jblum (jblum) wrote,

  • Music:

The Prisoner (2009): Harmony

First off, here's the bit of the new Prisoner which utterly broke my brain. SPOILERS...

When I wrote my Prisoner novel (still available from some good booksellers, and the Powys Media site), my soundtrack was the Beach Boys' Smile -- their great unfinished album, their rival to Sgt. Pepper, which they were working on at exactly the time McGoohan was filming. It's always sounded to me like an extension of the Village soundtrack -- full of unexpected harpsichords, modern fuzz basses, dreaminess and playfulness and unexpected eerieness. There's a childlike heart to Smile which fits in perfectly with the nursery-rhyme score to the series. And arguably like The Prisoner, Smile too collapsed under the weight of the people making it -- Brian Wilson pulled the plug when his ego and sanity gave out, McGoohan refused to compromise and the studio pulled the plug for him. For me, they're both inextricably part of that lost spirit of '67.

Fast forward to 2009, and what do they use on the soundtrack of the remade Prisoner? Brian Wilson's completed version of Smile.

So that's what it feels like to have the inside of your head leak out.

The thing is, the way in which Bill Gallagher and Nick Hurran used Smile was way more twisted than anything I'd come up with. Bit of history for those who aren't familiar with it: Smile was a concept album in three movements, and the third movement was themed around the five elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and "Good Vibrations" representing Spirit). Famously the sound of a musical inferno in the Fire section caused the increasingly erratic Brian Wilson to lose his grip on the project -- the sound of a musical inferno was so dramatic that Brian supposedly tried to burn the tapes because the bad vibrations were just too intense. In the finished Smile, the fire is followed by the eerie rippling stillness of the Water Chant, and the new lyrics reflect what Brian went through at the time; it's as if he's singing from a sort of dreamlike purgatory, on the edge of his own sanity --

Is it hot as hell in here
Or is it me
It really is a mystery
If I should die before I wake
I pray the lord my soul to take my misery

The water becomes his longing for escape:

I could really use a drop to drink
Slip into a placid pool and sink
Feels like I was really in the PINK!--

And the music suddenly releases into the proper Water section, a cheery piece called "In Blue Hawaii", representing Brian's ultimate return to happiness.

And what do we get in The Prisoner? An entire episode built around the image of water as escape, from this village prison in the desert -- the idea that the ocean might be just over the next sand dune, that freedom may or may not be a watery mirage. Our man in his own private hell in the Village, now out in the desert, drifts into a dreamstate of his own, imagining himself tied to a stake and Number 2 smilingly pouring out a bottle of water in front of him. The water chant is perfect enough for this bit... and then it gets even sharper.

Because the next thing Number 2 is put a grenade in 6's mouth, and on PINK! he pulls the pin.

And as 6 struggles and 2 smiles, the music continues on, quite cheerily now. And suddenly that vision of blue Hawaii is the most mocking illusion ever. Even the lyrics now underline that if he thinks he's going to escape he's dreaming: I lose a dream when I don't sleep / I'm slumbering...

I'm in awe of how they managed to thoroughly subvert one of my favorite pieces of music. And how fricking perfect is it to use a song by the Beach Boys for a TV series about being trapped in the desert? California dreamin' indeed.

And rather than just being a gratuitously symbolic dream sequence, I think the ambiguity about just how much of what's happening is going on in 6's head (or is it me) is going to be crucial to getting a grip on this series. His flashback (?) memories are framed as dreams in exactly the same way, inviting us to question them as well. The emphasis in this Prisoner is significantly more on Number 6's sanity (and where it's fuzzy round the edges) than when the unbreakable McGoohan was at its center.

When he awakens with a bang from that vision, 6 is closer to breaking than we've yet seen him. The only thing that saves him, as he begins to accept the lie, is that his "brother" -- a good man caught in the Village's climate of fear -- cracks first.

Intriguingly, while we do definitively find out that the appearance of 6's grownup brother -- who he remembers drowning in the ocean in his childhood -- is a Village plot, that's the only bit of the puzzle that's nailed down. How did they know where the childhood 6 buried his memory-box, to re-create it with different memories? And why? We never get an answer... though I think I have an idea what the answer is. And the climax of the episode, where Number 6's real and Village memories converge at an ocean which isn't there the next time he looks, gives us no clue what literally happened at all.

This is a pretty direct contrast with the way the old show worked -- even in a full-on mindfuck episode like "Schizoid Man", we're ultimately presented with a fairly objective view of what actually happened to 6 out of his view. But this series stays with a subjective, gappy view throughout. The clearest illustration of the difference would be "Once Upon A Time" -- it may be a journey through 6's entire life, but what we actually see is an objective view of three men in a room and the Butler with his smoke machine. Now imagine what it would have been like to experience that subjectively, through Number 6's eyes...

Basically, it's feeling like we're in that anchorless "Fall Out" space already. And that's a good place to be. Because it feels like this is going somewhere, and even the chaotic bits have, if not a sensible explanation, then at least a jabberwockish sense of meaning.

Except for the pig masks. That's just fucked.

Outside of the dreamy bits, some of the best scenes are when Number 6 submits himself to analysis. These are positively old-school Prisoner -- particularly the head-yanking moment where you realize that the analyst's "Tell us about your mother" questions aren't just the Village's royal We speaking, but that in fact that shadow we saw behind the analyst is a whole other person, watching and noting rather than interacting. A virtually identical person (shades of "Free For All") -- literally the analyst's shadow-self. (I think that's another clue to where all this is going.) Jim C's almost giggly "...I think we're done here" response is a neat bit of characterization for this 6 -- rather than bluntly kicking against the system, he thinks it's looney-toons time. And the shadow-self is paid off even more brilliantly when Number 2 makes a meal of the analysts -- the public face is telling 2 what he wants to hear, while the hidden one is literally weeping with terror. McKellen is of course masterful -- one minute giving a possibly-still-genuine confession, the next reducing their analysis to a shambles. "Have you ever had sex with your mother? Then don't." Delicious. It's razor-sharp scenes like these which make me realize just how many tricks we missed in Prisoner's Dilemma -- they hit the old-school conflicts dead-center in just a few images. Even the set design is quintessential stuff.

Oh, and Rover making the water run backwards? Simple, brilliant, and such a perfect expression of how utterly WRONG this thing is. It even looks like it's forming out of the sea-foam, which is just perverse.

The end of the episode leaves us someplace the old show never dared, with our 6 strapped in a straitjacket and screaming. Even this early on, they're giving us a clear sense that 6 could crack -- and in a way that makes it more remarkable that he still doesn't.
Tags: the prisoner

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