The Prisoner: Checkmate   Rewatch 
June 28, 2014 3:58 PM - Season 1, Episode 9 - Subscribe

Number Six takes part in a chess game. But how to tell white from black?

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(Amazon and iTunes use the ITC episode sequence, under which this is episode 11.)

Be seeing you!
posted by DevilsAdvocate (10 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This was not my favorite episode.

* The chess metaphor is pretty tired
* No. 2 seems to be mostly observing and poking at The Prisoner this time around, so it's kinda slow
* The plot with the emotion-detector was weak

On the upside:

* I liked the actors who played No. 2 and The Rook
* We get to see The Prisoner in action using his superspy skill set
* There's a fair amount of loopy mind-control stuff, which I always enjoy
posted by isthmus at 5:38 PM on June 29, 2014

Oh, man, I know. It's the source of some of the most iconic images of the series, but I've never seen much in this one. I agree that it's hard to get excited about the chess metaphor, which kind of just sits there, in contrast to episodes like "The General" and "Dance of the Dead," which elevate ideas that are otherwise pretty predictable (computer god doesn't comprehend abstractions! raid on the BBC costume closet!).

Maybe I'll have more to say after a rewatch -- if nothing else, Peter Wyngarde is one of the more memorable 2s.
posted by thesmallmachine at 1:16 AM on June 30, 2014

-"I'm the Queen. Come and be the Queen's pawn" is a hell of a pickup line.

-In the 6of1 order, I think this is the first time we see 6 having a remotely normal conversation: gossiping with the Queen, talking Village politics with the man who's been playing their side of the game. The Villagers have watched 6 for a while now, long enough to separate the man from his brainwashed speechifying in "Free For All" and his ritualized role in "Dance of the Dead," and a few of them have decided that he's good people.

-Of course, a few, like the Rook, have decided that he's firmly not -- and once again we see that the line is often thinner between 6 and 2 than between 6 and the other Villagers; 6's warder act is hard to distinguish from his regular personality. Watching the Rook talk to 6 is like watching the 6 of "Arrival" talking to a particularly confident and imperious 2.

-Prisoner fans involved in the punk movement must've taken some pleasure in the mention of the Hope and Anchor, where 6 used to drink, and which later became a seminal punk venue.

(Mick Jones of the Clash is the only punk Prisoner fan I can name offhand, but there must've been others -- if you were in your early 20s in England in 1977, you saw The Prisoner at the age of maximal cultural impact. Here's the Clash's relevant song, though the direct nods stop with the title.)

-There's a real pathos in 6's "Everybody wants to help me"; it makes me think of Elliott Smith's "Everybody Cares, Everybody Understands," a bitter little song about self-destruction and loathing of the people who are trying to keep you from it. There's a curious applicability to Prisoner in "Everybody Cares," a total disconnect of values between the speaker and those who say they have his best interests at heart. What better description of the Village than "A chemical embrace that kicks you in the head," unless it's "a pure synthetic sympathy that infuriates you totally"?

I think one reading of the series is that 6 realizes that the Village is right on one count. He does need help, does need human connection. That's part of why he resigned. It's just that, for all the Village's elaborate lip service to the idea that he'll get it if he capitulates, he's never going to find it here or anywhere.

-I don't see why 6 even bothers incorporating anyone except himself and the Rook into the plan, except as a demonstration of his theory of prisoners and warders, and another excuse to bring in Denis Shaw's shopkeeper -- who could say "be seeing you" like he was saying "please aggressively fuck yourself." (The bit about Shaw in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell is worth four minutes of your time.)
posted by thesmallmachine at 2:07 PM on June 30, 2014

2 really has nothing to do in this episode; he's the first we've seen who comes across as little more than a bureaucrat running the Village from day to day, supervising the experiments and keeping the pot from boiling over, spending his off-clock time alone in a gi. It's not Wyngarde's fault, but I see why I perpetually forget his role in this episode despite his memorable presence.
posted by thesmallmachine at 2:24 PM on June 30, 2014

My Prisoner YouTube dream for this episode: a supercut of all the times 6 attacks a television.
posted by thesmallmachine at 2:26 PM on June 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

Later in the series I think The Prisoner moves to be about broad topics of timeless import, especially the self vs the collective and sorting out your own desires. But here towards the front I thank McGoohan is primarily critiquing the attitudes and pop culture of his time. One of the things I think the actor from Danger Man and Ice Station Zebra wanted to say was that people should stop idolizing cold warriors. Idolizing ruthless spies may get you a society you won't love. Worship col warriors, and you get more cold war. (And what, I wonder does it say about us that we lionize Jack Bauer?). And he goes, not just after Danger Man, but notably against the more cartoonish Man From UNCLE where each agent prominently wears a numbered badge.

So when I watch "Checkmate," with its human chessboard, and aristocrat, and weird science, it's hard not to see this episode as taking a shot against The Avengers. I'm just not sure where to go with that observation.

This episode, I note, has much less of the nightmare feel of some, and is much more revealing about the actual mechanics of the village. The villagers do talk of resistance and escape from time to time. The conversations just go nowhere, because you can never be sure if you're talking to a prisoner or a warder. I don't know if I should be reminded more of The Man Who Was Tuesday, or of modern FBI "stings." And, in the Village, maybe even the person themselves is not sure. How many nominal "warders" after all, are really free to come and go? How much hidden brainwashing is there? Number 6 has been here a while, and they no longer look so much like homogenous sheep to him.

We can also see that the Village is not monolithic: It's not clear how much No. 2 even knows about 23 and 56's activities, and how much they're keeping from him. He keeps things from them, surely. I noticed he says "No,, he's too valuable" about lobotomizing No. 6, as if it's his decision, when we already, as viewers, know that it is not.

This number two also seems, in general, quite... languid, maybe. He's not going to let No. 6 go, but neither does he seem to care about prying information from him, as if he's just filling the job on a interim basis. I like seeing a number 2 who only wants peace and quiet for a few weeks of tenure. Indeed, I think that if I was trying to build a chart where each No. 2 represented something that No. 6 needed to overcome, I'd say that in this episode it was the desire to just have peace and quiet.
posted by tyllwin at 3:37 PM on June 30, 2014 [4 favorites]

Great background info, thanks tyllwin. It helps me appreciate the episode more.
posted by isthmus at 9:46 PM on July 1, 2014

"I'm the Queen. Come and be the Queen's pawn" is a hell of a pickup line.

It's also, I think, an allusion to 6's previous job: spies of course are servants of The Queen.

(And it's shocking, too, how fast the Queen falls: she's bright and vicacious with Six in the game, but a few hours in the Green Dome and she's become a mindless tool.)

How much hidden brainwashing is there?

I think the answer is "a lot". The Queen is subverted; we're shown how the Rook is manipulated; and the scene in the beginning, in which the villagers freeze to let Rover pass like motorists pulling over for a fire engine, suggests mass compliance. (An echo of the scene in Arrival in which Two demonstrates his power to Six by ordering the villagers to "Stop!")
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:47 PM on July 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's also, I think, an allusion to 6's previous job: spies of course are servants of The Queen.

I love this observation.

And it's shocking, too, how fast the Queen falls...

Her storyline is really one of the saddest things in the whole series. I forget how important "Checkmate" is in showing Village brainwashing before, during, and after; a lot of the time we only see the after. You just know they began the experiment without knowing, or caring, how to reverse it.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:26 AM on July 10, 2014

I have been reading about Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five. British intelligence was amazingly sloppy, and there were a few scandals in the 50s and 60s. The series as a whole owes a lot to the MKULTRA zeitgeist, but the well known ineffectiveness of the intelligence services plays into it.
I don't know enough about accents to place everyone. Resort town, straw boaters, chess and aristocrats.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 5:27 AM on July 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

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