AMC’s mystery drama The Killing just ended its first season in a hailstorm of failed hopes and fizzled expectations. Most everything surrounding the show heavily implied that its central mystery, the identity of the killer of a girl named Rosie Larsen, would be solved by the end of the first season.
This was not the case.
I won’t spoil the ending (such as it was) of The Killing, but suffice it to say that no, you don’t find out for certain who killed Rosie Larsen. You’ll have to watch the second season to find out. Kind of a letdown, right? The Internet (as it is wont to do) has already exploded with furious nerdrage at the show, with many swearing off the second season entirely. For a show that requires a great deal of audience attentiveness and loyalty, this type of reaction could prove fatal.
Now, you’ve watched The Prisoner up to this point, or you wouldn’t be reading this article*. The show all but demands a monkish dedication to its detail and nuance. It wants you to study Number Six’s every facial expression. It punishes you if you can’t keep up with star Patrick McGoohan’s rapid-fire patter. Miss one of its first sixteen episodes and you might as well give up entirely.
*If you haven’t, the whole series is conveniently available in Network Awesome’s archive.
Imagine, now, that you’re a fan of The Prisoner, watching the series finale, “Fall Out” for the very first time. You’ve come to expect a certain surreality from the show, but surely McGoohan would wrap it up at least somewhat neatly, right? Questions would have to be answered--namely, the identity of Number One, the nature of the Village, and the reason Number Six resigned his commission in the first place. It was expected that your devotion would have to be rewarded.
Instead, you see this: an extended trial sequence which features a lengthy (lengthy) rendition of “Dry Bones”. Number Six keeping quiet for the majority of the episode, while other characters hold forth at length on seemingly every topic other than the three you really care about. A jury full of masked men drown out Number Six when he rises to speak. Watching this forty years later, you can almost feel the collective psychic anxiety of several million Brits flare up as the episode progresses, with McGoohan piling on the imagery and symbolism without getting close to what his audience wanted.
Then, a breakthrough. For his efforts in showing his captors that their way is wrong, he’s invited to finally meet Number One. He ascends the stairs into a kind of rocket pod, where Number One sits in a control room. He reaches out, grabs Number One’s mask, and reveals …
Wait! It’s not really a monkey -- just another mask. Six pulls that one off, to reveal a screaming, crazed version of his own face. Number One has been revealed, and it was Six all along.
One’s face is revealed for all of one second, during a distorted, fractured series of jump cuts. If you weren’t looking in the exact right spot, at the exact right time, or if you coughed, or blinked, you’d miss it. Even an attentive viewer might not recognize McGoohan’s crazed, half-covered visage in that amount of time. Given McGoohan’s predilection for fakeouts and symbolism, you wouldn’t be remiss in assuming that the reveal was just a red herring. You’re in a daze as the episode speeds up -- Number Six and Numbers Two and 48 take on a group of guards, launch a rocket, and escape the Village. Rover, the series’ iconic and menacing island guard, is dispatched by the rocket’s flames. Six, Two, and 48 drive back to London, Six re-claims his car and apartment (now sporting an ominous “1” on the door”), and drives off.
That’s it. That’s the end of The Prisoner.
Now, you’re in Britain in 1968. You’ve just watched The Prisoner deliberately avoid answering any of your questions. You can’t rewind the episode to watch it again, so the identity of Number One, even symbolically, remains a mystery. You can’t go to Wikipedia to read a plot summary, or YouTube to view clip compilations or analysis, or Television Without Pity to kvetch about McGoohan’s creative choices. It’s really cold outside, and you don’t even have a second season to look forward to. Makes The Killing’s ending (or The Sopranos’, or Lost’s, or Seinfeld’s) seem much less infuriating, doesn’t it?
This is absolutely true, according to McGoohan: people were so angry at him after watching “Fall Out” (and a lot of people watched it in Britain -- there were only two or three channels back then, remember), that he had to go into hiding in the mountains for two weeks1 after it aired. “Going into hiding” is something that criminals do, but fans viewed what McGoohan had done to them as a crime in and of itself. It was like playing the first seven notes of a standard scale, then setting the piano on fire and jumping out the window.
Still, should they have really been surprised? Putting aside the fact that “Fall Out” was apparently written within two days of filming2 (necessitated by the fact that McGoohan had only recently found out about the series’ conclusion*, which may have resulted in the plot hurrying along somewhat), did The Prisoner ever do exactly what the audience expected or wanted? McGoohan didn’t set out to create a spy series -- he had a point to make about conformity, rules, and individuality, and used a spy series as a framework for that. If you weren’t prepared for that, McGoohan wasn’t about to wait for you.
After all, how many times does a man get to troll an entire nation and create a classic ending in the process?
*In the interest of completeness, we’re obliged to note that sources differ3 on exactly when McGoohan found out about the series’ impending cancellation.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.