Friday, 3 January 2014

The Prisoner: Hammer into Anvil

There are a number of things (among others) that appear about this episode on wikipedia: 1) Drake (don't forget the theme of this run through is to see how much water the John Drake/Number 6 identification carries) makes no attempt to escape or resist The Village's attempts to control him; 2) Patrick Cargill, who plays Number 2, also played Thorpe in Many Happy Returns, & it not stated whether or not they are the same person;  3) it gives the themes as insecurity, paranoia & conspiracy thinking in a leader ( Of these three I personally would be interested in the second, & am choosing to avoid the first & the third in this discussion. They take their place at the head of this post to set up a sort of 'orthodoxy' in understanding this episode, so that I can subvert it.
For a start, the quote from Goethe explains the philosophy behind the more episode: 'You must be master and win, or serve and lose, grieve or triumph, be the anvil or the hammer.' ( The point here, which is exactly the point Number 2 is making to Drake by using the point, is that you must have one or the other here, there is no middle ground. It is of course absolutely true to say that Goethe had the precise relationship between the hammer & the anvil wrong. Orwell is often quoted in contradistinction to Goethe - 'In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about.' ( - but of course he is wrong as well. In really real life anvils tend to be sturdy, quite capable of taking a hammering, but their entire point is to support the metal being hammered into shape. This is the point, so with nothing between the metaphorical hammer & anvil this episode becomes about an apparently pointless action. Of course in this case it does break the hammer, but that is its only point, the tools are being put to the wrong use, resulting in the destruction of one of them.
I think that Drake's actions here are best understood in a context of instituional behaviour. He makes no attempt to escape or evade The Village's control: he doesn't need to because in this episode his investigation takes the form of exposing & testing The Village's leadership. In fact in the course of this he gives the most obvious clue to date that he John Drake, the note (pictured) signed 'D6'. It is almost too obvious, but Number 2 does not question the initial, implying that he knows who Drake is.
Much was written from the 1950s onwards about the effects of 'total institutions' - such as The Village - on their inhabitants: much of the research was on the big asylums of the time but it also applies to others such as prisons & even monasteries. A major element of institutional behaviour is the way in which power is exercised in these closed systems, often being held & exercised by people who on paper wouldn't have any power. When i describe the institutional exercise of power as pointless, I mean it can have no possible application to life outside the institution (just as hammering an anvil can only result in breaking the hammer); for those who have to do it of course it has the purpose of finding coping strategies for life in the institution, & in Drake's case, to probe the power structure of The Village.  One of the things the theoretical subordinates do is try out the limits of where they can go with their masters. Another is that the people 'in charge' of institutions rarely have as much power as you would think, sometimes not even adequate qualifications, & almost never the resources needed to do the job they've been given!  The implication of this, of course, is that if you find the right place in the system to apply pressure, the whole system should come crashing down.
This is precisely what Drake is doing in his investigation of The Village here, finding out the weaknesses in the system. The irony is that Number 2 almost invites this treatment in this episode, by his cruelty to Number 73, who is symbolic of all the Villagers, & who has already slashed her wrists. Which Number 2 would Drake choose to try out to breaking point, but the most tyrannical of them all? He starts this by refusing Number 2's demand to go to see him, & gets a predictable over-reaction from Number 2, who has him physically dragged there, & screams at him that he has ignored his orders.
Even at this early stage Drake has well & truly exposed this Number 2's weaknesses: foremost an over-reaction to relatively small infringements, which he takes overly personally. There is once again a sexual dynamic to this episode, it is evident when Number 2 is pointing the knife at Drake's eyes, but Drake makes it explicit by telling Number 2 he is a professional sadist. This is the point here, Number 2 is completely the source of the power struggle here, & asks for everything he gets, by almost asking Drake to probe every weakness of his rigid, power-crazy personality.
Drake successfully exploits every opportunity he can find to invert the system of The Village against Number 2, resulting in him actually reporting himself for a breakdown in security.
This could not happen if Number 2 were not in a position where he actually has very little real power: he will only ever be Number 2. He is dependent for intelligence & action on those below him. He is answerable to the 'sir' on the telephone. He refers explicitly to a fear of 'our masters' knowing if they murder Drake, & actually asks Drake not to report him: a giveaway total institution behaviour, depending on secrecy to maintain an abuse or incompetence. Finally he actually does not inspire confidence in those below him, & on whom he depends: 'It's the only way...sir,' says Number 14 with too long a gap & too much emphasis on the 'sir' for Number 2's comfort. Number 2 has the classic middle management job, presumably he has been appointed after years of saying the right things to his masters, but he is not a born leader of men, & in fact has been almost lumbered with it. Another characteristic of institutions is that they are not usually loved by those witha real responsibility for running them, whether asylums by health services, nor The Village by...whoever runs it. So they've lumbered Number 2 with the frankly odious task of running this security nightmare, & are not bothered that he is personally unfitted, because he can always be blamed if it goes wrong. The Village is not under-resourced (the seriousness of the assessment of risk to the guards or Villagers is shown by the instant availability of a bomb disposal squad), & this usually leads to pressure to reduce costs, which makes people cut corners. It is so much easier to kill Drake than get the information out of him. In a high-suspicion place like The Village, it means people are going to question others,especially if they are careerists &  also already set against each other. 'I'm finished,' Number 14 says to Drake: he obviously has some personal or career goal riding on the success of his role in The Village.
I'm going into this level of excruciating detail to demonstrate the wheels within wheels that are actually operating in The Village set-up, & that become more evident in this episode, because it can be understood on the level of institutional behaviour. It is possible that those who have set up The Village see those contained there as a burden or liability: there must have been a perceived problem or security risk for Drake to come up with his suggestion for The Village.
I would not like to say that the sexual dynamic I mention above is anything more in this episode that a dynamic of the sort that could be in any human professional or business relationship, without implying that there is something 'going on'. Of course the kind of dependence & power struggles found in this episode are not only found in sexual relationships of a particular kind. The fact that sexual relationships are almost never explicitly present in The Prisoner is one of its strengths, because it allows the series to be understood on so many levels, & even theoretically for sexuality to be read into situations where it wasn't intended.
Of course this is the episode where Number 2 tells the butler to get out. It indicates the effects Number 2's exercise of authority has on his subordinates, that it looks at first as if the butler isn't going to do it. It suggests that the butler isn't the boss, or doesn't want Number 2 to know he is, that he is seen shortly afterwards with a suitcase.
The liaison which I find more interesting sexually, homosexually specifically, is the close alliance between Number 2 & Number 14, played by Patrick Cargill & Basil Hoskins, both of them homosexual. Of course once again this is not made explicit, but it could be argued that for an episode with a heavy sexual undercurrent, the sexual orientation of actors could be of relevance in getting the atmosphere between them exactly right. I'm not saying that this is how it should be understood, it's anyway far off the Drake-as-Number-6 identification I'm trying to concentrate on this time round, but it's interesting watching this assuming that Numbers 2 & 14 are or will be lovers, or at the very least that Number 14 would be preferred to do *anything* for his career! I think it could also be read as if Number 14 has a crush on Number 2, Number 2 the sadist gets off on ordering him about, & Number 14 keeps coming back for more. Number 2 is seen interacting with (dominating?)other workers in The Village but the response he gets is more 'Oh no, he's going to do his nut' rather than the obedient puppy dog response.
I've actually watched through Hammer into Anvil three times over the past few days with a view to working up this post. I realised after two viewings that there was nothing irritating me in the episode. Nothing. Nothing at all. The first watching was therefore mainly with the intention of finding fault with it - 'It's wonderful & there's all this kinky stuff going on' wouldn't be a very critical blog post - but have failed to do so. The only criticism I have is that I find it unlikely that Drake would be able to rush into the hospital in response to Number 73's screams. At the least it would be locked, or there would be some kind of force field stopping him, or minions to feed him to Rover.
So this post now turns into unqualified praise: this episode really is excellent, even by the standards of The Prisoner. The timing is impeccable: it would be a danger that it could become too slow, given that it is based on a drip-drip attempt to drive Number 2 mad, but it just doesn't. Patrick Cargill, belying his reputation as an actor in lightweight comedies, gives a faultless performance as a rather warped personality to start off with, & the deterioration of that personality under pressure. This episode, to return to the theme I'm failing to concentrate on, does in my opinion support the identification of Number 6 with John Drake. This is not only because of the 'D6' signature, but also because Drake uses the kind of knowledge of human behaviour that I would expect in an agent of his training & experience.

1 comment:

Cult TV Blog said...

On re-reading this I find that while I started by trying to focus on the second of the three points from Wikipedia, I could also have argued that I disagree with the first - Number 6 actually makes about as concerted an effort to thumb his nose at The Village as you could wish to - & also that actually I do talk about the themes mentioned in the third point. I thought this point was more comment material than worthy of a change in my post, since it merely demonstrates that I didn't quite do what I set out to do!