Escalations of the abstract (The Prisoner 1967) Part 2

‘Realising that you are the dream figure in another person’s dream, that is self awareness…’ Timothy Levitch (Waking Life).


Part 1

The final episode ‘Fall Out’ – is where transformation through abstraction in the Prisoner becomes most vital. It would appear very much as if the techniques and approaches of Surrealism are at work, although with very specific impacts as a mode of critique and potential elucidation. This is evident in the deterritorialising appropriation of the state power artifact in the rituals of pseudo-justice from ‘Fall Out’.

Two specific court cases play out and the coded speech and costumery of British law show them to be ritualisations engendered as refrains and codes as-power with manoeuvrable consistencies of convenience, to allay in ritual, fancy dress and custom – always at the edge of liminality – the preceptual yawning chasm of the void (a circumstance of power storying the state’s ‘fear’ of the absence of itself).

The trials are underway in ‘Fall Out’

While filming ‘Fall Out’ there were reports as to the stress which McGoohan was purportedly experiencing, now having been carrying many aspects of the series direction and production leading to its finale. Editor Noreen Ackland describes McGoohan coming into the last episode cutting room and asking her to repeatedly scroll backwards and forwards, looping sections of footage over and over again without apparent motive and in increasing strains of intensity and desperation. She indicated she ended in tears asking him ‘What are you looking for?’ To which McGoohan could only intercede that he didnt know before getting her to continue running the footage forward for a while, then backward and then forward once more…

Although he offered remarkably little himself about The Prisoner in the intervening years (passing away in 2009), it would be simple enough to conclude that McGoohan was aware he was about to take a leap into presenting something of the unknown and unseen to this level of television drama to this point, on a show which had become hugely successful and was of its time very much Event television.


‘Fall Out’ takes the routine and ritual of law and places it in a psychedelia of the nonsensical, giving us the moment to see that the gravity and authority of law are as made up as the malarky of No.48, whose rebellion No.6 is witnessing on trial as he sings the spiritual song ‘Dem Bones.’ With repeated interjections of ‘Dad’ and ‘daddyo’ – idiomatic of the patriarchal, generational of state controllism.

For the trials themselves No. 6 has been in some way annointed and is observing (he is told he will be ‘inaugurated’) having passed an apparent threshold through victory in his hermetic final battle of wills with his adversary No.2 (the events of previous episode ‘Once Upon a Time’) and in the making of which No.2 actor Leo McKern was driven to a nervous breakdown after 8 or 9 days of one on one filming with McGoohan on an enclosed and locked down set.

Now enthroned, No.6 has been moved within the lines of state power and is offered to partake and comment (while reminded of certain customs by the Judge) on the rebellion of the aforementioned 48 (played by Alexis Kanner) and the failures of the vanquished No. 2. This is a recurrent trope of The Prisoner; No.6 is given apparent power or access, whether when elected as the new No.2 in ‘Free for All’, or when he awakes as his own interloper in ‘The Schizoid Man’ each time with the promise of answers (and escape) only for it to become apparent that this has been another ruse of control – the crux of which results in his return to incarceration.

As ‘Fall Out’ progresses however, the story begins to fold in on itself. The critical moment for this following the conclusion of the trial, when No.6 is finally able to meet No.1, a sequence that takes on an oneiric, crypto-delirial edge.


In order to effect an ending to the series which would have the opportunity to open the space of the story (beyond any habitual lack of the transcendent), McGoohan finds the beat of the surreal as an ally and moves the story accordingly. The trials are something which sufficiently resemble, but also effectively subvert in construction – the hard, dreariness of their reality. The displacements are only partly glaring – the gallery of black and white masked, cloak-wearing attendees, that mutter and shout over No. 6 when he says the word ‘I’ (the state can attack equally on the made-up basis of excessive individuality as much as on the made-up basis of excessive communality). All the while the setting and its components (including for example, the large rocket or missile fuesalge in the corner of the cavernous space labelled with a large ‘1’ communicating to the Judge through coded bleeps) edge the drama into the bizarre, aided by Kanner’s ‘Dem Bones’ rendition. These steps edge us further toward the consistency of the episode’s final formalistic break outs.

this is what it looks like

It serves to bear in mind that if one is counting on the use of abstraction in a work concerned with freedom that includes expression of its own philosophical dimensions, then what is present through that abstraction needs to also partly and ultimately go beyond what was being demonstrated as the force or power of the containment in the first place. Otherwise one cannot help but remain a kind of prisoner of the story – this time in its formalism, unable to get to see past its mode of containment, except where something of the retained unknown may have transpired in how any escape or resolution occurs.

A dynamics of freedom must at least be present, however the expressions of abstraction in detention/ escape in ‘Fall Out’ resonate with opposition and battle (struggle). Even while another vector is also being implied through the playing out (twice) of ‘All you need is Love’ by the Beatles, while battle and gunfire take place along with the escape of the small group which has suddenly formed around No.6 involving those who had been on trial (and No.2 ‘s Butler).

That the music of the escape battle itself is ‘All you Need is Love’, suggests direct critique of that central notion, but also ensures Love is present in the very moment of Escape. It would be easy to connote, even in considering the abstraction of the Prisoner that it is always the state forces which are being opposed; the power of the Village, its operatives and technology, but the worlds of espionage and state warfares (even of the intensive) are what McGoohan uses but also steers away from. ‘Fall Out’s dramatic reveal of No.1 places the stratic of the state at the heart of a setting critiqued both on individuation through subjectification (it’s all about ‘Number One’) and the unseen nexi involving these things as recurrent formations of power which are fundamentally extrinsic to the realisation of one’s place in one’s own containment, while also being a uniquely contingent and instrinsic affair.


In the sequence leading up to the reveal of No. 1, waiting inside the rocket/fuselage, No.6 enters and approaches the cloaked, masked figure, while they both simultaneously watch this happening on a screen mounted in the room. As he continues to approach, the screen changes to become No. 6’s famous litany ‘I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, numbered… (etc.) my life is my own.’ While harking back to episode ‘A,B and C’s layering of the virtual – this simultaneous feed serves as a form of inflected iteration, the formalisation of a perspective of the moment itself, layered, feeding back, but also a supplemental, additional layer of interiorisation; a visual ‘totality’ of the moment and its focal point.

Number 1 then hands No.6 a transparent sphere, a surface that reflects the space but also inverts it. There’s the folkloric ‘crystal ball’ also, a shorthand for seeing and for futurity, which in the line of the story of ‘Fall Out’ from here becomes successively; the unmasking of ‘himself’ as the centre of the control force of his incarceration, followed by the formation of an escape group and the struggle for escape itself, as well as that which follows. No. 6 smashes the ball crystal ball on the floor.

When McGoohan removes No. 1’s mask (while a looping, gradually more manic repetition of the word ‘I’ from his speech plays out) what is revealed first is another mask – this time that of an ape, and then when this is removed, we see McGoohan’s face, manic and laughing.

The affect and demeanour of the unmasked Number 1 is crazed, but importantly, crazed in laughter, before he darts from the room and is gone. Thus the reveal has been fleeting, but brings with it the sense that in some way No.6 has inviolably earned this moment of the reveal. As if in the intensive strata of action in this space, the anointing of the trial, the unimpeachable grit and impetus of his resolve, have rendered this unveiling by deed, undeniable – in response to the revelation of which comes this mania of laughter (the jokes on you) – and which is revealed only for that amount of time as is necessary, before receding from view once more.

This then is an arrival at a centre (or the centre) of the structurality of control in the revelation and unmasking of an unknown being identified as the protagonist of this story (but whom in being simply a number throughout is rendered homogenous enough to invoke identity and what may lie beneath or subsumed unknowingly within it). Crucially of course, this is not the same as escape and yet arrives as an encounter en route via implacable resistance and intent at escape. At the very least in the context of what one escapes from and in this respect, which is opposing that very escape.

It’s fascinating that the sequence of events running through the unmasking presents us with a visual stratification which is unearthed. First the black and white mask (no diffusion or shading, everything including identification is black and white), then the ape mask, then No.6’s laughing, manic doppelganger/self. The ape layer another image in the excavating of stratic control identity, suggesting critique both of the pre-human ape of evolutionary history as causative (beneath which is still the same apparent being) and also the idea of this wild instinct-driven, but unknowable animal layering of drives and realities beneath the veneer of civilisation. That the ‘answer’ if such a thing exists, beneath the apparent causativity of the animal beneath the surface, is another surface and the reveal that one is still after all unmasking oneself.

There is no fixation on this discovery or its impact, there is only the ongoing requirement to extradite the escape. In fact, as soon as the uncovering has taken place and it is clear No.6’s will to escape is unchanged, the entire Village is organisationally abandoned and evacuated by its inhabitants. There will be no return to Control-normality…

How else does one arrive at meeting oneself, but in a dream-like arrival? The grammar of the dream becomes arraigned onto the depiction of the real in ‘Fall Out’


With the assistance of the Butler (the perrenial servant whom we have never seen or heard speak) the group break out and drive to London. No.6 had earlier refused the power of the state or their offer to travel anywhere he might want using their gifts of money, passports etc. The state’s message clear to him at this point, as he has successfully resisted their power; be one of us or be gone. As such it remains an escape, he might return to the place of maximalised state power but finally it is an image of individualised freedom (the group with former Numbers 2, 48 and the butler revealed as a pragmatic alliance and apparently little more, ceding the limits of this understanding of escape and seemingly diminishing possibilities of group becomings).

As they arrive on the outskirts of London, No.48 heads immediately to the road going back out and begins hitching. No.2 is escorted by No.6 to Westminster, where moments later he is to be seen once more among the establishment striding cheerfully inside (exchanging a salute with a policeman as he enters). No.6 also encounters a policeman, in front of whom he dances out ‘Dem Bones’ to indicate he is still in resistance to the state power mode, before being escorted by the Butler back to his old home (from where he was originally captured while inside, preparing his escape from his life of serving the state). This time however, he does not go inside (it is Muskat’s Butler instead who enters) while the same hearse pulls up outside once more which had at the very beginning gassed and retrieved him to the Village (indicating the circularity of state capture modality, the process can begin again, can repeat indefinitely). It is in this sense also a return, he returns to where he was caught, but crucially he does not go inside, as such, it is not a return home and he refuses or evades the trap. Even while the circumstance of his capture begin to be played out once more (the hearse) – now No.6 is beyond any cyclicality of capture and takes to his car instead. It is from here that we cut to him driving once more, through the road between horizonless grass verges. There is only the sound of the wind, then of thunder… It is stormy. Stormy in the place of abstraction as much as terrains of the material.

As such, one of the key accomplishments of the Prisoner by the end of ‘Fall out’ is that it has incorporated recurrently abstract elements, while bringing them in from outside the familiarity present in the (to most humans) habitual conjunction of ‘abstract’ and ‘material’ concerns as well as how these are co-emplaced. After ‘Fall Out’ it almost becomes a question as to how Number 1’s identity could have been other than it was, except for a potential lack of radicalism (think the Matrix sequel’s dreary and much maligned encounter between Neo and ‘The Architect‘). The shifts in the Prisoner’s story-grammar that leads to that point offers a way past formalistic liminalism (without succumbing to a knowing po-mo change of register) to a space rendering story oneiric to thought, where the fabric of realisation conducts between series like the lightning of escape, from expectation, from under-served understanding and the coiling capture of errant circularity, the deadened merry-go-round of Control.

That there may be conceptual (or other) spaces of contact potentially vital to the dynamics of such an expansive milieu (or their corresponding deployments), does not diminish the achievement of an escape within story which still resonates now, engaging with fangs of strata from its obvious to its recondite factors. It becomes a dreaming for the imagination which augments and compounds its capacity as heightened, intensified component in the escape of its story, the story of an escape. The reality of fiction, the dreaming of reality, aformalities of escape… the beckoning of freedom…

…After all George Markstein described ‘Fall Out’ and its ending as ‘an absurd pantomime’, but perhaps more accurately it is a depiction of an absurd pantomime in which the participants are principally unaware of the stage and their role, the story’s challenge to itself and its depiction therefore, at its most abstract, has never been more resonant than in the ongoing here and now of encounter.

* *

The apparent placidity of the Village becomes the alien arrangement deceptive as to its reality