For over 40 years I’ve wondered and tried to understand the truth behind The Prisoner. I take comfort in what Patrick McGoohan shared in interviews. He encouraged fans to decide for themselves the meaning. At one point he even said he wished someone would explain it to him. And so I’ve come to accept the following as one very good possibility if you view the show as straight forward spy-fi and divorce it from the idea that Number 6 and John Drake are one and the same. Is the following sequence the real meaning? Your guess is as good as mine. But for me what follows works. Taken in logical increments, once dissected, putting together the reality behind The Prisoner works like this … I think … maybe …
B: Now for Number 2. Here is the person charged with the hands-on, daily administration of The Village. Number 2 is changed on a regular basis and this for good reason. Punishment and being demoted for failure is one reason but there are others. Anyone holding this position for too long a time would gather a great deal of information and thereby pose a security threat themselves. Keeping one person in the Number 2 position would therefore be counter productive. Number 2 is directly responsible to Number 1. Number 2 is the only one in The Village who knows who Number 1 is. Or so they have been led to believe. Perhaps a few of them do know but in all probability they don’t all know and maybe none of them does. It wouldn’t be a good security measure for all those Number 2s to know who Number 1 is. They deal with Number 1 over the phone. Disguising a voice electronically is easy enough to do. Having someone, a “dummy” if you will, present themselves as Number 1 would also be easy. Even with different stand-ins presented to various Number 2s. Descriptions would never match if any two or more Number 2s decided to work together towards whatever nefarious end. And, again for reasons of security, this is probably the case. But they think they know and for their position as Number 2 to be functional and in order to keep them in line that they think they know their boss, coupled with a very real and fearful knowledge of his power, is enough.
C: Enter Number 6. Number 6 is a high level secret agent with high level security clearance. He knows a lot. He resigns over matters of conscience. Feeling no obligation to do so he will give no one a specific reason. Its personal, and he is an individual, a free man. A free man with training and information. Fitting the above description of a Village resident (a possible if not probable security threat) he is spirited away to The Village where an attempt is made to make him tell why he resigned. Anything, everything else would follow. But they don’t want him broken as he’s a very valuable commodity. Being a commodity his being an individual is meaningless, even a threat, in The Village.
D: Number 1. Number 1 is the one ultimately in charge of it all. Because of this he or she knows more than anyone. They need to in order to keep the machinery running smoothly. It wouldn’t do to rotate Number 1 as Number 2 is because Number 1 can’t be kept in the dark about anything. It would make the job of being Number 1, of running it all, impossible. Number 1 doesn’t live in The Village. For security reasons its best he keeps a distance. He lives in the real world and so need a “cover”. In the world Number 1 needs to look like a normal individual, not a top-secret sinister sort of government employee/administrator. And so they have a cover, a false identity they show the world. In fact they have two. What the first one is, the one everyone sees, we don’t know for sure but given certain statements in Episode 16 it may be that this cover is that of a bank employee. Number 1 may even have been originally recruited while working at the bank. But whatever the cover may be we can be certain that whatever it is its average enough not to call attention to the person of Number 1. The next cover, the one that the first cover supposedly covers, is that of a highly trained super spy with high level security clearance. This position is helpful to Number 1 in several ways. In this position they’re able to detect security threats directly, along with the help of Village agents, and so spot future residents of The Village. They have access to top-secret information helpful in dealing with these same residents. And they’re in the perfect position to pass along misinformation that will in turn safe-guard The Village, its residents, its “employees”, and its mission.
E: The problem belonging to Number 1 is more human than their position would lead us to believe. The problem is that Number 1 is, after all, human. He is not a number. He is an individual. And he sees what he does, he sees the immorality and inhumane aspects of The Village and of his job as Number 1, and he comes to understand that he too is a prisoner of the system he controls. Or does it control him? All of this ongoing personal, emotional, mental turmoil brings him to the point of a breakdown. He goes into denial. He is no longer Number 1. He doesn’t even know who Number 1 is. In trying to escape the self-less self he has become, created by the same system that he controls, or controls him, he escapes into his cover of being a secret agent. To further his escape he, as the secret agent, resigns. And he becomes, as a result of his resignation on one level and due to his breakdown on another, a resident of The Village. He is too valuable to lose, he is the ultimate security threat, he must be reclaimed but not broken. And so the system begins the attempt to extract information. Why did he resign? For him to tell why he resigned will force memories to the fore. He will remember exactly who it is that he is if he’ll remember and tell why he resigned. As one of the Number 2s observes early on: All else will follow the answer to this one simple question.
F: The Problem belonging to Number 2 and The Village is extremely complex. They are trying to bring this person back to a reality they’ve escaped from via denial. But they’re not dealing with Number 1 alone. They don’t even realize its Number 1 they’re dealing with. They believe in the cover, the top-secret agent. But if they can bring this agent back to reality, and the government agency pulling all the strings knows this, then everything else, including Number 1, will follow. Only the people or person, the one(s) higher up even than Number 1, know the ultimate reality here. But Number 2 and the other “employees” of The Village deal with a man with multiple levels of being, of denial, of training. They deal unknowingly with a Number 1 that is on the brink of madness, they deal with a secret agent who is nothing less than an individual, ( He is not a number. He is a free man! ) and ultimately they deal with a very strong mind with lots of training and determination driven to denial and not wanting to come back. Refusing to come back. They want information. But they won’t get it.
G: Are there any clues? In the episode, “Many Happy Returns”, Number 6 stands in front of his own homes door while talking with Mrs. Butterworth. The number on the door plainly visible. Number 1. In the episode, “Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”, Number 6 picks up a roll of film he’d left to be developed. A clerk had transposed the numbers on the list of names matched to their film. The number 10 had been mistakenly read instead of the correct 01. Little things like this, hints, like the Ace of Spades in the Western episode, “Living in Harmony”, can be spotted from time to time as Number 6 attempts to piece together the puzzle of what it’s all about while at the same time trying to escape. “Where am I?” “In the Village.” “Whose side are you on?” “That would be telling.” “What do you want?” “Information, we want information, information, information!” “You won’t get it!” “By hook or by crook, we will.” “Who are you?” “I am Number 2.” “Who is Number 1?” And while trying to unravel it all without unraveling himself he also tries, over and over again, to escape a reality that he refuses to accept. It’s important to consider that all of this, The Village, the daily happenings, the experiences of Number 6, everything, is being filtered for us through a mind that is sick and sickened. This is one reason for the clues being both hidden and right in front of our eyes all at the same time. It’s why everything seems so surreal and at times even has a dream-like quality. This mental illness also helps cloud the facts, hints, and clues from what the sick mind wants to hide from itself because reality, the truth, is not what the individual, the free man, in this instance wants. Denial makes the truth almost impossible to spot. It’s like a dream. A bad one that you can’t wake up from. And given that we’re seeing it primarily through the eyes of Number 6, who, aside from being in denial, is often drugged and whose mind is tampered with on a regular basis, and to a lesser degree through the eyes of Number 2, who always seems to have his or her own issues, we can’t trust all we experience in The Village. Or think we experience.
H: The Answer. In almost every episode, an example of variation being “Do not Forsake Me Oh My Darling” in which Number 6 has his mind purged of all memory of The Village making the following dialog unnecessary, we are told bluntly by Number 2, probably without Number 2 even realizing it considering they may not truly know who Number 1 is themselves,, who Number 1 is in the opening sequence. Number 6 wakes up in The Village. He asks, “Where am I?” Number 2 replies, “In The Village.” Other questions follow. “What do you want?” “Information. We want information.” “Whose side are you on?” “That would be telling.” “Who are you?” “I am Number 2.” “Who is Number 1?” “YOU ARE, Number 6.”
I (Or, 1): The End. After all is said and done the powers that be must resign themselves to the fact that Number 1 is beyond recall, the mind of Number 6 can’t be manipulated, and the denial is permanently set. Even though in Episode 16 Number 6 blatantly tells Number 2 that he is in control and that control belongs to Number 1 he still denies. In the final episode, “Fall Out”, after having been asked to lead the Village and refusing, he is literally brought face to face with himself and STILL he will not accept who and what he truly is. The powers in control of it all have reached a dead-end. There is nothing more to be done. By refusing to submit to Number 2 and The Village, and by having beaten the system at its own game, the man is beyond their reach. As his mind is beyond reach, because he can’t be brought back to reality, he is no longer considered a security threat. How could he be? He refuses anyone any answers. No one, not our side OR their side or anyone else, can extract information from him, information that he has suppressed to the point that not even he can recall it. Keeping him in The Village beyond this point would only be to nurture an ongoing problem for the compound and its employees. His constant disruptive behavior combined with his continuing escape attempts and his foiling of Village personnel and security being what they are to hold him beyond this point would constitute a madness and denial all their own. No, he must be released. He may be returned to his life as a resigned secret agent. He can work peacefully as a bank employee. He has earned the right to be an individual. And so he is sent home. With a “servant” (guard, warder) of course. Just in case. He has escaped The Village, he has escaped being Number 1, he has escaped the world of secret government agents. But only by denial, only by the suppressing of self. Which means he is forever the prisoner of his own mind, from which there is no escape.