What Makes the Prisoner a Classic

By the time the final episode “Fall Out” was being conceived, the tug-of-war known as Influence had shifted slightly over to the U.S. because of Vietnam. Most people believe the The Prisoner was influenced by the peace movement. We can sense McGoohan’s writing mood very different in the last episode than the time in which he wrote, say, “Free For All”. However, we can claim that all episodes share one theme in common, and that theme is rebellion.

The series focuses on the relentless attempt to be free from the tie-downs of society. It is the human quality in each of us to live independently, which is why The Prisoner appeals to us as a cult classic. It involves retaining one’s own identity in a vast sea of peer pressure. We live in a society with over 5 billion people, and it becomes increasingly difficult to exist as individuals in a society without people telling us how to live. McGoohan attempts to show us that, in a society where we must learn to rebel or conform, we have been conforming much more than rebelling. We have let government ‘watch over us’ (as in the George Orwell book 1984) to the point that we have let it control our lives. We have let other people’s actions influence us to the point that we, as individuals, mistakingly conform to these other people’s ideals, and idolize these people as a result. McGoohan’s message is to abolish this conformity.

On the other hand, by the end of the series, we have learned that we cannot rebel against society to the point of destroying it. We cannot coerce other people to ‘wear bells on their toes’ simply because it’s a ‘rebellious statement.’ Moreover, 5 billion people cannot exist in a political state of anarchy if everyone rebels against authority. The point McGoohan is trying to make is that we need to rebel against society, but it should be our own personal way of rebellion. We must not assume that everyone else has the same needs and desires as we do, so we must learn to retain our individualism by ourselves. Thus, rebellion is an inward struggle, not an outward struggle.

©1996 Reed, Kent, and Kirby Meyer. Last modified: May 30, 2010.