EVPL is proud to have Kanopy – a free, digital streaming service for libraries. Watch great movies with the click of a button but without the monthly fee of most streaming services. The app – available to download on evpl.org – works on phones, desktops, Roku, Amazon Firestick, and Chromecast. As an EVPL user, you will have access to 20 films per month. This feature looks at some of what Kanopy has to offer, highlighting a particular filmmaker, actor, studio, genre, or theme.
This time, the spotlight is on The Prisoner. One of the most critically acclaimed television series ever made, this British classic was released in 1966, consisting of only seventeen episodes, all available on Kanopy. Its creator, star, and occasional writer and director, Patrick McGoohan plays a top-secret agent for British intelligence who retires from his position without giving a reason why and within hours, gets drugged and kidnapped. When he wakes up, the man finds himself in a beautiful, idyllic utopia named “The Village” where everyone smiles and everything is available and provided for… except the freedom to leave.
The Village’s mysterious owners, who could be any major power in the Cold War, want to know why the agent retired. Everyone in the Village is given a number instead of a name and the spy sent there is labeled as “Number Six.” The actual leader, “Number One” is an off-screen menace, but every week, the show introduces a new “Number Two,” played by a new actor, who uses every resource available to break Six. It is the unstoppable force versus the immovable object. Who will succeed first? The Village in forcing, coercing, or manipulating Six into revealing why he retired, or Six in escaping the Village and proving that he is not a number, but a free man?
It is a groundbreaking and memorable show that has withstood generations, but here’s the thing: the episode order listed on Kanopy can be confusing. It is “correct” because it is how the episodes aired originally in the United Kingdom. The problem is that this order doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense. Characters return to the show before their first appearance. Number Six claims “I’m new here” eight episodes into the series. Although the show is not serialized, there are several clues and indications as to which episodes come before the others. Many different TV stations and fan clubs have produced their own orders, each with pros and cons, but what follows in this blog post is my own.
The first set of episodes can be considered the initial batch, centering on Number Six’s early days in the Village. Most of these episodes contain some kind of reference to Number Six being new to the premises and/or an attempt by Six to learn more about the Village and its ways. In every episode order list, “Arrival” is listed as the first (just as every list always ends with “Once Upon a Time” and “Fall Out”), but what comes next is trickier.
Many of these episodes were written and even produced with the intention of being “Episode 2.” In some ways, “Dance of the Dead” is a better second episode than “Free for All,” Six seems at his most naïve and out of his depth while saying he’s never been to the Town Hall before (which he does visit in “Free for All”), but “Free for All” has a more memorable, engaging premise to hook new viewers and it lays out many of the ground rules for the Village for both Six and the audience.
Number Six says in “Free for All” that he intends to discover who among the Village inhabitants are the prisoners and who are the wardens, which is just what he sets out to do in “Checkmate,” so that comes after “Free for All” at least. Finally, “The Chimes of Big Ben,” released in the UK originally as Episode 2, comes last because it’s the closest both Six (and the Village) come to succeeding early in the series and can be considered a sort of mini-season finale for the initial block of episodes.
The next set of episodes are a loosely connected trilogy that each has some sort of continuity. “The Schizoid Man” makes a reference to the general, but it’s clear Six doesn’t know who or what the general actually is, so the episode of the same name must come next. Meanwhile, “The General” and “A. B. and C.” both feature the same actor playing Number Two. In “The General,” he says he is “the new Number Two” and is shown as cocky and confident in his ability to defeat Six. In “A. B. and C.,” he no longer claims to be “new” in the intro and acts more generally nervous, desperate, and willing to try more dangerous attempts to get Six’s information, as if this Two has already failed before. Bafflingly, not only did the original airdate order put “A. B. and C.” before “The General,” it placed it as Episode 3, before the Village even had a chance to try safer methods first!
These episodes are the ones, along with the previous three, that make up the bulk of the series. After the initial, introductory episodes and before the final stretch where things get even stranger, this set shows the formula for most of the series, a push and pull between Number Six, the unstoppable force, and the Village, the immovable object. Depending on the episode, there may be a victory for Six (the Village can’t get him to reveal why he retired) or a victory for the Village (Six tries to escape but fails). Overall though, there is a trajectory with this order where the Village becomes more and more desperate while Six gets better and better at playing them at their own game.
The final set of episodes feel very different from the rest. With the exception of “Once Upon a Time” (shot early but carried over for the end of the series), all of these were shot after an extended break, during which time long-running script editor George Markstein had left the series. McGoohan, who had only wanted to make seven episodes, much less seventeen, was getting tired of the series’ formula and wanted to do some weird and strange things using The Prisoner format. Most take place outside of the Village, either literally or through some kind of hallucinations, and they all explore other genres, dabbling in everything from westerns to James Bond parodies to abstract surrealism.
The penultimate episode, “Once Upon a Time” and the finale, “Fall Out” wrap up the story and tells us if Number Six truly escapes in one of the most ingenious, unique, and original ways ever. The Prisoner is a very divisive series; you may or may not like it but you will never forget it.
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