Sunday, 5 October 2014

Allegory in The Prisoner: Living in Harmony

Usually, when I start my dissection of a defenceless classic TV programme, I have a read round on the internet to see what other people have to say about it. In terms of the shows I've talked about so far, this is particularly easy in the case of The Avengers & The Prisoner, but seemingly not when it comes to Living in Harmony.
I ended my piece on Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling by saying that I had no idea what I would do when I got to this episode. One of the things I'm finding useful about going through The Prisoner thematically, is I'm finding I watch the episodes in different ways - I would like to say the episodes lend themselves to different interpretations - & Living in Harmony is one that doesn't seem to attract much in the way of allegory. So let me invent the phrase argumentum a silentio for how I must start here: either this episode doesn't lend itself to allegory or the idea of an allegory of an allegory in an already allegorical show is just too much for most commentators. At any rate, its standing among the fans seems to be that it's seen as an odd episode out - almost outside the 'canon' - & tends to be neglected.
After tying myself up in knots trying to do something inventive with an allegorical approach to this episode, & repeatedly falling flat on my face, I'm forced back to the conventional allegorical interpretation of The Prisoner: the Village represents our world & the Villagers people or powers within it. I feel the extension of that principle to this episode which best holds water, is that Harmony is an allegory of the Village. The fact that it is another 'Village' makes the message all the more depressing - the Village authorities are everywhere, every medium we see is infiltrated. There is truly no escape.
I see when I wrote about this in my series of posts examining the identification of John Drake with Number 6, I commented on this episode as a commentary on the Vietnam war & also gave a personal opinion that the Kid represents the Butler ( I like the latter idea enormously, since I still like the idea, which unfortunately I don't think will hold up under scrutiny, that the Butler is Number 1. In addition to the Vietnam War reference, references to apartheid-era South Africa have been seen in this episode. All of these events are now firmly in the past for those of us uninfluenced by them, & in my usual principle of trying to read these shows from a contemporary perspective I think there may be much more ground in treating this one as a reference to High Noon, & in turn to American anti-Communist witch hunts.
High Noon was already referenced in the title of the last episode, & thus also in the setting for this one. There are echoes in the plot also. Of course as usual in The Prisoner, no final identification is possible, but it is as if McGoohan is very subtly saying here, 'The Prisoner is about what High Noon is about'. I had no idea it was so controversial until I started reading it up for this episode. Remember the Number 2 here is apparently American, & the setting is an archetypally American one:
'In the Soviet Union the film was criticized as "a glorification of the individual."[7] The American Left appreciated the film for what they believed was an allegory of people (Hollywood people, in particular) who were afraid to stand up to HUAC. However, the film eventually gained the respect of people with conservative/anti-communist views. Ronald Reagan, a conservative and fervent anti-Communist, said he appreciated the film because the main character had a strong dedication to duty, law, and the well-being of the town despite the refusal of the townspeople to help. Dwight Eisenhower loved the film and frequently screened it in the White House, as did many other American presidents.
'Actor John Wayne disliked the film because he felt it was an allegory for blacklisting, which he actively supported. In his Playboy interview from May 1971, Wayne stated he considered High Noon "the most un-American thing I've ever seen in my whole life"[16] and went on to say he would never regret having helped blacklist liberal screenwriter Carl Foreman from Hollywood. Ironically, Gary Cooper himself had conservative political views and was a "friendly witness" before HUAC several years earlier, although he did not name names and later strongly opposed blacklisting.
'Zinnemann later said in a 1973 interview: "I'm told that Howard Hawks has said on various occasions that he made Rio Bravo as a kind of answer to High Noon, because he didn't believe that a good sheriff would go running around town asking for other people's help to do his job. I'm rather surprised at this kind of thinking. Sheriffs are people and no two people are alike. The story of High Noon takes place in the Old West but it is really a story about a man's conflict of conscience. In this sense it is a cousin to A Man for All Seasons. In any event, respect for the Western Hero has not been diminished by High Noon."' (
In just such a way as High Noon *may* refer to the House Unamerican Activities Committee (, does Living in Harmony refer to The Village & the world. Interestingly, in this it turns another recurring theme almost on its head, that is that of the internationalism of The Village. In an age when it was supposed to be abundantly clear on the world stage who were us & them, The Prisoner normally muddies that picture, yet here references a time in history where the threat was considered very real & abundantly subversive. As usual, & as is the case with all other apparent threats in The Prisoner, the whole point of it is that nothing is real. Whether or not Harmony is a drug-induced hallucination, the whole point is that nothing is real. The Communist threat isn't real. The Iron Curtain isn't real. The First World is a fantasy. In reality you don't know who is who, nothing is real, & anybody could be anything. Heavy, man.

1 comment:

Cult TV Blog said...

I've been thinking further, since I wrote this post, about the possible references to Apartheid-era South Africa in The Prisoner as a whole, rather than just in this episode. On the face of it, the internationalism of The Village would seem to be miles away from the racist paranoia of the SA National Party, but I think the reference works quite well in terms of the totalitarianism of the regime & the tactics used to indoctrinate the 'Villagers'. The South African government three times declared a State of Emergency (usually called during a war) that would restrict foreign reporting, every time things became a bit too hot for them. The selective use of media in The Vvillage is strikingly like the Apartheid regime's use of media to give a slanted view, even down to school textbooks. But the two regimes are perhaps most similar in their totalitarianism - the minutiae of everyday life are completely accounted for - who you can mix with, where you go & when. This is a subject that may find myself returning to in future posts on The Prisoner!