Welcome back, spy fans! This is day 5 of my non-consecutive blog series of the best spy shows and movies.
I feel like I’m running a book club over here, except it’s poorly organized, rarely updated, and I get emails from all of you asking if I know the definition of a “month.” (Math isn’t my strong suit. Neither is getting to all the TV I want to. I still haven’t seen the second season of Killing Eve, okay??? Nothing else matters until I catch up.)
I also launched a new arts publication spotlighting up-and-coming writers and artists in Los Angeles, and it’s called Kingdom of Pavement. So, I’ve been doing a thing or two in the meantime while I’m ignoring my calendar reminders to “update my blog.” Go check it out, for my first article I go pole dancing with writer Erika Flynn who’s reinventing the way strippers are portrayed on-screen.
Okay, now back to what I actually came here to write about:
You Haven’t Seen The Best Spy Thriller And You Need To
Chances are, you haven’t seen THE PRISONER, a 1967 surreal paranoid spy thriller that was a major inspiration for LOST. It follows a spy (Patrick McGoohan), who resigns — only to wake up in a weird town where he is given the name “Number Six.”
Everyone in the Village — especially Number Two, a villain who is a new character almost every episode — seem intent on figuring out why he resigned, and to extract his secrets and loyalties.
It’s unclear in the beginning whether or not these people are from his own agency or an enemy agency, but what is clear is that Number Six will do everything to try and escape.
Do yourself a favor and go watch this show (which is streaming on Amazon Prime) not only because it’s an exquisite spy show, but because the nuanced storytelling achieves so much on so many levels.
It’s also SO WEIRD, and even has a clear predecessor to the “smoke monster” from LOST: a gigantic white bouncy-ball/balloon thing that smothers people who try and escape.
Why THE PRISONER is An Absurdist Commentary on Authoritarianism and the Police State
Oh boy, with a subheading like that I might as well be back at USC writing essays for Drew Casper’s class, right?
One look at THE PRISONER, though, and you can spot the ’60s counterculture themes right away. Just take a look at the (incredibly long but comprehensive) theme song:
“In society, one must learn to conform,” Number Two says in Episode 9 to McGoohan’s Number Six, ‘Checkmate’ as they torture a non-conforming individual. These aphorisms are present everywhere, clearly signifying The Village as not just a place to get secrets out of spies, but of a warning of where our society could fall into if the individual is no longer allowed to exist. The Village can be our village — or maybe it already is.
As Number Six tries to escape in every single episode, Number Two thwarts him in a series of interesting ways that almost always includes the following:
- Activating the giant white bouncy ball to come after Number Two if he gets too close to actually getting away
- Involving Number Two in the elaborate manipulations and mind control games so that he sees how they use surveillance, hypnosis, and groupthink to destroy the individual
When Number Six is sentenced to death during a party, a group of crazy costumed villagers run after him in an almost slapstick-like chase. The absurd elements here serve as a commentary, like the whole show is, on free will and the police state.
These themes are like the fun sauce on top of an already complex and delicious dish, though. I wanted to get the intellectualizing out of the way so we can talk about all the other things I love about this show, starting with:
The World of The Village and Fresh Approach to Spy Tropes
One of the aspects of the show that is ingeniously done is the sheer depth of the worldbuilding and fascinating ecosystem of The Village and its masters and inhabitants.
In The Village, the citizens host “democratic” elections, wear rainbow-colored clothes, play life-sized chess, get tortured in the hospital, have weird group therapy in a giant weird room where they sit silently, follow each other and spout propaganda, and try to escape. Every episode utilizes the world in a fascinating, innovative way.
THE PRISONER has an inception-like dream episode where in order to find out Number Six’s secrets, Number Two dials into his dreams with a special machine and introduce known double agents to test Number Six’s loyalties and to get him to spill the beans on why he resigned. With some clever spy maneuvering, Number Six turns the tables, and this episode becomes a fun romp in both the dream world and in the real world.
You need to watch this show just to see the incredible consistency in which the worldbuilding is carried out and executed, down to the silly yet ubiquitous font choice and the saying “be seeing you” that permeates every aspect of every episode. Just like how THE HANDMAID’S TALE builds a consistently bleak but on-brand world every episode, THE PRISONER creates a deceivingly colorful and fun world with a dark undercurrent.
The way this show approaches traditional spy tropes is something to be studied. From disguises to escapes to double-crosses, so much can be learned from the way this show crafts both Number Six’s clever workarounds and the cat-and-mouse games between him and his captors.
In spy fiction, we run the risk of either, A) making our spies too smart and constantly being ahead of everybody to the point where we always know they’re going to win which kills the tension, or B) making our bad guys too smart and therefore making our hero look dumb/way too far behind the curve. THE PRISONER does a really great job of giving both sides wins at just the right time, even allowing Number Six some incredible victories — only to be undercut at the very last moment.
Patrick McGoohan as the Perfect TV Bond (Despite the Behind-The-Scenes Instability)
Also, I think we’ve vastly underestimated how Patrick McGoohan embodied the James Bond of television. His performances in THE PRISONER not only captures the swagger and iron will of invincible spy heroes, but he also navigates the most absurd scenes in an authentic, wry way.
The character of Number Six is a bit one-note, but McGoohan is a delight to watch, which negates some of the flatness of the character.
What’s kind of nuts, however, is some of the real stories of the out-of-control set environment. McGoohan served as actor and creator of the series, and some argue he was having a nervous breakdown during production — to the point where he would actually punch people for real in fight scenes (much to the chagrin of all involved.)
This weird series is so off-the-wall — with even stranger real-life stories — but all of this strangeness only serves to make something so odd you can’t look away.
Best Episode: The Schizoid Man
This episode is incredible because of the manipulation of identity. Number Two tries to make Number Six doubt his existence by making him think he’s number 12, and telling him that he’s going to aid Number Two in the manipulation of a doppleganger who is posing as Number Six. (If this plot summary is confusing at all, just go watch the episode. I can’t do it justice here.)
Not only is Patrick McGoohan playing two versions of himself — one trying to make the other doubt his own identity — but this episode deftly creates this incredible paranoia that is phenomenal and so ingenious.
The episode ends with our friend Evil Giant Bouncy Ball suffocating the schizoid man because the real Number Six realizes that he shouldn’t doubt his identity because of a small injury he remembers he has. He then uses this to his advantage, trying to escape under the pretense he’s the doppleganger Number Two brought in, and the real Number Six is dead. But, Number Two catches him in a lie, realizes he’s actually Number Six and not the hired doppleganger, and he doesn’t escape.
This episode is just so ingenious and gripping, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Why It Deserves Another Remake
If you can’t tell by the absolute dissertation I just wrote on this show, I absolutely adore this story and the outright messiness of the plotting. (There’s a western episode!! In a show that definitely is NOT a western!!) Especially in our modern TV landscape, we don’t really have shows that take this many crazy risks. Pristine act breaks and predictable plotting can take away from the sense of surprise and awe I felt when I watched THE PRISONER for the first time.
In 2009, AMC did a remake, but we’re not going to talk about that here. Remaking this show is hard, and although it was a valiant effort, I think we need to try again.
In my opinion, THE PRISONER has almost everything I want in a great spy thriller. One thing I would love in a new remake is to give Number Six an internal conflict. For the entire series, he’s laser focused on escaping, and there isn’t any doubt in his mind that this is the right thing to do, and no moral quandaries to overcome. Even the betrayals of the women and fellow prisoners barely seem relevant to the plot or his character.
If I was to get a crack at a remake, I think more attention should be paid to developing a resonant internal conflict that plays out in relation to another character. In episode eight, Number Six says he doesn’t trust women, which I think would be more interesting if he had to trust and work with a woman to escape. (And she then didn’t immediately betray him, like ALL the female characters in the story.)
In addition, we don’t get enough of an “investigation” into who is running the Village: his own spy agency, trying to figure out if he’s a mole, or an enemy spy agency, trying to get at his secrets. This should be played up more, since I think there’s real stakes that can be found here.
The weirdness? That can stay. As shows like FX’s LEGION prove, more weirdness is needed on-screen.
I could go on forever about all this, but should probably wrap up now and do some “real” work.
Be seeing you. xx