The Prisoner: episode 3 – A, B and C – discursion


A, B and C was the third episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, but the tenth episode to be filmed, at a time when the series was seriously over-budget and demanding economies in filming the last handful of episodes.
It was written by Anthony Skene, who had written the already filmed Dance with the Devil (broadcast episode 8). Aware that money was tight and that Portmeirion was more or less out of bounds, Skene toured the MGM backlot at Borehamwood, plotting his script, taking advantage of already constructed outdoor sets (one of which is taken from The Dirty Dozen!).
In practice, apart from stock footage, and one very short scene where body doubles stand in for Patrick McGoohan and Sheila Allen as the former watches the latter ascend the steps towards the Green Dome, Portmeirion is not involved and the entire production is studio-bound.
In my last instalment, I grouped Prisoner episodes into three main categories: Escape, Resistance and Revolt. A, B and C is clearly a prime example of the second group. The entire episode is focussed on extracting information from Number Six, and upon his resisting this. But there’s an interesting wrinkle on Leo McKern’s iconic question, ‘why did you resign?’. Colin Gordon has already decided his answer to that, and his object is to prove it.
Gordon cuts an interesting figure in this episode. Like McKern, who would not return until the end of the series, Gordon appears as Number Two in two episodes, but his performances are radically different in each. Note that, in the opening catechism, Gordon’s answer to ‘Who are you?’ is subtly different, being ‘I am Number Two’, instead of ‘The New Number Two’. We’ll look at this more closely when we get to Gordon’s other episode, but it’s a strong indication that his two episodes, which are broadcast out of the order in which they are filmed, are chronologically meant to follow each other in sequence. And that opens up an even bigger question that we’ll look at separately.
What this episode provides is a tight, taut thriller with a fantastic (in the literal sense) theme. Five decades later, we’re far more aware that machines that can influence dreams and the subconscious not only can exist, but do and are used, but in 1968 this was a leap for the audience to take.
The use of hallucinatory drugs also caught the mood of the time, with the growing public awareness of the effects of LSD, which at that stage – and to a large extent still – focussed on the visionary, uncontrolled effects that threatened the stability of the mine and the evidence of the senses.
The lack of Portmeirion scenes, coupled with the emphasis on Number Fourteen’s laboratory, make this a claustrophobic episode. The lab is introduced at night, in heavy rain – practically the only instance of bad weather in the entire service, creating the subliminal impression that weather control is a part of the Village’s superficial benevolence towards its inmates – and all of Number Six’s dream sequences take place at night, making this physically one of the darkest episodes in the series.
On the other hand, there’s an interesting sense of release given that so much of the story takes place ‘outside’ the confines of the Village. And outside the confines of actuality, which latter aspect allows Skene to emphasise yet further the air of surreality inherent in the Village itself.
The three options, A, B and C embody the classic three-act structure, by which the episode repeats and progresses. A is a conventional spy episode: Number Six refuses an approach from an ex-colleague who has defected to ‘the other side’ and defeats an attempt to take him by force by simple fisticuffs. In this Act, Number Six is unsuspecting and entirely under the Village’s control.
B is a female representative of ‘the other side’, and the approach, partly due to her female nature placing her outside physical confrontation, and partly because the Act now moves on to a subtle, semi-seductive approach, is indirect and set out on an emotional basis.
The episode progresses slowly because Number Six is now suspicious and is resisting direction, and when the Village attempt more direct influence, it merely increases Number Six’s suspicions and his determination to avoid the issue.
As an aside, one criticism levelled against The Prisoner is of McGoohan’s misogyny. I’ll be looking at this aspect elsewhere, but here it’s relevant to note that McGoohan, throughout his career, was resolutely against the portrayal of ‘immoral’ behaviour with women – he turned down the offer of James Bond ahead of Sean Connery on this very ground – which complicates the execution of such an approach.
With C, the episode enters fantasy at its most compete and compelling. Whilst Number Six has altered things to his advantage by diluting the ‘magic potion’, this only adds a veneer of real-world plausibility to the heroic situation whereby he demonstrates his ability to enter into his own dreams and direct these entirely according to his will, enabling him to construct a completely misleading scenario designed to subvert his audience’s expectations. Number Six uses his enemies’ own devices to overthrow them and ultimately deny them the outcome of their investigations.
The C of their pitifully thin research is and remains a complete cypher, an unknown. He exists because of the Rule of Three: a C must exist but he is defined only in terms of being not A or B. The episode’s transition into a completely out of body experience from this point onwards is a complete overcoming of Number Two’s plans. His belief that Number Six was selling-out is left unfulfilled – if we take the dreams as reliable evidence of what would have happened, as we are supposed to, all we ever learn is that Number Six rejected A.
This unexpected divergence from the expected path, from Number Two’s constructed scenario, is symbolised by Number Six introducing ‘D’, even before the, now inevitable, exposure of D as Number Two himself (a moment that foreshadows an even greater, and this time stunning revelation, that overturns the reality of the entire series, much later on.)
In the end, the only evidence we as audience get that can be relied upon is Number Six’s declaration, and this still in his dream, albeit under his own control, that he did not intend to sell out. That wasn’t why he resigned.
It’s one of Number Six’s most comprehensive and unmixed victories in the series.
The other interesting aspect of A, B and C, is that the fact that Number Two is as much a prisoner as Number Six is subtly reinforced, from the opening scene. McKern agreed the accusation immediately, acknowledged his own status as a ‘lifer’ cheerfully, and with the acceptance of a fanatic who believes it is the right condition under which to live in pursuit of his ‘higher’ motives.
Gordon, in contrast, is a mass of nerves, tense, ulcerous, forever drinking milk to calm his stomach. His subservience to, his fear of the voice on the big red phone, of Number One, is palpable. Unlike McKern, he has no philosophy to sustain him. Perhaps it is that which makes him so fearful, so vulnerable in this episode. Not only is he unreconciled, he is under direct threat. He is ‘not irreplaceable’, and enough is saidf to establish that replacement will not involve demotion to a less important position.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the Crown.

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