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Prisoners November 21, 2009

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.

This week I watched cable channel AMC’s television series The Prisoner, a very loose remake of the famous 1960s series staring Patrick McGoohan about a government agent who, on attempting to resign, is kidnapped and taken to a dystopic resort/retirement home called The Village. The 21st century version, based on a graphic novel of the same title, takes a different approach, transforming government agents into employees of the shadowy private surveillance corporation SUMMAKOR, and taking the story of The Village and its numerically named occupants into much deeper territory, exploring the psychological underpinnings of The Village and how to manipulate thousands of people into believing there is only The Village and nothing else in the universe, into being happy in such a world.

At the end of McGhoohan’s show his Six escapes, driving a trailer full of capering inmates down the road to freedom. The new ending (and I’m sorry to reveal it if you haven’t watched the show or read the graphic novel but I must; stop here if you don’t want to know) at first seemed a complete betrayal of the original and its upbeat resolution. For Six to betray 313, the woman he loves and become the new No. Two dreaming of the future of a prefect, happy village of enforced conformity seemed so wrong I was seething with anger.

My friend Sam beeped me on instant messaging as I sat at my computer after the show and I just ranted, suggested I would rather watch The Sorrow and The Pity over and over again strapped to a chair on bad acid than see The (New) Prisoner again. To think an entire generation would remember this ending, would remember the failure of hope at any triumph against The Village, made me envious of the character No. 2 who commits suicide at the end by placing the grenade (with which he teased prisoners he was psychologically torturing) in his own mouth and this time actually pulling the pin.

It wasn’t until I lay in bed much later that I realized how perfect an ending it was. We are no longer the flower children and dreamy eyed revolutionaries of the 1960s. For my generation McGoohan’s victory over No. 2 and the Village, his final escape simply reflected everything around us in 1967 and 1968, was of a piece with a world that believed in McGoohan’s rebellion and the possiblity of escape. My teenage son (with whom I watched the first two nights) and all the twenty somethings whose knowledge of The Prisoner will be only this show are a different sort of people living in a very different world.

I realized that the ending was a perfect manipulation of the viewerl, that anger at the triumph of SUMMAKOR and The Village is precisely what the author wanted, a perfect catharsis intended to disrupt the illusory freedom of I-Pod and on-demand everything, the delusion of free information the Internet produces. The real SUMMAKORs of our age produce through hundreds of television channels and millions of Internet destinations an illusion of freedom, allow us all to chose what we will see and do and who we will pretend to be in our shrinking free time, give us something to talk about around the coffee pot in our uniformly beige and gray cube farms, separate us not be class and race but by team and genre but by the characters we choose on a thousand reality show contests.

The ending divides us as well (just as The Village does) into the conformists and the dreamers. Is the ending for you just a clever plot twist before you resume channel surfing or an epiphany? The new story reminds us that if we do not own our dreams and let SUMMAKOR control them then we are no better than the inmates of the mythical Village. There is, for those of us who railed at the ending of the show, a powerful reminder to control our own dreams and to act as the character of the old Six did, as the new Six does before he is broken, to question and to challenge and not to accept The Village that is all around us.