The Prisoner: Free For All   Rewatch 
June 16, 2014 4:34 PM - Season 1, Episode 4 - Subscribe

It's election time in The Village! You don't want to have an uncontested election in a democratic society like The Village — bad for morale, you know. Number Six is persuaded to run for the position of Number Two.

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(If you're just joining us and are wondering where the threads for episodes 2 and 3 are, we're rewatching in a different order than the original broadcast order.)

Be seeing you!
posted by DevilsAdvocate (19 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you need a sample of a crowd yelling "666!", this is the place to find it.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 9:00 PM on June 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Some interesting numbering going on: The newspaper reporter is Number 113, the photographer Number 113b. The members of the "Town Council" appear to be 2a, 2b, 2c, etc., at least per the labels on their podiums.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:58 PM on June 16, 2014

Trivia note: In this episode, for the first and only time in the series, the Prisoner willingly wears a Number Six badge, and then solely because it's an election rosette for his campaign (another witty touch).

Incidentally, it never occurred to me that the standard Village buttons could be McGoohan's comment on party/political lapel badges in general. In this day and age, US politicians take to wearing lapel flags and ribbons instead. Of course, company/corporate name badges with logos are now much more common (besides numbered badges for police, etc.) There's also the way that the Village's icon pennyfarthing bicycle symbol visually echoes the Soviet "Hammer and Sickle".
posted by Doktor Zed at 8:13 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Come to think of it, if you distinguish between the ordinary badges, indicating identity, and the "rosettes," indicating support for a candidate, then it's fitting that when Number Six "wins" the election, the old Number Two pins him with a Number Two rosette, not the Number Two badge.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:11 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you need a sample of a crowd yelling "666!"

I didn't before, but I do now!
posted by Hoopo at 10:40 AM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hadn't noticed that, Doctor Zed, but there's definitely an echo there -- the hammer head being the odd little pavilion on top.

Speaking of the pennyfarthing, this is a good post to link to Matt Osbourne's neat essay about The Prisoner, "Free For All," and the curious powerlessness that comes with great power -- building on a quote from Obama about struggling to escape "the bubble," a feeling 6 would understand on both metaphorical and literal levels. Osbourne argues that the bicycle "is a symbol of the unease with which a person can ride, much less skillfully use, a thing so large as a government. It does not move on its own, but requires constant attention in order to ride without disaster."
posted by thesmallmachine at 12:35 PM on June 17, 2014

-My first-view question about "Free For All" was why so much of the denouement is taken up with 6's aggressive demands for alcohol, when drinking is never before or since an important part of his character. I've always assumed that the in-universe answer is that the drug/hypnosis combination given to him to keep his campaign under control is wearing off, and he's trying to self-medicate the withdrawal.

The 6of1 order, however, suggests the reading that 6 was a drinker before he came to the Village, that he's struggling to dry out in this brave new world of nonalcoholic vodka (looks the same! tastes the same!) and that it's crashing together in unpredictable ways with the struggle for his soul.

Later, I learned (most prominently from Rupert Booth's Not a Number) that McGoohan drank a good deal and often exposed his darker side when he did. Since then, I've thought about it less in terms of what it meant to 6 and more in terms of what it might have meant to McGoohan: a strikingly stark and public suggestion of something that was not part of his public life.

-The 6of1 order bears other fruit: this time I'm watching "Free For All" without the influence of 6's much more assured, bitter persona in "The Chimes of Big Ben," and so his newness in this one is more visible -- the anxiety, the tight smile of disbelief, the raw impatient anger at the "farce" of the Village, and the moments of total fear. He's immensely vulnerable to the man who tells him he's afraid of death and himself, to the Village's gentle suggestion that its cruelties are therapies.

He also seems far more sincere in his beliefs when I watch the series in this order. Watching it post-"Big Ben" makes him come off as a little bit rote, a little bit self-conscious and caricatured, going through the motions of passionate individualism after we've already seen him cynical and robbed of passion.

-The Village makes 6 into its creature largely by making him self-aware -- forcing him to examine both the lies and the truths behind his decisions, and then literally shoving them both into his head with as much force as possible. I get the sense that it's the sense of contradiction that crushes him, the absolute break between his secret and public motivations, and whatever's in the tea/booze/bedside crazy lamp is just there to keep his mind open to it.

-I think this episode is McGoohan's fullest statement about being a public figure, to return to a theme I talked about last week -- the numb overwhelm of the crowd; the interview written before it begins; the words, not your own, that you watch yourself mouth on television.

(Though, of course, the words he makes 6 mouth are his own; he wrote them.)

-The scene where 6 and 2 toy with the idea of the mountain coming to Muhammad foreshadows the ending, too, doesn't it? 2 is ostensibly the mountain, but contrary to the proverb, he is at the prophet's beck and call -- 6 towers over him on the dais as 2 tells him that number 1 is "at the summit."

That said, 6 spends the episode enacting the proverb more literally -- he'll bow to the inevitable; he'll try to aquire power by the proper rules, all according to Hoyle, rather than wait for power to come to him. Of course, what he learns is that he was right to be cynical, but there isn't much joy in that victory, as there so rarely is. And in the end, it's the new 2 who looms over him, shot from below as she stands radiant with the symbols of her power.

-"Come with me. I'll show you the ropes."

-Rachel Herbert is just outstanding in this episode, switching from manic, childlike glee to absolute authority. I would have loved to see her follow this up with a full episode as 2.
posted by thesmallmachine at 2:06 PM on June 17, 2014 [9 favorites]

(You guys, I know I have a lot to say in these threads -- this series has been close to me for years, and I have a lot of accumulated thoughts. I don't want to dominate here, though, or seem like I'm trying to assume authority through sheer mass of verbiage. I know my interpretations are just a few of many that the series offers.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 2:17 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not at all...this is only my second time through watching the series, and the first time was quite a while ago, so you're picking up on all kinds of things I wouldn't have noticed on my own, plus the background on McGoohan I didn't know, and I'm very much enjoying your comments. Keep it up!
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 5:02 PM on June 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Free for All" is one of my favorite episodes of the series. I think I like it as the second episode. Following from the first episode, it provides a good introduction of the lengths of absurd plan to which the village is willing to go in order to accomplish its goals. Number 6 goes through the election process, often drugged, wins, is led to briefly believe he has control, and then gets beat up by a bunch of dudes. I think Number 2's asking, "Are you ready to talk?" at the end is not even the point; this was done more to show Number 6 something of the character of the village itself, to demonstrate to him that if someone here is going to be broken, it won't be the village.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 3:38 PM on June 18, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here, I guess is the first episode where we have to wonder about the nature of 6's confinement: does The Village have any physical reality outside of his head? I know that based on the last episodes, there are plenty of people who'll answer "no," but my own view has always been that the answer the last episodes provide is, instead, " Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn't matter." So, at least here towards the start of the series, I'm going to stick to the view that it's a real place, even if 6 may not be a perfectly reliable narrator of it. And I'll call him "6" not "The Prisoner" because I can barely type "6."

I think it's apropos to mention that here, because this where, for the first time, we go through the standard form of the familiar litany: "Where am I? / In The Village." And that, in turn, is a good place for a couple of more comments about the time it was aired. First: decades later, we can find lots of significance to the choice of "6," but at the time, what smacked the viewer in the face was that it was one away from 007. It wasn't just some meditative reflection, it was aimed right at the heart of pop culture. Second, we now view his summary rejection "I am not a number," as the obviously correct response. But dammit, having a number like James Bond? At the time it was cool. People (well, younger men and boys) wanted to be secret agents with numbers. Despite its talk of danger, Johnny River's Secret Agent Man with its talk of "They've given you a number/And taken 'way your name." was full of envy and not some agent's regrets. So, in rejecting his number, 6 is rejecting not only the control of The Village, but the control of the larger culture.

But to the episode itself I like having this second, because I think it makes much more sense that way. My first reaction, seeing it later in the series was always "What's the point?" Meaning "Why does The Village engage in this farce?" They can't think it will demoralize him, and it gets them no closer to their precious answers. This way, I think it makes sense it's telling us -- the viewers -- something: that The Village is playing the long game.

6's plan is obvious: use whatever game his captors are playing to stage a mass breakout. A few thugs in golf carts and a few Rovers can't grab everyone at once, and "the hero organizes the prisoners to revolt" is about as hoary an old trope as there is.

(I think BTW, they do some interesting things with Rover here. Note The Villagers sitting gathered around one. The odd way that 6 literally can't steer the boat away one. And the way that Rover seems controlled by the "Supervisor" and not by No. 2)

But anyway, The Village is so entrenched in power that they need never even take a mass escape seriously. Instead they can let it play out and use it as a great piece of long-term strategy. At the end of the day, every Villager who has any intact memories of the election is surely convinced beyond doubt that 6 is a stooge, part of the machinery keeping them there. It's well worth the time to The Village, because in trying to play the short game to their long, he's allowed them to brand him as a house slave, and drive a permanent wedge between him and any fellow captives.

Of course they do it by brainwashing. And why does that work? It sure won't work as they try to hammer an answer out of him later. Why can he be brainwashed in this case? I suggest the answer is that, in fact, 6 already shares his captor's cynical contempt for the sheep he is confined with. He's ready to tell them any lie whatsoever long before The Village suggests what lies to tell. They're really only giving him the gentlest nudge, because they understand that's all that's required. They know his psychology inside and out. And at that point, I think, we're back around to how much is real and much symbol.
posted by tyllwin at 2:55 PM on June 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

There's a lot of wonderful stuff to chew on in that comment, tyllwin. I'm surprised by how well Prisoner works on the level of actual continuity, rather than as a series of semi-connected nightmares. It makes sense to consider these early episodes in terms of a long-term strategy to keep 6 isolated and untrusted -- all the more because I think you're right that the brainwashing here doesn't take much, and perhaps they see it as the first step towards harder stuff.
posted by thesmallmachine at 6:19 PM on June 21, 2014

When I first watched the show -- out of any real order -- I took it very miuch you describe. Vaguely connected nightmares. But, I think once you assemble them into any sort of rational order, a definite arc emerges, which you can trace out in the balance between 6 and 2. These early episodes, No. 2 is wiping the floor with 6. But that gets less as we go on, and is drastically changed by the time we get to an episode like It's Your Funeral or Hammer Into Anvil.
posted by tyllwin at 6:57 PM on June 21, 2014

I must confess that when I first heard "Secret Agent Man" (which I used to dance to in front of the TV each week during the original run -- Lordy, I'm old) I thought it was "Secret Asian Man" and it was about Vietnam.

But in my defense, I was little.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 1:27 AM on June 23, 2014

There used to be a restaurant in my neighborhood that had a salad called the Secret Asian Man.

(Meanwhile in my demographic, I delighted someone the other day with the news that "Secret Agent Man" is John Drake's theme song, and all those references I'd made to it being about 6 are totally literal. I learned this only a few years ago myself. So odd how references get detached over the years.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:02 AM on June 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I love the Truth Test, with the little circle and square diagram on the wall.

I like this one as episode 2. I originally watched it as episode 5 (after The Chimes of Big Ben), and it felt out of place. It makes a lot of sense as a very early part of his arc rather than the end of first arc.

Does anyone know what language his maid/eventual new #2 was speaking this episode? I liked the part at the end where she told the departing #2 'give my regards to the homeland' - just another bit of throwaway uncertainty about who is controlling the Village.
posted by isthmus at 11:23 AM on June 24, 2014

I always assumed it was made up (possibly on the spot, in-universe) -- only way to guarantee that it would be incomprehensible to 6, to troll him with a mystery that has no solution. But I don't know that it isn't real (or based on one or more real ones?) and would be fascinated to learn what the story is here.
posted by thesmallmachine at 2:05 PM on June 26, 2014

6 looks like he comes up with the "less work and more play" slogan on the fly. And it's obvious that some have more leisure than others in The Village.
And a public ballot! No secrets allowed.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:54 PM on July 8, 2014

I think BTW, they do some interesting things with Rover here. Note The Villagers sitting gathered around one. The odd way that 6 literally can't steer the boat away one.

Oh my God, I just realized that Rover's the screen of a TV -- a mesmerizing blankness that you can't break through. The close-up they always use of Rover smothering someone is like a character trying to get out of the TV.
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:04 PM on September 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

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