A Brief Intro to The Prisoner
The story goes that on one particular evening, Patrick McGoohan was attending a party and it was well-known that the show he was starring in, Danger Man AKA Secret Agent, would be coming to its end. While making his rounds of small talk with the guests, someone asked jokingly, “So what happens to a secret agent after he retires?”
The question was a jest to find out what plans if any, McGoohan had after his meal-ticket starring role was canceled—but it became the inspirational synthesis for an idea he had been rolling around for some time now. It was his response to this question which ultimately provided the outline for his next television series: The Prisoner. And with just seventeen episodes, The Prisoner continues to endure, inspire, irritate, delight, confound, and succeed with audiences all over the world.
The premise of the show is something like this: When secret agents resign, they’re taken to “The Village”—a place where information is extracted from its inhabitants through various methods by an unknown and unseen antagonist. All the villagers are assigned numbers and have their identities stripped. Villagers who do not conform and provide the information suffer a myriad of consequences for not doing so. Those who run The Village have always been successful and have never found anyone who could rebel and survive their tactics forever—that is until they met Number 6. In each episode, Number 6 spars with a new Number 2 whose objective is to retrieve the information he’s been keeping to himself. Every time Number 6 succeeds in maintaining his silence, a new Number 2 is placed in The Village to try and pry the information from him.
Or, if you prefer, you can see what I’m talking about in show’s opening credits below:
The Myth of Sisyphus
Switching gears, intentionally without explanation or transition, I want to tell you the story of Sisyphus.
In ancient times, Sisyphus was a King imbued with hubris, cunning, and true grit. And legend has it, he was so smart he was able to outwit death himself and lived much longer than he was supposed to. Eventually, Zeus was able to reverse Sisyphus deception and bound him to the relentless and eternal task of rolling a boulder up a mountain and over it. The agreement was that if Sisyphus could ever push the boulder over the top of the mountain he would be set free. Zeus knew that Sisyphus believed too much in himself to ever give up and cursed the boulder to always swerve away from the peak of the mountain, thus preventing Sisyphus from ever obtaining his goal.
The story of Sisyphus in the afterlife is even mentioned in Homer’s works:
“And I saw Sisyphus in torment, pushing
A giant rock with both hands, leaning on it
with all his might to shove it up towards
a hilltop; when he almost reached the peak,
its weight would swerve, and it would roll back down,
heedlessly. But he kept on straining, pushing,
His body drenched in sweat, his head all dusty” (Homer 2018, 293).
Oftentimes, the character of Sisyphus is seen as a fool and his task is perceived as futile. But Albert Camus found something different when he came upon the story. In his essay on the subject, he wrote that Sisyphus’s punishment should not be viewed as futile, but instead as a representation of humanity’s ability to persevere in our endeavors to achieve even when the whole of the universe is pitted against us. To Camus, Sisyphus is not a prisoner but a triumph of will and master of fate. Camus wrote:
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks… The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy” (Camus 1991, 123).
“What’s it all about?” asks Number 6.
Sometimes in life, we find ourselves trapped. We don’t know how we ended up in the position we’re in, all we know is that we’re a prisoner unable to leave the confines of our environment. These prisons come in all shapes and sizes unique to our own devices; they are our addictions, our recovery, our passions, our apathy, our jobs, our freedom, our relationships, our loneliness, our depression, our anxiety, our grief, our satisfaction, our haves, our have-nots, and so on.
When times are tough, it can seem like our lives are not much different than Sisyphus’s infinite task. Daily, we find ourselves pushing our own boulders up a mountain with the hope that someday we might roll it over the other side. Unlike Sisyphus though, sometimes the temptation to give up on achieving our goals is so strong that we wonder, ‘Why do I even try? It’s never going to happen for me.’
And this is what I love about the stories of Sisyphus and Number 6: they never give up. These characters are not trapped by their fate; they are conquerors. If Sisyphus wasn’t pushing a boulder up a mountain, he’d be working towards achieving something else; in his mind, this was what life was, so even in death, he still lives. And Number 6, despite every attempt to pummel his spirit into compliance, his will endures, his speech defies, and his actions rebel against the tyrannical oppression inherent in The Village.
For me, these stories remind me that an attitude of perseverance in times of trial regardless of potential results, “at worst, is everlasting hope” (Bulwer-Lytton 1866, 69). When I find myself beaten down, imprisoned, broken, and weary, I remember that nothing is written in stone even when Zeus himself has deemed it to be so. Instead, my hope is that you ever find me at the bottom of the mountain, you’ll see me looking up towards its peak smiling.
Bulwer-Lytton, Edward. The Lost Tales of Miletus. New York: Harper, 1866.
Camus, Albert.The Myth of Sisyphus, and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Emily R. Wilson. New York; London: W.W. Norton et Company, Inc., 2018.
The Internet Archive has episodes of both series to watch, or stream, at your convenience here: