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The Prisoner: "The General" / "A., B., and C."

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"The General"
It had some swell action sequences and a cool concept, but sometimes I think the appeal of The Matrix can be boiled down to one simple line: "I know kung-fu." Finding out that everything you've ever seen or heard or felt is a lie would be lousy, but if it came with the benefit of being able to instantly download any skill set or knowledge into your brain, well, I for one would welcome our cybernetic overlords. Because there is a lot of information and training out there that I'll never have the time to get around to, and sticking a plug into my skull for a thirty second head rush seems like a far more sensible solution than taking a class.

The time problem is only half the reason, of course; it's the half that lets you pretend the commitments of the world are what prevent you from getting your pilot's license or honing your ability to kick strangers in the face. Really, though, the discipline is what stops us. Learning requires you to pay attention, to focus in—to not just witness your situation but actively participate in it. And that's tough stuff right there. If you're still in school, you may not know this yet, but once you stop taking classes and doing homework, the habit goes away fast. Which is why so many conversations between young adults revolve around the potentiality of grad school, but not the actuality of it.

Once again, though, the Village has the perfect solution. Like the The Matrix, the revolutionary new process of Speed Learning gives you a chance to get six months worth of facts into your head in a bare 15 seconds. The facts are delivered via television, so there's no skull-port required, and it's all overseen by a kindly, wise Professor. The Professor puts together the lesson plans, and gives them to the General, who processes them into a hypnotic suggestion. Just stand in the right place with your eyes open, and all the work is done for you; you can list off dates, names, and developments by rote. But just having information doesn't make one wise, and the fact that all the Professor's students give the same answers, in the exact same phrasing, means that they haven't really learned anything. Given the way even 6 responds to questions automatically, it also means that whoever runs the Village can use the technique to create their own army of living zombies, if they are so inclined. (I'm betting they are.)

"The General" is the first episode in the series where Number 2 (Colin Gordon, who'll serve in the role for both of this week's episodes) is bent on a scheme that has nothing to do with breaking 6. This is an important step, as it gives us a greater sense of our villains' goals. Their obsession with 6 isn't their only reason for existing, and while we've seen glimpses of the organization beyond what we regularly deal with, 2's plotting with the General and Speed Learning means that the Village is a threat to humanity at large, and not just one grumpy ex-government employee. But while that adds to the series' mythology, I'm always a little let down by the discovery. The episode is solid, with the usual enjoyably surreal touches (I especially dig the black top-hats and sunglasses, and "Junior's Toy Bank" approach to security passes), but there's something a little too Saturday morning cartoon show going on here.

The Village is more interesting to me the less we understand its methods, and the more nebulous its goals appear. Using a Bond villain style scheme (or something dreamed up by those nuts at Hydra) isn't particularly realistic, but seeing it in practice is frustratingly mundane. 6's attempts to defeat the General from the inside lack the fury and personal investment that usually drives him. Obviously he has some connection to what's happening, as he's suffering as much as any of the locals, but there's more satisfaction when he's being threatened directly. After all, it's The Prisoner, not The Evil Group Who Are Really Obsessed With This One Dude, But Still Keep A Hand In On The Side.

Gordon plays 2 with the chummy, officious tone established for the role in the first episode. He's convincing, with an undertone of pissy frustration that suggests a bureaucrat as proud of a project as he is determined to make sure no one else messes with it, but it's not until "A., B., and C." that he really gets a chance to make his mark in the part. More interesting is John Castle as 12, 2's main subordinate who, for reasons we're never really sure of, objects to the Speed Learning process and works with 6 to knock the whole thing off the rails. Castle, who's probably best known as Prince Geoffrey from the Peter O'Toole/Katherine Hepburn Lion In Winter, brings a surliness to 12 (another multiple of 6!) that, while nowhere near as dedicated as McGoohan's sullen fury, at least puts the two on common ground. Oddly, there's more tension between them than between 6 and any of his female co-stars—it's not sexual, exactly (although one could make the argument), but it is as though for once when dealing with a possible co-conspirator, 6 is actually fully engaged.

I can't decide if I'm happy or disappointed by the end of the episode, which manages to kill off the Professor and 12 in one fell stroke. On the one hand, it's something of a narrative cheat, that old status-quo elastic that stretches but never breaks, but on the other, 6's battle really has to be fought alone. Any compatriots he might find must fail him, or betray him, in the end, because this isn't a series about a man who leads a revolution. It's about a man who becomes a revolution, and even that will be up for question by the finale.

What I object to isn't the end result of things but the convenience in how that end is delivered. We're in Star Trek country here, with 6 managing to destroy The General—which is, gasp, a computer—by feeding "WHY" into its, ahem, question slot. Like Kirk administering a good dose of paradox to some power mad Apple II/e, it's not really a metaphor that goes anyplace interesting. Patrick McGoohan was a brilliant actor and extremely sharp storyteller but he was also, let's face, a grump. The finale of "General" has that grumpiness in full swing, railing against progress in a way that, to modern eyes, seems dated and a little silly. One of the major themes of the show is how it develops faster than it can be responsibly used, but here the point is just a hair too reductive.

Instead, what I take away from "General" are moments, like 6's quick (although impressively detailed and colored) sketch of the Professor's wife in a General's uniform; or the room full of sheeted busts in the Professor's house, one of which bears 6's own resemblance; or the wax dummy of the Professor that 6 smashes across the face, destroying it. Unlike the best episodes, I'm not convinced these moments add up to anything (although there's probably a connection between that dummy and the way the Village needs the Professor to be the face of Speed Learning, but not the soul of it, and how the "courses" turn students into blindly regurgitating puppets), but they make the trip worth taking. And there's something heartfelt in them, as well. The poor Professor's Wife—and it's worth noting how she and her husband don't have numbers, but instead job titles that might as well be numbers—doesn't really have much of a hand in anything that happens, but she still loses her husband. Having 6 bring the news, in a dialog-free coda that serves as "General"'s final scene, is emotional in a way the show rarely gets.

"A., B., and C."
Now this is more like it.

There's not a lot of definitive continuity going on between Prisoner episodes, which is probably for the best. Never being able to pin down exactly how long 6 has been held captive means we never know how much is being done to him off-screen, and we never question how plausible the various schemes we do see could fit into a specific time-table. But there are hints, occasionally, and "A., B., and C." has two of them, one obvious, one slightly less so. The obvious one has Colin Gordon returning to the big ball chair as Number 2, but in a decidedly different temperament then he showed in "The General." Where in the previous episode he was arrogantly officious, here's he's neurotic, desperate, and driven to distraction by 6's implacability. His hair keeps getting daffier and daffier, sticking out in random corkscrews, and even when he tries to sound angry, he comes across as pathetic. The reason is the big red phone on his desk. That thing is huge, and I don't remember seeing it quite that size in "The General." The failure of Speed Learning has landed him in trouble, and the only way out is to finally get the better of 6, once and for all.

How he chooses to do that is what gives us the core of "A." Number 14, yet another white-labcoated scientist, has a new drug that allows her to access and manipulate a patient's dreams. 2, believing that 6's resignation was brought on by a desire to defect, has a plan: with 14's help, he'll stage a party in 6's mind, and everyone's invited, including three key figures from 6's past (the three letters of the title), one of whom 6 may have contacted. It's a simple matter of staging each meeting in a dream, and watching the results on the big screen.

While "A" is an overall positive episode, with 6 getting his most upbeat success against his oppressors yet, there's something terribly bleak in its central concept. If you've ever read 1984, you'll remember the lengths the state went to in order to ensure that none of its citizens were engaged in thought-crimes. They maintained constant surveillance, and encouraged everyone to report on anything even remotely suspicious, to the point where a misjudged laugh or cough could get you dragged away to the Ministry of Love and the dreaded Room 101. The goal was to ensure that obedience was a reflexive, innate response, that going along with the ruling power wasn't a choice but a necessity. But even they didn't have access to your dreams. Even then, there was a modicum of resistance still available.

Because dreams are, stripped of whatever mysticism and psychological symbolism we attach to them, essentially unquantifiable. Odds are they aren't exactly important—the general consensus you get if you read enough fiction is that whatever happens behind our eyes is a necessary dumping ground for our conscious minds. (I'm cheating a little here; dreams are such an oddity that they've been a reliable go-to for genre storytelling ever since the first person woke up and realized that he hadn't gone naked to Oog's big mastodon party after all. Saying there's a general consensus, then, is asking a lot. But the "dumping ground" theory is the one that's always made the most sense to me, because it's the least romantic.) Even accepting that doesn't really explain anything, and it certainly doesn't protect you from what happens when you're dreaming. That's what makes Freddy Kruger so frightening (well, at least in the first movie, and in New Nightmare, which is pretty swell if you ask me). You're vulnerable in dreams in a way that you aren't in waking, vulnerable to malevolent presences, and vulnerable as well to whatever impulses you suppress during the day. There's no fear that 2 will physically harm 6 in his sleep, unless he pushes the experiment too far too fast, but there is a fear that 6 could betray himself, without even realizing it.

A. and B. are largely conventional dreams. In the first, 6 has to deal with a mustachioed, vaguely effeminate former friend, and in the second, it's a mysterious woman—another associate, this one minus the facial hair. By the time B arrives, 6 is realizing that he's being played. He refuses to offer information to either gambit, and when 2 gets desperate and starts trying to manipulate the dreams directly, it just makes things worse. Really, the whole enterprise is doomed from the start. 6 didn't resign in order to defect, and besides, there isn't a true reason he could give for leaving his job that the Village would understand well enough to recognize as truth. Even if he had been inclined to reveal himself in dreams, 6 never could've told 2 anything he wanted to hear.

For the last dream, then, featuring the mysterious C, the question becomes less one of 6's resistance, and more one of a change in his methods of fighting back. "The General" already showed 6 operating differently, with him throwing a monkey-wrench into the system instead of struggling to be free of it, and in "A.," he's realized that by letting them come to him, he remains the stronger half of the conflict. 6's greatest asset isn't his ingenuity (which is impressive), but his indomitable, unbreakable will. He keeps better control over his situation when he's re-acting, not when he tries the tricks they already expect him to play. When 6 sneaks into the lab and dilutes the drug they've been dosing him with, he isn't really doing it to save himself. He's playing the same kind of bluffing game that the Village usually runs, and he's been taking notes.

It leads to some wonderfully trippy stuff. The final party is all dutch angles and the music is too loud. Things settle down some when 6 straightens a crooked mirror on the far wall, but there's no sense of reality here anymore, not like there was on the first two attempts. And here we get our second nod to past episodes, with Mrs. Butterworth from "Many Happy Returns" popping up to give 6 her earring and some advice on how to proceed. From there on, it's all series of plausible lies right up to the final reveal, and there's a great deal of pleasure to be had in watching 6 control the experiment so handily. He teases 2 with revelations, even goes so far as to put the answers in his hand—and then shows him how foolish the whole set-up was from the start. Up until now, The Prisoner has largely been about knocking its hero down to see how quickly he can get back up. But now it's the Village who's getting stuck with the ACME rockets and treacherous gravity, and 6 as the runner who'll remain forever just two steps out of their reach.

Stray Observations:

-6 and the Professor's Wife, discussing art: "Well, let's see. That gentleman over there. What do you think he's doing?" "Tearing up a book." "He's creating a fresh concept. Construction arises out of the ashes of destruction."
-The conversations between 6 and 12 really do seem like a kind of aggressive flirting. Which is, minus the sex, what they are, each man attempting to seduce the other to the cause, without wanting to risk too much of themselves in the process.
-I like the handful of brochures 6 gives 2 in "A., B., and C." Maybe in the end, all he really wanted was some time away, in a nice, beach-side resort…
-Next week, it's "Living In Harmony" and "It's Your Funeral."