quibble with the KTEH order (which could mean I was wrong to pick it, but really, the whole reason to have different orders is to quibble about them). To me, "Many Happy Returns" represents a shift in 6's attempts to escape the Village, the natural conclusion of every attempt that came before it, and to have it come this early seems like a mistake. It may not be definitive, but "Returns" at least strongly suggests that the very idea of escape is something that 6 is going to have to rethink from the ground up. If the series has a narrative arc (and I believe it does), that strikes me as a mid-point kind of revelation, and we're not quite there yet.

Caveats aside, "Returns" is another winner, and is probably more of an appropriate place for me to have brought out that Wile E. Coyote metaphor from last week. While "Free For All" had some overt political commentary mixed in with its structural cleverness, "Returns" is basically meta-narrative full out, with nothing to distract us from its central point; there isn't a word of English dialog in the episode till the 23 minute mark, and 6 doesn't have an actual conversation with anyone till even later than that. When I first watched the series, I remember "Returns" being the first thing in the show that didn't just impress me as great TV, but as something that actually transcended the limitations of serial storytelling—the earlier episodes I'd seen were just as challenging when I looked back at them, but "Returns" thumb-nosing boldness astonished me. It still does.

Every on-going series needs a premise. The Prisoner's seems simple enough: strip away the more outre trappings, and you've got a man who's being held captive, and wants out. Suspense is generated by the tension between his attempts to get free, and his captors power to thwart those attempts. Last week, I talked about how the tragedy here is how many times 6's struggles to escape will always fail, because the show needs him to fail in order to keep going. But there's also built into the premise the assumption that he could (and presumably someday will) succeed. The wrongly-accused protagonist of The Fugitive eventually tracked down the one-armed man that murdered his wife, after all. We're not in some kind of Gilligan's Island-style hell here. There is a home, and 6 will, once the narrative has had its way with him, find his way back there.

Or will he? And what does "home" mean, anyway? The Gilligan's Island connection may be more apt than it initially seems. I haven't seen it, but I remember reading once about a TV movie with the Island cast made after the show had gone off the air; Escape From Gilligan's Island, or something like that. The idea was, the cast-aways finally got off the island, became famous, and then, somehow, managed to get themselves stranded right back where they started. It's a ridiculous notion, but a deeply disturbing one for all that, because it suggests a kind of fate that underscores Bob Denver's pratfalls and Alan Hale's doubletakes with a potent and inescapable doom. Everyone's laughing, but this is all their life will ever be—scheme and sabotage, hope and failure.

6 doesn't have the coconuts, or the laugh track, but after the events of "Returns" it appears he may be trapped in the same level of hell as "the rest." In the nearly wordless first half of the episode, 6 finds the Village empty; he constructs a raft out of logs and emptied oil drums, and manages to float his way back to England. Despite (or maybe because) of its dialog-free nature, 6's efforts are as exciting as they always are, and the quiet is different enough from what we've come to expect as to be startling. At this point, we know the Village is tricky, and full of surreal characters and games. To have those games vanish almost entirely forces us once again to look at the place in a new light. We know it's a trick, it has to be a trick—6 has done nothing to earn his freedom here, just taking advantage of a gift with no visible strings. We're suspicious, but it takes a very long time for those suspicions to pay-off, and when they do, it makes us re-evaluate what we thought was a certainty.

So 6 is "free," and finally makes his way to his old apartments (note the number on the door!), only to find they've been rented out to a friendly middle-aged woman named Mrs. Butterworth. Mrs. B. has even gone so far as to purchase 6's old car, the one he built from scratch. It's a measure of how unsettled 6 is here that he takes her story—that someone else found the place and the car for her, and she paid for both without questions—at face value. The biggest danger for 6 has always been that his iron will would crack, and here we see that he's not completely impervious to stratagem yet. He's paranoid, but he's not paranoid enough. The opening credits hid her identity, so it's something of a surprise when Mrs. Butterworth reveals herself as the new number 2 in the episode's final scene, but not a total shock. Already we're conditioned not to trust the trustworthy, we're just waiting for 6 to catch up.

But what if he did? Even if he had known Mrs. Butterworth was running things, it's hard to see how he could've stayed free. Number 2 (played with a warm and flirting friendliness by Georgina Cook) brings 6 a birthday cake at the end, and we learn that the escape and return happen around his birthday, March 19th. The whole thing, in its way, was a present to 6, an apparent respite from the on-going battle. As always, though, there's more sinister plots at work. When 6 makes it back to London, he goes to his house, and then he goes to the people he once worked for to find justice. It's not entirely clear if those people betray him. It's a different group then we saw in "Chimes," and their final comments are ambiguous enough that it could go either way. But that's not the point. The point is the place that 6 thought was safe, the place he's been striving towards since the very first episode, is an illusion. You could say that the Village's method of forcing his "return" could've been avoided, but I don't think it could. Much like Gilligan, the Skipper, and the rest, he was always doomed to be back at square one by the end. So the question now becomes, is any sort of escape possible? And what form will that escape have to take for him to finally be free?

"The Schizoid Man"
There's always a moment upon waking when we're lost. Or maybe not lost—because it's not a frightening feeling. It's more an alien clarity, as though it's not just the dreams you'd been having but the entire life preceding those dreams that had been illusory, a distraction from this one brief moment of connection to your truest, richest self. It passes quickly, as the real world slots back into place (and if you talk to people who've suffered from serious depression, they'll describe this as the five minutes of every morning when they didn't want to kill themselves, as though sadness had lost track of them in the night and needed time to get caught up), but sometimes it seems like those moments are what connect a life together. That underneath the external evidence, those fragmentary contacts are what defines who we are.

"The Schizoid Man" has the new number 2 (Anton Rodgers, who plays the role like he just stepped out of prep school) testing 6's sense of identity by stripping away those externals in an attempt to undermine the core beneath them. It's a terrific episode, but it's not one I've ever been comfortable watching. Questions of identity always make me uncomfortable, for a variety of reasons. The most relevant one may be that as much as I enjoy that waking up sensation, I've never been able to trust it. Seeing 6 forced into a new role so thoroughly that even he himself isn't sure who he is just throws me back to never being sure if the person I think I am is the person I really am; and how those supposed connections to my "real" self may be just what I wish I could be, but will always fail to grasp for long.

But let's try and nail this one down before my head floats off. I'm trying to stay away from plot summary in these reviews—it's another of those crutches I love so much (oh, beloved semi-colon, I could never stay mad at you for long!), but as a reader, I know my eyes tend to glaze over whenever I come across story recaps. This one is too cool not to describe, though: 6 gets taken out of his apartment, and over a period of weeks, he is drugged into a state of semi-consciousness and trained to contradict some of his most basic characteristics. Through some electrical prodding, he becomes left-handed, not right; he's convinced he absolutely loves flapjacks; and he grows a mustache and has his hair dyed black. When he wakes up, he's told he's actually number 12, and that he's been called into the Village to help 2 crack number 6 by pretending to be number 6.

I think if you were to ask most people, they'd tell you that they define themselves; that it's Tom who really knows who Tom is, and Linda who knows Linda, and so on. But identity is trickier than that. As much as we like to think we have a grip on who we are, we're social animals, and our sense of self derives in no small part from how we're treated by others. I'm only "Zack Handlen" because people call me "Zack Handlen," and I only consider that I'm annoying or funny or attractive or hideous based on external cues. Admittedly, the way we read those cues isn't exactly objective, and one of the ways we grow up is by learning that our belief in ourselves can exist apart from what we read on the faces of our friends and strangers. But it's still a matter of belief, isn't it? There are precious few hard facts when it comes to personality. Much of the time, we're just going by experience and bluffing our way through the gray areas.

"Schizoid" is about what happens when even the hard facts are stripped away, and when everyone around insists on what you very nearly almost surely but maybe not positive is a lie. One of the core values of the Village is that everyone agrees with each other; 6 is anathema to them because he is an individual, but even he can't stand completely firm in the face of all that calm assurance. Here we have nearly proof of that, as 6 first stands firm, then starts to waver as everything he thought he could rely on is taken from him. He's no longer an Olympic level fencer, nor a skilled marksman, and his boxing skills aren't up to the snuff they once were. I'd say the druggings are somewhat to blame for his confusion, but it's still a brilliant ploy from 2. Forcing 6 to "pretend" he's himself, only to do a shoddy job of it, forces him back to the one part of his life that the Village can't take away from him: his reason for resignation. It drives him to cling to what's left after the rest is gone, and, if the plan had actually worked as intended, to reveal that piece as proof.

The plan doesn't work, though, as much through carelessness as anything else. 6 realizes the dates don't match up (and here's another reason for putting this episode before "Returns": "Schizoid" takes place in February, while "Returns" clearly takes place in March), and once he's got one little piece free, the rest fall into place. While the trick was a sly one, it was also a big risk in view of the Village's long-term goal for conditioning 6. If they could break down his sense of self, they would've undone the one thing that's allowed him to stand firm for as long as he has, but if they failed in the attempt, all they would've really done is honed him down to that unbreakable core of being. Maybe not the exact true self you find after sleep, but like that—only clearer headed, and even more determined than before.

In fact, that's really the danger of all the head games the Village pulls. If 6 can't truly escape—not yet, anyway—the Village can't truly defeat him, either, and every attempt they make is just another method they won't be able to use again. By coming back to his real self, by re-discovering what makes him so valuable, 6 has proven to himself that they can't replace him, can't duplicate him; he truly is unique. (McGoohan's dual performance here is, unsurprisingly, excellent. Curtis, the "fake" 6, is just different enough to be distinguishable, lighter in tone than the real thing, and more prone to nervous, arrogant laughter.) Even their play to fake a psychic rapport with another Villager fails, as 24 (odd how the numbers are all multiples of 6) feels enough of a connection with the real 6 to be guilty about tricking him. In one of the episode's best scenes, she apologizes to him while he's pretending to be someone else—pretending for real this time, not just being told to pretend. Neither of them can say anything straight out. All they can do is imply. It's the closest thing to an honest conversation anyone can ever have here.

Stray Observations:

  • DVD is not always a friend to older shows. Check out the wrinkles in the night sky during 6's boat fight in "Returns."
  • "You think I'd forgotten we used to call you Flapjack Charlie?" Such a hilariously forced bit of fake exposition there. 2 really needs a better script.
  • First mention of "The General" here, which we'll be seeing more of next week.
  • It's interesting that Rover actually kills the fake 6; 2 is understandably appalled at the news, and it makes you wonder just how sentient Rover actually is.
  • Next week, "The General," and "A., B., and C."