17. Fall Out
We want information.
Six is lead to a cavern beneath the Village, in which the President presides over a masked committee. Six is applauded for having passed the ultimate test; he is no longer to be known by a number. Six is enthroned and observes the trial of two lesser rebels; Number 48, the embodiment of motiveless youth, and Number Two, who has been resurrected following his demise. Both are convicted. Six is contrastingly venerated and asked to lead the Village. However, when he is asked to address his audience, his every word is recited back, drowning him out. He is taken to meet Number One, who resides within a rocket in the cavern (why is there a rocket there? Probably because that’s what super-villains have in underground lairs). Six encounters a robed figure wearing an ape mask, which he removes to reveal his own face looking back at him. The passing of a crystal ball from One to Six –an object associated with insight, revelation and divination – precedes the reveal. One heads up the rocket and Six seals him in, setting it to launch. Six then takes up arms with Two and 48, mowing down Village guards and escaping with the butler in a truck (which holds the room from Once Upon a Time on its trailer). The rocket takes off as the Village is evacuated. Arriving in London, all disembark. 48 stands beside the road hitching. Two heads to work at Westminster. Six and the butler return to his home. Six climbs into his waiting car and speeds off. His door opens automatically for the butler, who goes inside. We see Six, from the standard opening credits, speeding towards the camera.
So how do you like it?
The reaction to the final episode of The Prisoner was reportedly one of indignation and outrage. McGoohan professed that he had to leave the country and/or go into hiding. Although this has the air of rehearsed hyperbole, trotted out during any given interview, it’s undoubtedly the case that this surreal, satirical, “throw everything into the mix and see what sticks” approach was divisive, and remains so in some quarters. There are those who see it as the point where McGoohan pushed the series that bit too far, sacrificing self-contained coherence and in favour of overt allegory, symbolism and extra-diegetic interpretation. The loose trappings of verisimilitude break down under the decision to give full vent to the series’ thematic underpinnings. George Markstein, the series script-editor (up to a point) and outspoken critic of McGoohan’ design, called the episode, “an absurd pantomime”. Obviously, he meant that negatively, but it works equally well as a compliment. Fall Out is an absurd pantomime, and a quite brilliant one.
George Markstein: I think it was an absurd pantomime… a bit of gross self-indulgence by someone who was fed up with the whole thing and wanted to go out in a blaze of… something or other. I don’t think even McGoohan understood the end.
The idea that the conclusion of The Prisoner is a Lost-style (or Battlestar Galactica, or take your pick) “desperate bid to come up with a conclusion where none had previously been figured out” has some cachet. There are numerous comments from those involved – even ones from McGoohan – that can be used to support such a view. But really, it doesn’t feel as if that’s what it is. The signs are there all the way through the series. What is much more likely, as the show’s driving force attested, is that the distillation of the point he intended to reached occurred late in the day. And undoubtedly he went through a honing process as the series developed.
Lew Grade: He said, Lew, I just cannot find an ending. I’ve got too confused with the project. And I thought that was very nice of him to come straight out with me and admit it…I told him to leave it loose.
Grade’s version of the formulation of Fall Out inevitably gives the ITC overlord a share of the credit for the craziness of the final 50 minutes (“leave it loose”). Alexis Kanner, who formed a firm friendship with the star, also comes across on the side of a last minute panic to provide a script, referencing “writing before the take even”. Kanner also told how McGoohan had envisaged a second series revolving around his character 48. They might well have shot the breeze at some point and thrown it out lightly as a “What if?” but nothing else McGoohan has said suggests it was ever for a moment considered seriously.
Patrick McGoohan (1968): I envisaged it from the beginning. In a series like this you have to know at the outset what you’re aiming at. You have to know the ending before you can begin. So I had the idea for the final episode first of all and took it from there.
The less support one sees for a carefully planned resolution, the more it appears to confirm the notion of McGoohan as an intimidating, whisky-fuelled despot who didn’t know what he wanted and that, therefore, Markstein was right all along. And yet, there you have it from the horse’s mouth; McGoohan knew what he wanted.
Patrick McGoohan (1979): I hadn’t got the specific ending we finished up with, but I certainly know where it had to go and the way in which it should finish and the message it should put forth.
The production problems are a given; McGoohan said, if there was one thing he would have done differently, it would have been to have all the scripts ready when he started (which certainly makes it sound like a single, one-off project). That may have countered the inspired lunacy found at every turn of Fall Out (and something like The Girl Who Was Death would probably have fallen by the wayside). He both partially agreed with Kannis’ take and the idea that necessity was the mother of invention when he commented (in 1979) “the last script was written by me very close to the end, in 36 hours… until eventually I got what we have, which, as far as I’m concerned, I think, works. I wouldn’t change it”.
Of course, there are counterstatements to be found, such as his realisation of Six as One arising as a natural consequence of the ideas pouring into the series; (1984) “And then, I didn’t even know exactly until I was about a third through the script”. It’s certainly probable that his ideas became more lucid as filming progressed, but how likely is it that he ever contemplated Once Upon A Time (filmed a year before Fall Out) might lead to a reveal of “Sean or Roger” as the uber-mastermind? It seems inconceivable, and rather the kind of thing you would say in an interview for dramatic effect. Unless, of course, his “I didn’t know who it could be!” describes his initial formulation of the series; certainly David Tomblin’s “I thought it might be you in the end” indicates the way they were thinking cumulatively about the show.
The previous interview statements suggest it would be difficult to conceive that McGoohan could have the idea from the start if that did not involve Six revealed as One; it’s intrinsic to the substance and theme of Fall Out. The only way to reconcile the statements is that he knew the substance but not the detail (and how much he would hold back or reveal). Or that McGoohan was talking a load of guff, coming up with conflicting statements during interviews divided by decades.
Patrick McGoohan: The whole point of the series… the whole point of certainly the last episode… is man is a prisoner unto himself.
There are two key parts to McGoohan’s overriding theme. The first, and most prevalent throughout the series, is his impassioned plea for the rights of the individual over the bureaucratic atrophy that holds sway within society. Then comes realisation in Fall Out that the true prison is the more existential, spiritual even – it certainly chimes with Buddhist teachings - one of our own design. If there’s an apparent dichotomy here, that the granting of the freedom the series is so concerned with wouldn’t really help all that much at all, it is surely wholly intentional. One conceptualisation arises from the other, and part of the pleasure of Fall Out is that we are carried along with an energy of musicality, psychedelia and apparent victory, only to reach the point of negative affirmation that nothing has changed. Because we (Six) haven’t changed; because we can’t change. Our motivations and paradigms are intrinsically linked and reactive to the society that informs us.
David Tomblin: If you sit down and look at it and think about it, it’s a man destroying himself through ego.
McGoohan noted on occasion that he was tapping into many of the themes of the then youth revolt, even though he was ostensibly (a sprightly near-40 year old) one of the older generation. Just as fashionable pop stars were browsing Eastern mysticism, so The Prisoner dabbles with that vibe. On its most superficial level there’s the crazy quasi-martial art Kosho. On a deeper level, while The Beatles were off flirting with gurus, McGoohan was addressing the fundamental human condition; “It’s an allegory. A fable. But I’m willing to bet you see the point of the final episode. Number One is the worst part of one’s self. Number One made Hitler. Get rid of Number One and we are free”. I’m sure any given swami would agree.
It’s no wonder then that the show cannot offer answers, because it’s mastermind has none; “What is the most evil thing on Earth… It’s the evil part of oneself that one is constantly fighting with until the moment of our demise… “ McGoohan could only suggest the great leveller as a solution; “Everyone is a prisoner of something. You escape when you’re released, I suppose, by death. It’s the final release”. As such the series paints a less than positive vision of the human condition; we’re all caught in a never-ending cycle whereby progress in any but the most material sense is negligible.
This is why McGoohan has Six’s revealed ego wearing an ape mask; evolution has failed to take man beyond killing and enslaving and controlling his environment and that of others. It can be no coincidence that, moments after unmasking One, Six dons the same (well, similar) robes and mask. Realisation is but a glimpse if one’s lucky, and too much for one to recognise and do something about unless one is on the path by which one can forsake the indoctrination of society. Which is why we see Six reintegrate himself at the end, and carry on as before (probably to end up in the Village again at some point).
Patrick McGoohan: Somebody needs to yell a warning. I hope I’m giving some kind of warning. My village is not 1984, it’s 1968… More than anything else I believe passionately in the freedom of the individual… I want to yell back, ‘That’s our right. The loss of one’s own individuality is a nightmare’.”
While the concept of the Village as the prison of one’s own mind is at it’s most prevailing in Fall Out – the different voices vying for attention are better or worse instincts ultimately supressed by One – this is not to say the on-going theme of society’s oppressive tenor is absent. However, it is rather usurped by the central revelation. McGoohan referred to the series as a “protest against regimentation and the loss of individuality” and “man’s fight against the bureaucratic establishment”. Like most of us he is aware of conflicting impulses, ranging between order and chaos. He commented “the idea of being a rebel against suppression and stupid rules has been with me since I was able to start thinking about anything at all”.
Yet he also chimed in with what is, on the face of it, an extremely conservative judgement; “I believe in democracy, but the inherent danger is that with an excess of freedom in all directions we will eventually destroy ourselves”. He said this in 1968, and doubtless the perils that come from too much indulgence and excess in the name of freedom (borne out by the petering out of the movement for change) were on his mind and in the news. Accompanying this is an idea that is apparently anathema to the intent of the series; that we need to be controlled to prevent our worse natures coming out. And to have the democratic process limited for our own good; it’s why referendums tend not to be very popular with the political file, and why one for bringing back the death penalty wouldn’t be a wonderful example of we-the-people having their say.
In Fall Out we see this process at its most jaundiced. Six is enthroned, set free, but any notional release is undermined. He has no mechanism for speech or influence. As soon as he gives voice he is drowned out by the repetition of his every word (appropriately, mostly just “I”) by the panel of representatives (purportedly a riff on the UN Council, but the masked congress also evokes secret societies by way of Greek theatre; the Supervisor puts on a mask when he arrives and becomes one of the faceless mass-to-judgement). It suggest that not only is the nominal leader of any party a powerless puppet, but also that those who make the laws are mindless drones parroting whatever they are told.
Personifications of welfare, activists, pacifists, anarchists are apparently all seated behind Six, but to what end? It’s an anarchist who reads a charge against 48’s youthful anarchist. The implication appears to be that, whatever position one holds, one is really just another sheep. And behind it all? In McGoohan’s vision there is no great conspiracy controlling us all; the oppressive environment derives from an accumulation of individuals too limited and closed-minded to escape their own learned patterns. There’s a strong echo of the formative Free For Allhere (and a musical cue from that episode reinforces this), and the lie of leadership. Six, we are told, is “a man of steel, magnificently equipped to lead us”.
The President: Then he must no longer be referred to as Number Two, as Number Six, or a number of any kind… He has gloriously vindicated the right of the individual to be individual and this assembly rises to you, sir.
Former Number Two (promoted?) Kenneth Griffith plays the President, dressed as a high court judge, and offers Six the chance to reign over them. Griffith has taken credit for his big speech about the “infallibility of our democratic urge”, in which case kudos to him. The appearance is that the reward for bucking the system is to lead that system; a quiet revolution. But that leadership is proven to be nothing of the sort.
The warning signs are there from the opening, as Six is invited to don his extra-Village attire (“We thought you would feel happier as yourself”). That “yourself” is embodied by a Frankenstein-zombie grey mannequin surrounded by racks of rustling coat hangers; something is deeply wrong with this victory.
Six may be enthroned, but he was walked in on a trial that he is nominally asked to observe (series have commonly ended on a trial since, an easy means to summarise events, from Seinfeldto The A-Team to The X-Files). While 48 and Two are being judged, the effect is one of their being witnesses at Six’s own tribunal. He is dressed up for a fall, his own vanity preyed upon (“Number Six is presented to you”); the very enactment of triumph (and the paraphernalia of such in a traditional narrative) is exposed and mocked.
Six is succinct throughout, observing the proceedings but sitting a man apart. He is too self-possessed to be taken in by the elevation, but also unprepared for the final revelation. He is summarised as “a revolutionary of different calibre” to Two and 48, having survived all attempts to turn or sway him. Asked if he approves of the proceedings, he replies “I… note them”. Persuaded to speak (“You must. You are the greatest”), finally falling prey to the desire to get his message out, he is drowned out. This is despite being told he represents “good and honest revolt”; even with revolution there are correct ways to go about things (ways 48 does not represent). Six’s victory is pyrrhic as it ultimately allows the status quo to continue.
The President: We must remind ourselves that humanity is not humanised without force and that errant children must sometimes be brought to book with a smack on the backside.
The wrong way to revolt is through “uncoordinated youth rebelling against nothing it can define”, as embodied by 48 in a performance from Alexis Kanner every bit as indelible as those of McGoohan and McKern. The charge sheet against 48 is a litany of disrespect for the sustained order and etiquette of society (“Total defiance of the elementary laws which sustain our community”). While Six is as guilty of some of these, it is the manner of 48 to which the Village objects; “Questioning the decisions of those we voted to govern us. Unhealthy aspects of speech and dress not in accordance with general practice. The refusal to observe, wear or respond to his number”. 48 probably doesn’t even have a bank account.
48’s crime represents “a matter of democratic crisis and we are here gathered to resolve the question of revolt”. Youth, the only force that has the will or motivation to enact change, is belittled and beaten by the establishment. Its reasons are suspect and its avenues undisciplined; it “rebels against any accepted norm because it must”. In the view of the President, this becomes a danger when “the common good is threatened” (the establishment is rocked) and those individuals concordantly become “non-productive”. 48 sports the regalia of the rebel; he wears unsanctioned clothes and uses unaccepted language (he’s hip). The manner in which the President mimics 48’s patter (and then Two’s laugh) suggests how easy it is to “conform” to anyone’s influence. Hence the manner in which the council take part in Dem Bones.
The musicality of this scene, from the short bursts of dialogue and rejoinders (“Thanks for the trip, dad”; “Now you’re hip”; “Don’t mention it, dad”) positions Six as the measured authoritarian advising the whippersnapper (“Don’t knock yourself out… Young man”). But the use of the Ezekial-referencing spiritual song Dem Bones suggests, however flippantly, that youth has grasped hold of a moral centre that has long since expired in the the controllers and masters. There’s a religious undercurrent running throughout the episode, as we’ll see with Two, that relates to ideas of authority and obedience, and questions of to whom who we ultimately answer.
McGoohan pronounced that, “There comes a time when rebellion is necessary”. He opined of the era that “If only the youth had had a leader I think we would have had a great revolution which might have changed the face of the Earth for a while” which is more optimistic than the sense of resignation and impossibility of escape found at Fall Out’s conclusion. 48 is not that youth leader (“He was astray and now he’s trying to get everything together again”; this improvement may involve hearing the word of the Lord).
Most emblematic of the inspiration of youth is the use of The Beatles’ All You Need is Love. Eric Mival commented of the song “Pat was very concerned that this series would have longevity and he did actually ask whether I felt that the Beatles numbers would date it or not”; it’s telling then that it only dates the episode in so much as it encapsulates the era in which it was made with a timeless song. McGoohan said “I think The Beatles are marvellous... afterwards what you realise is that love is the thing we have least of “. Of course, he cannot embody that in the series itself so there is no choice but to use the song ironically.
On both occasions it appears, All You Need is Love informs the proceedings. First playfully as Six enters the cavern (all you need is love, to be happy within and with yourself, but which needs to begin at home; Six cannot learn to “love” or make peace with his malignant ego) and then to overtly caustic ends as Six wages machine gun revolt to the sound of peace and love; two polarising approaches that both want change but cannot bring about a sustained better world when entwined. It’s still impressive that McGoohan was so direct so immediately in recognising the song’s aspiration and its contrasting unfeasibility.
McGoohan appeared to invoke the cyclic nature of changes in the order of things when he commented of the trio of rebels dancing in the back of the truck as they speed to “freedom” as a “celebration of freedom after violence” in a scenario “where war can clean the air”. It may be in the nature of a society that never truly progresses upwards (in evolutionary or spiritual terms) to revolve habitually around such shifts and rhythms.
The President: These attitudes are dangerous. They contribute noting to our culture. They are to be stamped out.
The return of Leo McKern, after the traumas inflicted by McGoohan during his first appearance, might have seemed an unlikely prospect. The star of the series commented, “I missed him” and it appears that Kannis (who McGoohan considered an “outstanding actor”) was utilised as something of a go-between to ensure peaceful proceedings. The actor had shaved and trimmed in the intervening period, hence the shaving foam and Dalek plunger during the resuscitation process. We also see The General’s Speedlearn process during this sequence, but there’s no getting around that Two snuffed it (“I… apparently… died”). This isn’t an episode for those who want the series to be neat and literal-minded. Two proclaims, “I feel a new man”, echoing the Seven Ages of Once Upon a Time.
Two has been brought back to life at the instruction of One, and the allying of ego to notions of God is overtly countenanced. After all, who else can raise man from the dead? So too Two’s baiting of his superior (“Shall I give him a stare?”) is met with rebukes that suggest religious malfeasance (“You transgress” he is told, and then accused of “Blasphemy”). The response to Six’s inquiry as to whether he met One also suggests divine impossibility (“Face to face? Meet him! Ha Ha!”) That said, his rebuke “You’ll hypnotise me no longer” is of the order of the distraction of the ego against self-realisation.
Two: You couldn’t even let me rest in peace.
Two is announced as “an established successful secure member of the establishment turning upon and biting the hand that feeds him” but is nevertheless characterised as a revolutionary, just a different kettle of fish to 48. Given the events of Once Upon A Time, it’s interesting to hear that he was part of the problem; just less demonstrably than Six (“Deplorable I resisted for so short a time… a fine tribute to your methods”). It’s notable that the trio, at the conclusion, are seen to be resuming their most obvious activities. Two, bowler-hatted, appears to be going to work at Westminster. 48, ever the rebel, is coolly top-hatted and medallioned and hitchhiking to wherever his lift may take him. Six drives off, bound for the title sequence, or more spying (the Butler enters his residence, Number One, and the door opens for him, just as it does in the Village).
Perhaps my favourite Two moment in the episode occurs as he is drawn into the bowels of the Orbit machine; he gives a vigorous “Be seeing you”, looking at the camera, and laughs a hearty laugh (his line reading of “A funny thing happened on my way… here” is also a delight).
Fall Out’s reuse of sets from The Girl Who Was Death(the rocket) and Battle Beneath the Earth(the Bond-on-a-budget cavern) suggest frugality as well as the free-form improvisation that informs the episode (however strong its underpinned ideas). These are overtly fantastic trappings; a subterranean base and a rocket set to blow (that is based in a children’s story from the previous-but-one episode). Then there’s the madly surreal deflation of a Rover in an alien landscape, to the accompaniment of Carmen Miranda’s I Yi, Yi, Yi, Yi (I Like You Very Much).
The episode is musically glorious. There are two standout tracks in particular (both from the Chappell Music Library); the cheerful melancholy of Return of Number 2, recorded by G Ballington as September Ballad and the hugely uplifting Number 6 Throned (Rag March by J Arel and J Petit), accompanying Six and company into London and seeing them on their ways (complete with onscreen credit captions). The latter is the perfect sign-off to the series, triumphant sound of ‘60s possibilities that leaves a warm feeling within… until the door closes, and then we see the traditional opening of Six’s car hurtling towards camera (Children of the Stones would take a more formal narrative approach to looping a series’ reality a decade later). Reality dawns. Does the lack of bars signify Six is free, or does this merely mean he is speeding on his way to the next cycle of imprisonment?
The location work at the end of this episode is also hugely evocative. If Many Happy Returnspresented a harsh alienated London, the conclusion finds a free-for-all where Six runs hand-in-hand across a busy road with a diminutive butler and engages in a rendition of Dem Bones with a friendly policeman (if that’s what he’s doing). There’s no point getting sniffy that the Village is now not so far from the A20, 27 miles from London (it seems ‘80s comic book sequel Shattered Visageattempted to reconfigure the entire proceedings as an experiment by Number Two, rather missing the point but enabling the tidy explicability of a series that has marginal respect for such means and measures).
The President: And now I take it, that you are prepared to meet Number One. Follow me, if you would be so kind sir.
While series since have gone to unusual or controversial places with their conclusions, precious few have taken the leaps of The Prisoner. By their nature, most series are mainstream, play-it-safe affairs, and even those that end in a massacre (Blake’s 7) or on a cliffhanger (Twin Peaks) tend to be understood (even if they leave a certain section of the audience dissatisfied). Precious are swollen with the subtext of McGoohan’s series, which is why it endures and why a remake turns out to be a hollow facsimile of its surface elements. I’m not sure Christopher Nolan was the guy to engage with the mooted film version either; an outsider’s perspective is needed. Mel Gibson might have been a better bet, back in the pre-controversy ‘90s.
“It was meant to be controversial and it has been” commented McGoohan, further stating “The response to the programme has been the most marvellous thing that has happened to me in my life”. Which is good, because the series would define him as conclusively as Doctor Who defined Tom Baker. Of course, the star’s presupposition that “as long as people feel something, that’s the great thing, it’s when they’re walking around not thinking, not feeling, that’s where all the dangerous stuff is, cause when you get a mob like that, you can turn them into the sort of gang that Hitler had” presumes people weren’t just hurling mugs of tea at the screen yelling “What a load of old nonsense”, then immediately resuming their daily lives. It’s the cult appeal that has kept The Prisoner in the consciousness, with an intrinsically counter-culture mind-set and precocious design elements. To that extent one might see it as preaching to the converted.
Fall Out is the crowning moment of one of the best TV series ever made. I’ve noted before the view that if you favour the out-there episodes of The Prisoner it means you probably aren’t really a fan of the show itself. I could perhaps see that of The Girl Who Was Death, but the finale isthe show. It contextualises it retrospectively, informing its predecessors when revisiting them. It’s also a simply magnificent piece of television that manages not just to embrace the stylistic flourishes we associate with the ‘60s but encapsulates the ideas that lie beneath them. If no show like it has been made since it’s because it is so intrinsically linked to its era; not only would there not have been the appetite but also no star had the clout or crucially the mind and will to get something like this off the ground. Good people, it is my pleasure to present to you, the one and only Number Six.
Sources: Andrew Pixley's excellent The Prisoner - A complete production guide