This is a massive spoiler for The Prisoner, but also probably won’t make a whole lot of sense if you’ve not seen it. I fully expect that many other people have written this same sort of piece, but I’m doing it again — so there. This is going to be rather reductionist, focusing on the core conflict between 2, 6 and 1 and ignoring much of the spurious action that went into episodes across the series.
My relationship with The Prisoner is irony-laden as I initially enjoyed the series not so much on its merits, but rather on its reputation as being interesting bit of culture on the fringe. It wasn’t until maybe the third time I tried to watch the series (when it was released on DVD) that I came to acknowledge that 6 was mostly just a surly asshole, generally lacking the suave subtleties that people expect of spies.* In Escape From Freedom Erich Fromm describes the acceptance of an object on the basis of the popular opinion of the object as an avoidance of freedom by acting as an automaton. Once we have accepted the popular notion of an object, which can serve as a basis for acceptance of the object — why spend time watching an old TV series if you’ve not already been told it’s good? — the common behavior is to rationalize our relationship with the opinion of the object rather than challenge it. Explaining this bit of psychology could go any number of biological and/or philosophical ways, all of them off-topic.
The events of The Prisoner make a lot more sense if you consider the notion of the pseudo character Fromm (also in Escape From Freedom) suggests as a mechanism to escape the freedom of the self. The pseudo character often begins its existence by the conscious will of the person as a means of fitting in socially. The multiplicity of identities that spies may maintain would be a perfect example of mastery of pseudo characters. Observed existentially, however, if the original self’s core business is that of spawning pseudo characters, then that’s exactly what — and only what — the original self is going to be capable of. But the real oddity comes through the practice of maintaining the pseudo character since the actions form the identity (as the brain rewires itself to optimize for repeated actions). In this way, it makes perfect sense for discarded pseudo characters to become Jungian personality fragments littering a person’s subconscious.
If you’re currently noting that Jung numbered rather than named or lettered his personality fragments, then you can probably guess where this is going. But it’s also amusing to note that Fromm used the letter-as-name convention, with A, B and C being three people in a hypnotism experiment.
So, what is The Prisoner really all about? It’s about an original self who created created a lot of pseudo characters and then effectively resigned from his self, except that the personality fragments that came from the pseudo characters knew that they weren’t the original self and needed to figure out why the self had resigned its position more or less leaving them in charge. It’s not that 6 is genuinely held prisoner by external entities, but rather that he’s spent so much time being not himself that he doesn’t have an adequate sense of self to get away from the not-selfs that he has been. Thus, despite actually being 1, 6’s lack of power in relation to all of the 2s has developed because he spent all of his self making the 2s. This only confounds the 2s: they need the information that will restore the self, except that 6 persists in being 6 because he doesn’t really have it — if he had it, he’d be able to acknowledge his 1ness. This turns into the love/hate relationship that the 2s have with 6 — while he categorically loathes them for demanding from him something he is unwilling to admit he doesn’t have — such that, with control of the village, many of them stop short of quoting Nietzsche, “Rest thee here: this place has hospitality for every one–refresh thyself! And whoever thou art, what is it that now pleases thee? What will serve to refresh thee?” since he would respond in kind “Oh, thou prying one, what sayest thou! But give me… Another mask! A second mask!” (with masks featuring prominently throughout the final episode.)
It is only when a specific 2 allows for itself to be annihilated in understanding how 1 became 6 (which would thus reveal that 2 as a superfluous construct of the self, but also allow for its post-annihilation reconstruction later) that 6 can overcome the sheer amount of psychic garbage that he’s accumulated in his mind, using the reconstructed 2 as a channel to encounter 1. The escape from the village then takes the 2 that knows 6/1 well enough to support his life, 48 who maintains instinct and symbols, the butler of the entire subconscious, and 6/1 who is returning to being his “normal” self — except that his normal self isn’t much different than the subconscious conflict that he just escaped from, as we can observe in the door to his flat which may serve as a reminder of all of the pressures that an increasingly networked society puts on us to accept opinions rather than forming them of our own critical accord, and/or that normal life isn’t devoid of subconscious debris.
It is worth noting that for this interpretation of the series, 6 may have been a spy, but he might have simply felt like or fantasized about being one. He might have actually resigned his job or abdicated from some role in society that caused his personality crisis, or the resignation from the self may have simply hit as a matter of long-term stress. He might have been dreaming the whole thing, or on a therapist’s couch, or on his own couch, or simply living out his life as a non-entity (what the butler does when off-camera?) while the drama played out inside his head.
There may well be more meaning throughout the series and particularly in the last 20 minutes of it, but it has been a while since I’ve seen it and I’m not a fan of over-analyzing what the authors meant by anything lest I be disappointed to realize that they weren’t nearly as intentionally clever or insightful as I’ve been able to construe them. (I’m looking at you, J. J. Abrams!)
* – This wasn’t the hard rule; “Hammer Into Anvil,” “The Girl Who Was Death,” and “A, B, and C” are all episodes where 6 demonstrates subtle social cleverness.