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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive ‘They’ve Given You a Number and Taken Away Your Name’: Gnostic Themes in The Prisoner, Television’s Ultimate Cult Classic

Mark Holwager and Valarie Ziegler

Recognized as the ultimate cult television show, The Prisoner remains, forty years after its original airing, a masterpiece. Viewers in 1967 knew Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner’s producer and star, as John Drake from the celebrated Secret Agent show (Danger Man in Britain), and they expected another action-adventure spy series.[1] They encountered instead an exhilarating examination of human freedom that was as profound and visually stunning as it was surreal. Set in a beautiful seaside resort known only as “the Village,” The Prisoner depicts the fate of Number Six, an unnamed government agent who was kidnapped after resigning his post. The Village is his prison and seeks to pry his secrets from him “by hook or by crook.” To maintain his self respect and identity, Number Six must resist and insist, “I am not a number! I am a free man!”[2]

Commentators have long noted that Number 6 is an archetypal hero confronting religious and existential questions: What does it mean to be an individual? What does it mean to exist in society? What capacities for good and evil exist within each person? Is the Village a place or an existential condition? Is escape possible? Who or what is Number 1? These are questions to ponder as we view the pre-credit sequence.

Surprisingly, no one has discussed The Prisoner’s striking parallels to Gnostic religions. Using the Gospel of Thomas and “The Hymn of the Pearl” from the Acts of the Apostle Thomas, we will demonstrate how The Prisoner exemplifies the Gnostic myth of descent and return, depicting a hero who refuses to be fully embodied in the hateful world in which he is imprisoned, who insists (contrary to evidence) that he is from a truer world in a higher realm, and who risks everything to return to the beginning and reunite with his genuine self.

Life and Death in the Village: “Reject This False World of Number Two!”

The Prisoner’s pre-credit sequence lays out a number of iconographic images that appear repeatedly in the series: the Lotus 7 car, the famous buildings, the London flat, the underground place of work, and the fashionable dark clothes.























In “Arrival,” the series’ initial episode, Number 6 is kidnapped and taken away from all this. In the Village he is given a uniform and a Number 6 rosette badge to wear. This action parallels the experience of the protagonist in “Hymn of the Pearl,” where the boy from the spiritual realm leaves his royal robe and mantel behind to travel to an alien land. The crafty inhabitants persuade him to don their clothes and eat their food, and the boy promptly forgets who he is. Number 6—almost as if he had read “Hymn of the Pearl”—instinctively refuses to wear the rosette badge and demands without success that his own clothes be returned to him.[3] He has no alternative to wearing the Village uniform or consuming Village food and drink, which he suspects—rightfully so—is often used to drug him. In “A. B. and C.,” an episode (“Free For All”) in which the Village drugs Number 6 and manipulates his dreams, we see that he is so focused on retaining his identity that his normal dream life has been reduced to an endlessly repeated anguish pattern of his resignation. Even asleep, Number 6 is obsessed with reclaiming his true self.

He is also quick to abjure other Villagers for giving up their identities so easily. “Unlike me,” he charges, “many of you have accepted the situation of your imprisonment and will die here like rotten cabbages.” In “Hymn of the Pearl,” the divine messenger offers the boy salvation through reuniting with his former belongings and self: “Awake and rise from your sleep…. Remember that you are a son of Kings and see the slavery of your life…. Remember your robe of glory and your splendid mantle which you may wear when your name is named in the book of life, is read in the book of heroes….”[4] Number 6’s admonition to the Villagers is less sympathetic, but his message is the same: remember who you truly are. “Brainwashed imbeciles,” he growls. “Can you laugh? Can you cry? Can you think? … Is this what they did to you? Is this how they started to break you before you gave them what they were after? In your heads are the remnants of a brain. In your hearts you may still have the desire to be human beings again.” 

Even more to the point, Number 6 tells the Villagers in an episode titled “A Change of Mind”: “You still have a choice. You can still salvage your rights as individuals…. Reject this false world of Number Two! Reject it! Now!”

Practicing what he preaches, in a particularly heated exchange with Number 2 in “Once Upon a Time,” Number 6 vociferously denies that he belongs to the Village.

Number 6: Units are not for me.

Number 2: You are a member! Of the Village!

Number 6: No!

Number 2: You are a unit!

Number 6: No!

Number 2: Of society!

Number 6: NO!

Village officials respond by arguing that for its residents the Village is the only reality possible. “It’s quite a beautiful place, really, don’t you think? Almost like a world on its own,” Number 2 cheerfully observes on Number 6’s arrival. In an episode titled “Dance of the Dead,” Number 2 contends that the Village is Number 6’s only option; he no longer exists in the outside world. She urges him to give in and be happy. But Number 6 resists. When a corpse is washed up on a remote Village beach, Number 6 plants an SOS message on it and sends it back to sea. He then encounters Number 2 on the waterfront in a famous twilight scene:

Number 2: You’re being hostile again. What were you looking at?

Number 6: A light.

Number 2: A star.

Number 6: A boat.

Number 2: An insect.

Number 6: A plane.

Number 2: A flying fish.

Number 6: A man who belongs to my world.

Number 2: This is your world. I am your world. If you insist on living a dream,

you may be taken for mad.

Number 6: I like my dream.

Number 2: Then you are mad.

At the dress ball that evening, Number 6 is the only Villager not in costume; instead, he has been given his own tuxedo to wear. Number 6 initially sees this as a sign that he is still himself, but Number 2 counters that he received no costume because he does not exist. Later that night, Number 6 learns that the Village has intercepted the corpse he had set adrift, doctored it to look like him, and planned to send it back to sea with his identification papers. The implications are devastating:

Number 6: So to the outside world—

Number 2: Which you only dream about.

Number 6: I’ll be dead.

Number 2: A small confirmation of a known fact.

Until he can admit that the Village is his home, Number 6 will be suspended between the two worlds. “Everything you need is here,” Number 2 contends. But Number 6 refuses to give up the self knowledge that is the core of his identity as well as the source of his capacity to resist. “Everything is elsewhere,” he insists.

Blessed are Those Who are Solitary and Superior: A Return to the Beginning

Number 6’s fixation on his identity leads him to behaviors that viewers often find confusing or even counterproductive. In four of the show’s seventeen episodes, he manages to escape the Village, and every time he returns to London. Why? In his first escape, he learns that his London colleagues were complicit in his imprisonment, and he also knows that the first place Village agents will look for him is in London. So why does Number 6, if he really wants to escape, keep returning to his place of origin?

If The Prisoner were merely an action-adventure series, London would make no sense as an escape site. But McGoohan designed the series as an allegory. The Gnostic myth of descent and return meshes beautifully with The Prisoner’s own narrative arc, which demands a return to London, for only there is Number 6 in his element. His London flat, his Lotus 7 car, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, the agency from which he resigned so decisively, his dark stylish clothes—these are the concrete realities that symbolize his earlier life of autonomy. And it is to these that he must return. As the Gospel of Thomas notes, “Blessings on you who are alone and chosen, for you will find the kingdom. You have come from it and will return there again.”[5]

In “Fall Out,” The Prisoner’s concluding episode, the Village concedes that Number 6’s determined resistance has won him the right to be an individual. At a ceremony recognizing his successful struggle, Number 6 is permitted to trade his Village uniform for his original clothing. “We thought you would feel—happier—as yourself,” a Village official explains. The President of the assembly then directs Number 6 to sit on a throne, explaining, “You are the only individual and we need you…. All about you is yours. We concede. We offer. We plead for you to lead us.” The President then makes a great show of presenting Number 6 the belongings— his passport, his money, the key to his flat—that he forfeited when he came to the Village. If Number 6 chooses to return, these things will be restored to him. If he stays, the Villagers will recognize him as a “Man of steel … magnificently equipped” to teach and lead them.

As the protagonist in “Hymn of the Pearl” was lured by the prospect of reuniting with the robe and mantle he left behind in his place of origin, Number 6 finds the prospect of returning to his former life and belongings more powerful than the temptation of remaining in the Village as its leader. Through a series of highly convoluted events that we will not attempt to narrate, Number 6 destroys the Village and returns to his London apartment, where his Lotus 7 awaits him. We now see the final scenes of the series: Number 6 hops in his car, and viewers once again see him driving past famous London landmarks. As this final episode winds down—and you can imagine millions of viewers in 1968 desperately trying to make sense of it—the closing scenes depict something quite unexpected. We hear the thunder that typically marks the beginning of an episode, and then the camera returns us to the long strip of pavement, where the Lotus 7 is roaring down the road, the Prisoner behind the wheel wearing his usual enigmatic expression.  Patrick McGoohan was so insistent that viewers recognize that the series had come full circle that the exact same footage was used in the closing scene as that which appeared in the opening pre-credit sequence.[6] Number 6 was back—exactly—where he began.

This ending—and The Prisoner was the first television show to air a concluding episode that attempted to wrap up a series—both infuriated and intrigued fans. What was the point? Why was Number 6 back at the beginning? Was it all a dream? Was Number 6 on the road to a new Village? Had he won or lost? Was it a happy ending? Or an ending at all? What did it mean?

These questions have stirred fan debate about, and fascination with, The Prisoner for the last forty years. McGoohan was reticent about supplying answers, but he did say that he hoped viewers would see Number 6 as an “everyman” and that they would look within their own villages and selves for answers. He believed viewers expected the final episode to unveil a James Bond super-villain as the source of Number 6’s suffering. That did not happen; instead, like each of us, Number 6 learned that he was responsible both for his own pain and his own reformation. He must learn to do what Humpty Dumpty could not: put himself back together again.[7]

In the end, there is no place like home, and Number 6 had to find his way back there. As McGoohan noted, the final episode “should never have ended with the two words, ‘The End.’ It should have finished with the two words, ‘The Beginning’….”[8]

Or as Jesus said to his disciples in the Gospel of Thomas when they asked him how their end would come: “Have you discovered the beginning and now are seeking the end? Where the beginning is, the end will be. Blessings on you who stand at the beginning. You will know the end and not taste death.”[9]

APPENDIX

Making the Two One

Spoiler Alert: In the body of our paper we have preserved the mystery of Number 1’s identity as revealed in “Fall Out,” the series’ concluding episode. This appendix reveals all.

The Gospel of Thomas contains additional motifs that are useful in analyzing The Prisoner. Jesus’ sayings about making the two one (Saying 22, also echoed in the Gospel of Philip), so that one may enter the kingdom, work well: “When you make the two into one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make male and female into a single one … when you make eyes in place of an eye, a hand in place of a hand, a foot in place of a foot, an image in place of an image, then you will enter the kingdom.”

See also Saying 11 (“On the day when you were one you became two. But when you become two, what will you do?”); Saying 50 (“If they say to you, ‘Where have you come from?’ say to them, ‘We have come from the light…’”); and Saying 61 (“I am the one who comes from what is whole…. I say, if you are whole, you will be filled with light, but if divided, you will be filled with darkness”).

If we had focused more on “Fall Out” in this article, the issue of “making the two one” would have added a third section to our paper. A critical feature of “Fall Out” that we have not discussed is the unmasking of Number 1—who is revealed to be the bestial face of Number 6. Shrieking maniacally, Number 1 runs frantically around the room until Number 6 is able to herd him up a ladder into a rocket. Number 6 then launches the rocket into space. The Villagers flee; Rover (the Village guardian charged with disciplining recalcitrant citizens) melts into oblivion; and the Village itself presumably explodes while Number 6 escapes with three other residents.

Number 1’s identity was the central mystery of the series, and most viewers had difficulty understanding how or why Number 6 could also be Number 1. McGoohan intended for people to see Number 1 as Number 6’s bestial side, and an earlier episode (“Checkmate”) had revealed that Number 6 was naturally arrogant, a personality that was consistent with being a jailer, not a prisoner. Interpreters like Rob Fairclough have argued that the relationship between Number 6 and Number 1 may be identical to that between the ego and the id. In “Fall Out,” Fairclough contended, Number 6 triumphed over the id by banishing it to outer space.[10]

Just as useful a trope for interpreting Number1/6 is the Gospel of Thomas’ admonition to “make the two one.” In its original setting, of course, this advice refers to Gen 1, where the perfection of God’s creation has not yet been marred. Then, a human being was both “male and female,” as the separation between the genders does not occur until Gen 2. Thomas represents the kingdom of God as day seven—the Sabbath—of the creation week. All is perfection; humanity is united; and those who hear the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas are urged to return to this day, when the “two” were “one.” Accordingly, Thomas instructs readers to became “solitaries,” that is, people who have integrated themselves into a whole.

“Fall Out” also deals with two beings (Numbers 1 and 6) who represent different sides of the same person. The two become one not by reuniting, but rather by eliminating Number 1—in some ways, a reprise of the plot of the episode titled “Schizoid Man,” where Number 6 establishes his selfhood through the death of the doppelganger who attempted to steal his identity. By the end of “Fall Out,” the person who was once “two” has become “one,” and Number 6 can return to the beginning. Will he “become two” again, in time? In our interpretation, yes. Number 6 returns to the beginning to try, once more, to navigate his way successfully through life. There are more Villages out there for him to explore when he falls into “twoness.” But these will be new Villages, and they will set before him new obstacles to unity and integrity. As McGoohan asserted, “The whole point of the series The Prisoner and the whole point certainly of the last episode is … that each man is a prisoner unto himself…. That is what one is constantly fighting to get through each day, each month, each year … each lifetime. That is the biggest enemy that we have—is ourselves, and … that’s the whole point. That’s The Prisoner.”[11] The escape is death. What happened afterwards, McGoohan speculated, depended on the type of prisoner one had been.[12]

Other Prisoner entities that need to be united are, in Thomas’s words, the outer and the inner, as well as the upper and the lower. One of the prevailing images of the series is the contrast between the subterranean world of espionage, interrogation, and torture and the upper world of light and color. Both in London, where Number 6’s employment is underground while his flat is above, and in the Village, where the holiday-like atmosphere on the grounds belies the high-tech equipment and Machiavellian machinations below, this contrast represents a split present in Number 6 himself. He is a man who passionately defends his right to freedom and who bitterly denounces the methods used by Village—and presumably by his London employers, who also regard him as a “number”—to break and control people. Yet Number 6 is complicit in those methods. His “top secret” London job tied him to an agency whose means were devious and cruel. His obvious enjoyment in manipulating Number 2 into a psychological breakdown in the “Hammer Into Anvil” episode reveals his familiarity and ease in his own Machiavellian machinations. Until Number 6 can reconcile the freedom-loving self that typifies his upper world with the ruthless manipulator of the lower world, he cannot be “one.”

Similarly, Number 6 must also find a way to unite his outer and inner selves. Here, the clothes tell all: when Number 6 is in Village attire, the obedient Villager he appears to be on the outside clashes with the rebellious prisoner he is on the inside. “Fall Out” seeks to rectify this dichotomy by presenting Number 6 with his London clothing (“We thought you would feel—happier—as yourself”). But Number 6’s black jacket is reminiscent of his dark Village blazer; when combined with his black shirt, black slacks, and black boots, it suggests that Number 6 belongs to the realm of death rather than light. Indeed, “Dance of the Dead” depicted Number 6 as, literally, dead when he wore his own tuxedo. So the process of integrating the inner and outer has two parts. Number 6 must find outer clothing that matches his inner self. But before he can do that, he needs to resolve just what his true self is: does he belong in the upper world of light and color or the subterranean world of torture, manipulation, and death? As the Gospel of Thomas observes in Saying 61: “I say, if you are whole, you will be filled with light, but if divided, you will be filled with darkness.”

Mark Holwager and Valarie Ziegler, DePauw University

Notes

[1] AMC is currently producing a new mini-series of The Prisoner. See http://www.amctv.com/originals/the-prisoner/, where in addition to details about the new series one can watch all of the original Prisoner episodes.

[2] This claim was part of the iconic resignation/kidnapping sequence that opened most Prisoner episodes. Readers interested in examining other dialogue from The Prisoner should consult Robert Fairclough’s excellent annotated script books: The Prisoner: The Original Scripts, volumes 1-2, published by Reynolds and Hearn in 2005 (Volume 1) and 2006 (Volume 2).

[3] The Judge in the episode “Living in Harmony” recognizes the critical implications of wearing Village clothing. To do so is to lose one’s previous identity, as the Judge acknowledges when he discusses Number 6’s resistance to wearing the attire proper to a Village sheriff: “He’ll put on his guns, and once he does that, he’s mine.”

[4] All references to “Hymn of the Pearl” are from the Willis Barnstone version in his The Other Bible (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1984), 309-13.

[5] Saying 49, Gospel of Thomas. All quotations from the Gospel of Thomas are taken from Willis Barnstone and Marvin Meyer, The Gnostic Bible (Boston: Shambhala, 2003), 44-69. Stephen J. Patterson and James M. Robinson render this text: “Blessed are the solitary ones, the elect. For you will find the kingdom. For you come from it (and) will return to it.” See Patterson, Robinson, and Mans-Gebhard Bethge, The Fifth Gospel: The Gospel of Thomas Comes of Age (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1998), p.18. The “solitary and superior” phrase in the section heading comes from Bentley Layton’s translation in The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 389.

[6] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6dOSm9mRQk&feature=channel for a fuller discussion. The sound technicians had originally hoped to add the sounds of a car engine to the last shot of Number 6 driving his Lotus 7, but McGoohan resisted the change. So the exact sound track from the pre-credit sequence was dubbed into the closing scene.

[7] Humpty Dumpty references play an important role in the episode “Once Upon a Time.”

McGoohan was quizzed endlessly about the meaning of “Fall Out.” He conceded that the episode contained Christian imagery (crucifixion, resurrection, temptation, and “Dem Bones,” with its command to “hear the word of the Lord”), and he suggested as well that the destruction of the Village had apocalyptic overtones. (See McGoohan’s 1979 interview with Roger Goodman, available on CD as “On the Trail of The Prisoner: Roger Goodman Talks to Patrick McGoohan” and McGoohan’s 1990 Radio One interview with Simon Bates.) Part of McGoohan’s unwillingness to further explain the episode stemmed from his contention that it was an “allegorical conundrum”; if he unpacked it, then it would no longer be allegorical. People ought to be able to see the series’ meaning for themselves, he suggested. That is one reason he named his production company “Everyman.” (See Patrick McGoohan, “Foreword,” in Jon E. Lewis and Penny Stempel, Cult TV [Pavilion Books Limited, 1997], p. 6; see also the documentary Six Into One: The Prisoner File, produced and broadcast in 1984 in the UK by Channel 4; and McGoohan’s 1977 interview with Warner Troyer, online at http://www.the-prisoner-6.freeserve.co.uk/troyer.htm and http://www.the-prisoner-6.freeserve.co.uk/troyer2.htm.) McGoohan’s admonition did not stop most fans from assuming that he had the answers. Perhaps he could have best responded by quoting Jesus from the Gospel of Thomas: “I am not your rabbi. Because you have drunk, you are intoxicated from the bubbling spring I tended” (Saying 13). Or: “Whoever drinks from my mouth will become like me. I myself shall become that person, and the hidden things will be revealed to that one” (Saying 108). Or, as a worst-case scenario: “I took my stand in the midst of the world, and I appeared to them in flesh. I found them all drunk, yet none of them thirsty. My soul ached for the human children because they are blind in their hearts and do not see” (Saying 28).

[8] Sadly, McGoohan died on January 14, 2009. He never underestimated the difficulties of striving to be free. The series should have ended with the words, “The Beginning,” he said, “because no one is a free man, unfortunately, no man is an island … but you’ve jolly well got to try, though.” This quotation is from McGoohan’s 1979 interview with Roger Goodman, “On the Trail of The Prisoner: Roger Goodman Talks to Patrick McGoohan.” See http://www.roger-goodman.supanet.com/ for more details. McGoohan’s death dismayed fans across the globe, but it did not bring an end to fans’ appreciation of the series or their search for its meaning. Rather, McGoohan's passing sparked the kind of passionate discussions the Prisoner mastermind always encouraged—debates without easy answers, dependent on personal reflection and a willingness to rebel against the social norm. As a testament to the ongoing life of Prisoner fandom, many Internet-based groups have opened forums for continued exchanges on The Prisoner. See the tributes to McGoohan at http://www.netreach.net/~sixofone/ and http://www.theunmutual.co.uk/tributes.htm for the two most established sites.

[9] Saying 18, Gospel of Thomas.

[10] See Fairclough’s The Prisoner: The Official Fact File (DeAgostini/Granada Ventures, 2005), Number 17, pp. 98-100 and volume 2, p. 442 of Fairclough’s Prisoner script books.

[11] This quotation is from McGoohan’s 1979 interview with Roger Goodman, “On the Trail of The Prisoner: Roger Goodman Talks to Patrick McGoohan.”

[12] In a 1990 Radio One interview with Simon Bates, McGoohan explained that “the Prisoner never escapes … everyone is a prisoner of something. You escape when you’re released, I suppose, by death. It’s the final release, and as to how and where you go and what [happens] thereafter depends on what sort of prisoner you were.” The most people can hope for in the present life are occasional escapes such as the one Numbers 2, 6, and 48 enjoyed at the end of “Fall Out.” As McGoohan noted, “You can be a prisoner and free, at least temporarily.”

 
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