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Alpha and Omega: Writer Bill Gallagher Discusses the End of AMC's "The Prisoner"

Wondering just what screenwriter Bill Gallagher intended with the ending of AMC's six-hour miniseries The Prisoner, which wrapped its run last night? You've come to the right place.

I caught up with Gallagher a few weeks back when I interviewed him for a piece about The Prisoner and asked him some particular questions about the ending to the series (which I won't reveal here lest you haven't watched it yet).

What did Gallagher reveal about the ending of the reimagined Prisoner? Just what was The Village? Read on...

Televisionary: The episode titles seem to sharply recall some of the titles from the original series. What attracted you to the episodes you reference? (The western-themed "Living in Harmony" or the Doppelganger-oriented "The Schizoid Man" for instance?)

Bill Gallagher: Well, to be honest about that, that wasn’t my idea and that came really late in the process. It came when we were cutting the episodes and someone said, wouldn’t it be fun to pick up on the titles of [the original]? I hadn’t given each episode a title; I had just numbered them. So that came at a late hour. I thought it was lovely, it was a really nice idea and in fact the episodes do fit with those titles. That wasn’t my idea and it came late in the process. It wasn’t something I set out to do, that’s what I’m saying.

Televisionary: One major departure from the original--among several other notable examples--is that Number Two is played by one individual, rather than multiple actors. Was this a conscious decision made during the script process or in terms of the production itself?

Gallagher: Do you know, that was one of the first decisions I made. One of the things I love about the original is that it was a series driven by ideas. Each episode was driven by a big concept and the whole idea of a new Number Two every week and the drama of the repeated battle between Number Six and Number Two. Each week, Six peels off the new Number Two and, because that series was about an invisible system that governs people and that system bringing a new Number Two each week, that was all great. I didn’t want to repeat what they did. And my approach with writing anything has always been to start with character and moral dilemmas.

So I knew very early on that I wanted a Number Two and this Number Two would do battle with Number Six across the whole series and then given that then I start to ask, who is this Number Two? What is the moral quicksand in his life? What brought him here? And I wanted the whole thing to have stakes for him, to matter to him, not just at the level of a conflict but at the level of a man and his soul. So I gave him a family and part of his story is that his son doesn’t understand the nature of The Village. One of the strands of the series is Two’s family coming to terms with the nature of the world that they live in. My approach to story is not to build but to dig. So I wanted to create this man that was interesting, that we were intrigued by, and then keep digging for more.

Televisionary: Can you speak about some of the larger issues you were interested in exploring, such as knowledge, truth and self-awareness? Were you influenced at all by Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?

Gallagher: It’s interesting you say that. I wasn’t consciously going for that but I can see why you say that. I don’t sit down in that way and try to consciously say that I am going to make some meaningful reference. I start with the character, I start with the story, and ultimately what I did was split it into episodes and I wanted to do an episode about love, about education, an episode about family, and episode where Number Six’s brother turns up so is it his real brother? Is it not? Is it something that they’ve done to him?

Those are things that I wanted to address episodically. I like to start small. I wanted to write a story about the family for Six so rather than immediately setting a path for myself for some great mechanical, thematic approach, I just gave him a brother. So I start small and I go looking for where this takes me and then within the story of a man and his brother—is it my brother? Is it not my brother?—I then go looking for the things I like. They might interest you or they might interest my neighbor or be of interest to anyone who watches it and then through that... That’s my approach to universality. It’s to start small and then go looking rather than to start with Plato. Because if I started with Plato, I wouldn’t write a word; it would scare me to death.

Televisionary: How did you envision the ongoing struggle between Six and Two in your version of The Prisoner? Does it come down to obedience and resistance?

Gallagher: Absolutely. The word I use for it is assimilation. You know that the objective of The Village is to assimilate Number Six into becoming a villager. His objective is to resist but in resisting he is convinced that he alone knows the truth. Everyone around him tells him that there is The Village and only The Village, he only claims to know the existence of our world, another world, another place, as they call it in the series.

But I am immediately interested in doubt. The given is, of course, Number Two is going to try to crush Number Six and of course Number Six is going to fight back but what if each of them doubts themselves and what if that doubt creeps into the series? It would be really simple to give Number Six conviction and to stick with it but what if he starts to doubt himself? What if he’s wrong? And what if, bit by bit, the evidence starts to stack up against him. I thought that would be really interesting to write that and that’s where I started and that’s where I went. I think any political or ideological or philosophical argument is for me much more interesting when the protagonists doubt themselves. So that became a major driving force in writing in the series for me, giving those doubts.

Number Two rules this world, created this world, and what if he doubts himself? Why does he doubt himself? What is it that would make this man begin to wonder about his own morality? And without giving anything way that doubting has in it the resolution of the series. And where we get to at the end of the series begins with that doubt. If that makes sense.

Televisionary: Should we view the ending as a sense that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and that if we don’t learn from our own history, we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes? After all, 313’s tear seems to indicate that Six will make the same errors that Two did...

Gallagher: The decision that Two makes at the end about the sort of inheritance of The Village comes from the beginnings of his doubts, what he’s been doing to his wife, and why he’s doing it. Am I right to be doing this? And the cost of it all. It’s a story about family and a man’s own conscience and for me that’s the politics of the series.

Televisionary: It’s at its heart about moral relativism; Two honestly believes what he’s doing is helping these people though there’s an undercurrent of nihilism and darkness.

Gallagher: ...If we can sympathize with Number Two, if we can see him struggling, if we can at times believe that this man thinks what he is doing is utterly for the good, then for me that has tension in it and drama in it. And is much more interesting to me than a two-dimensional ogre who rules by violence and terror.

In one sense, all saviors believe that they are the only bearer of the common good and on the other side what if there genuinely is something within them that has the impetus to do something for others? It’s about finding where the drama is. If Two is evil and that’s where his decisions are made, then the drama is over. The drama begins if (A) we ourselves are complicit in that and (B) if the man doubts and struggles. That’s what’s interesting to me to write.

Televisionary: The towers that the Dreamers see in the desert do seem to bear an eerie resemblance to the Twin Towers; was this intentional and is it intended to invoke a 9/11 reference?

Gallagher: It wasn’t. I honestly didn’t sit down and say let me make that reference. It came more from mythology and the passages through mythological journeys and the gates that you pass through and those images. This is mythological image in the distance which is the way out of here. Having said that, as I writer, I would be kidding myself if I put two towers in a series and then pretended that it didn’t have a reference. I can honestly say that I didn’t intentionally invoke that but, having done it, it’s kind of unavoidable...

Televisionary: How was Helen able to tap into people’s subconscious? Did they drug their victims with a biochemical compound?

Gallagher: Yes, I came across this thing that Carl Jung said which I had in my head for ages about levels of consciousness. Jung said we commonly accept nowadays the idea of the unconscious, we commonly accept that there are two levels of consciousness, so if we accept that there are two levels of consciousness, why can’t there be more? And that fascinated me because then The Village is a layer of consciousness... In turning that layer of consciousness into a story, how do we do this? It was always a combination of chemical compounds. You have that scene where 11-12, the son, takes the pills to be examined at the Clinic and the contents are unknown and some are not known and some are chemical compounds that have not yet been invented. That was just a simple sci-fi notion to get us to this Jungian idea of layers of consciousness. You asked me a very simple question and I gave you twenty minutes of answer; that’s a very Bill Gallagher moment right there.

Televisionary: Given the fact that The Prisoner is only six episodes, did you feel any pressure to create something as symbolic or open-ended as the original series’ ending (“Fall Out") or did you want to tie up the central mysteries somewhat neatly?

Gallagher: ...I thought what could be the most dramatic thing is that Number Six inherits The Village and takes on the mantle of [Two]; everything he’s fought against, he now becomes. He says, we could do it differently. I found it to be such a difficult and painful place to get to and ambiguous, even. So I set out to get there and the final episode itself did morph and change. I had other ideas in there but that place that we finally get to, that was something I was clear about from early on. How we get there, I had to work on. But where we got to, I always had a sense of.


rockauteur said…
This helps... but I still hated it.
HipHopAnonymous said…
While I didn't hate it per se, I did think the whole thing felt like a huge mess. Unnecessarily nonlinear. To the point of tedium.

The greatest strength of the original series was that the central premise was extremely compelling and original, but still simple enough to be set-up in the opening credits of every episode. I pity the poor soul who tried to jump into this series without some prior knowledge the concept.

And while the notion of turning the Village into Carl Jung's 'collective unconscious' was clever in its own right, as was the frequent use of Jungian archetypes throughout, this is exactly the type of idea that the original series would've spent one episode playing around with and then promptly dropped and moved onto something new and different the next episode. But transforming the entire PRISONER series into a prolonged metaphor for psychoanalysis was just a terrible waste of potential, and time. Be seeing you!
Anonymous said…
I can understand and even applaud taking original concepts in a new and different direction; unfortunately the direction in this case is "nowhere".
Six seemed to be directionless and vacillating, and it is not entirely Caviezel's fault. There is no conflict here because there is no opposition. McKellen might have been beating a puppy for all the "resistance" that was presented by actor or by script.
Trippy editing, clever pop-song drop-ins, and painfully forced surrealism are no substitute for insightful, cohesive writing.
This might not have been so bad if the original "Prisoner" were not so strong. Perhaps if this miniseries had been called something else. I suggest "Hammer into Marshmallow".
Anonymous said…
The commercials were good. The PalmPre girl. The Geico gecko. I don't know what that other stuff was all about. Something about a man running round aimlessly.
Scott Colthorp said…
I for one appreciate Bill Gallagher's efforts -- and that of the entire creative staff. I love that Mr. Gallagher was willing to explore the concept of multiple levels of consciousness. I hope we see more writers exploring this theme in the coming years.

Consciousness can rise in complexity both in the individual's consciousness, and that of one's culture. As you know, culture is much slower to develop than that of an individual, thus Number Six's dilemma with The Village.

I think six episodes is the perfect length to examine the inner-conflicts that The Village (think nation/region) must face to reach the tipping point of a consciousness shift. In the case of this series, the shift is from Modernity (steeped in Traditionalism) to Postmodernity.

Having Caviezel play Number Six was a fantastic casting choice for this writer. He became famous for his mystical role in Terrence Malick's 'Thin Red Line.' Like Malick's TRL, the re-imagining of The Prisoner brings a meditative quality to the screen, where the isolated protagonist struggles to contain his worldview in a society that sees him (and his reality) as a threat.

As for the ending... the jury is still out... probably smoking cigarettes in the parking lot thinking about the next manufactured consent.

We've spent nearly 300 years in Modernity exploring the 'exterior,' I think it's time for more writers (and viewers!) to explore themes about the interior -- both on an individual and collective level. That would be a very post-postmodern thing to do. Bravo Mr. Gallagher.

~ s
Anonymous said…
Nice word's Scott. Mr Gallagher is a good friend of mine, I have passed on your thought's. It's nice to read some positive comments. I expect most comments would be completely different if Bills original script was read.......It's always a tough battle when having created a script, it then goes into production and then it all changes........ "battle of the EGO'S" takes over. I know Bill had to re-write a few of the scene's
a few time's.....nuff said!

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