[16 November 2009]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Six thinks that everything is fake.
—Two (Ian McKellen)
Everything you say is a trap.
—Six (Jim Caviezel)
“How do I get out of here?” As soon as Six (Jim Caviezel) poses this essential question at the start of AMC’s The Prisoner, you know where he’s headed. You know whether or not you’ve seen Patrick McGoohan’s beloved series of the same name. You know because the scene set here is now familiar rather than strange, the premise tedious rather than tricky. While the miniseries has been termed a “reinterpretation” rather than a remake, the key point is “re.”
Yet another cog in a vast machine, Six works arduously to think his way out of his trap. No longer a Cold Warish spy beset by his conscience, this Six reveals that he’s worked at a CCTV surveillance company, Summakor, and, well, he’s resigned for undisclosed reasons. Or has he? Again and again in this miniseries—six hours over three nights, starting 15 November—Six is dragged back into what seems his past via flashbacks, a chance encounter on a New York sidewalk with vivacious Lucy (Hayley Atwell) that is of course not even close to chance. In the Village, he’s interested in another girl, a trembly-lipped doctor called 313 (Ruth Wilson). In New York he worries about monitoring others; in the Village he worries about being monitored. In both places, he’s got some rethinking to do.
He has many instructors to help him with what is already an obvious lesson. Chief among these, of course, is Two (played only by Ian McKellan). “The problem is in your mind,” Two instructs Six. The younger man resists, as he must, being inclined to moral behavior and faux-independent thinking: “I want out of here.” With a sigh, Two restates, “You’ve tried that. There is no out, there’s only in.” For all the superficial plotting in The Prisoner, the chasing and the running, the dreaming and the escaping, its most interesting moments concern Two’s mouthing of such seeming philosophical circumlocutions. It’s not that what he’s saying is so new and brilliant (see also: Plato’s Cave, Melville, Kafka, The Matrix, Life on Mars, etc.), but McKellan’s performance—whether he’s speaking, wondering or just breathing—is consistently superb.
In contrast, Six is left looking both retarded and recalcitrant, an earnest heroic type who never quite rises to his task. His “friends” are limited to a cabdriver, 147 (Lennie James), whose own nuclear familial bliss is not only too good to be true, but also easily transmutated into abject misery. Much like 147 (the earnest working class fellow and only black man), Six rejects the stories Two hands him, except when they comport with his self image as morally righteous. Seeking a reputed underground of dreamers, people who apparently have flashbacks like he does, Six alarms 147, who thinks he wants to stick with the status quo (“I do local destinations”). Inside, the dreamers are cast as “terrorists.” As 313 says following an explosion, “Sometimes, not very often, something like this happens. Everything goes back to normal, everything settles down. Please don’t make things worse.”
While this caution alludes to recent and current events, the series is actually less contemporary and more residual than McGoohan’s original. That is, Six’s investigation leads to old-fashioned romance, the tribulations of unhappy and mutually resentful couples, the frustrations brought on by disease (no health care issues per se), and miserable men with frankly tedious control fantasies. If Summakor is the most obvious translation of such fantasies, Six and Two’s mutual manipulations are the micro-versions.
Two’s first effort is the usual one, sending Six to take the “talking cure.” The trick here is not a bad one: the shrink, called 70 (James Cuningham) appears in ooky shadow as he questions his patient, while another self sits in even darker shadow right behind him. When Six—who has been subjected to a flurry of flashbacks connecting him and the very nice 16 (Jeffrey R. Smith) who may or my not be his brother—wonders about this arrangement (“Who is us?”), 70 assures him it’s copacetic. “He is me, we are me. I find it conducive to work this way.” Such limericky logic suggests an interest identity and reflection, the ways individuals lose themselves in community in order to feel re-covered. In fact, when Two reveals that 70 and the cure he talks are just elements in Two’s own perpetual rearrangements of game pieces, well, his own talking sounds increasingly unclever, more and more ordinary.
A slightly more interesting internal tension is introduced in Two’s invitation to Six to participate in the Village surveillance activities. The obvious questions are voiced (and embodied) by Six’s seeming trainer, 909 (Vincent Regan), one of Two’s best undercovers. “Everyone is suspicious if looked at properly,” he asserts, “Everyone has secrets. No one is without guilt. We just have to work out what it is they’re guilty of.” Ah yes, and as he and Six skulk around at night and monitor neighbors and each other, 909’s own identity and betrayal emerge, as ways for Six to manipulate him and reasons for Two to punish him. Six goes undercover as a teacher who instructs schoolchildren in surveillance; when he tells the kiddies to “find out who we’re working for,” he’s only fulfilling what’s expected of him, continuing along the circular path on which his first question—“Who do I get out of here?” has set him (and you too). As the story repeats, those monitoring are also monitored, trust is fiction and also for sale, in the prepackaged forms of romance, religion, and soap operas. “The truth is right inside you,” Two tells Six. But you knew that already.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/116335-the-prisoner/