Bottle Up and Explode
Once Upon a Time
Bottle Up and Explode aims to explore a tradition that is unique to television: the bottle episode. Each installment will examine one such episode to understand the constraints of the form, its particular strengths and weaknesses, and what it says about both the particular television show and about the medium in general.

"One week, my boy. One teenie weenie week. Neither of us can leave. "˜Til death do us part."-Number Two (Leo McKern)

Regular readers of this site probably already know that I can be obsessive. When I get my mind onto something, it can be difficult to deter me from that thing until I have accomplished it. Perhaps the most detrimental aspect of this is the strong desire for completism that plagues me. If I buy the first film or television season in a series, I absolutely must buy all of them, even if I do not like later installments nearly as much as the early ones. If I have a favorite band, I find it necessary to track down every last song that they have recorded, scouring singles and compilations for any missing tracks until I'm sure I have every available sound of theirs accumulated. One of the reasons I don't read as many comics as our dear Comics Editor Chris (and one of the reasons I didn't read any comics until just over a year ago) is because in mainstream comics, it is virtually impossible to read a story from the very beginning, and you go in knowing it will never end. This lack of completion irks me even at my least neurotic, and informs many of my pop culture decisions.

It is also why I have been a prisoner of The Prisoner for a little while now. I have painstakingly avoided becoming too enthralled in the idea of watching all of a series I am writing about for this column before now. Several installments have been on shows I have seen in their entirety either once or many, many times. Yet there have also been a few that are the only episode of the show I have ever seen, and I have avoided being pulled into their thralls (if I had been, we might never have gotten past "Balance of Terror" and this might be a Star Trek column instead). The Prisoner is a different story, though. I originally received it as a Christmas gift a few years back when it was released on blu ray, and hadn't gotten around to watching it yet. When I discovered that "Once Upon a Time" was the penultimate installment of the 17 episode series, I knew I couldn't watch it absent context. So prior to writing this, I watched the entire series.

The premise of the show is fairly straightforward, and laid out at the beginning of every episode in a long (and, after an episode or two, painstakingly redundant) intro. A man known only as Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) was a British spy and resigned for unknown reasons. Moments after his resignation, as he prepares to leave the country, he is gassed into unconsciousness and wakes up in a place called The Village. The Village is surrounded on three sides by mountains and faces the ocean. Every inch of it is monitored and he has no hope of escaping. The people who run The Village, represented by a constantly rotating Number Two, want to know why he resigned and what he knows; Number Six refuses to tell them and wants to escape. From here, each episode takes on a somewhat procedural nature. Number Two schemes to trick Number Six into revealing information of break him down and Six engages in a battle of wills with each Number Two, hoping at the same time to find his freedom.

In "Once Upon a Time" (spoilers for previous episodes and this one, but not for the finale, follow) the mysterious people behind The Village seem at their wit's end as to how to get information out of Six, so they bring back a previous Number Two (Leo McKern) and allow him to handle Six "my way," though he is given only a week. He brainwashes Six, reducing him to a childlike state and the two of them enter the Embryo Room, where they are locked (along with The Butler, played by Angelo Muscat) together for the week.

Over the course of the week, Number Two guides Number Six through Shakespeare's Seven ages of man (leaving out the lover, likely because that wouldn't have played too well in 1968), each time portraying an authority figure in his life, and each time identifying a week point and then prodding at it until he asks, "Why did you resign?" In each instance (unsurprisingly) Six refuses to answer, and also seems incapable of saying the number six. In a final interrogation in which Two portrays a judge and Six a defendant, Six finally seems to break, begging Number Two to kill him. Suddenly, he is able to speak the number six, counts down from zero, and turns the table on Number Two, exploiting his psychological weaknesses (specifically his fear of failing to break Six) and forcing him into a total mental breakdown by revealing he has only five minutes left until the week is up. The stress causes Number Two to break down in subjugation before Number Six, crawling on the floor and begging him to reveal his secrets before he finally dies.

The basic template of the best episodes of The Prisoner involves a battle of wills between well-matched opponents, with Number Two having all of the resources of The Village at his disposal and Number Six having only his wits and his resolve to keep him from cracking. Yet no other episode reduces the formula to its barest elements like "Once Upon a Time." The Embryo Room, where the vast majority of the episode takes place, is like the stage in a minimalist play. There is a door to signify a separation between rooms, a rocking horse, a swing set, a crib, and a caged in area that resembles a kitchen. The rest is all blackness, lit by a blue-tinted light from above. Though The Butler is present throughout the episode, he (as usual) remains mute. We are left with just Number Two, Number Six and their competing agendas.

Filming of the episode, with its raw performances and psychologically heightened state, was a grueling process, with both McGoohan (who also wrote and directed the episode, in addition to having created the series) and McKern entering near-psychotic states at some points. It went so far that filming had to be stopped at one point due to McKern suffering a nervous breakdown (or, by some accounts, a heart attack). It's no wonder either. "Once Upon a Time" is a grueling, relentlessly tense experience just to watch, especially for those who have seen all previous episodes. Watching the resolute, resourceful and stoic Number Six reduced to childhood and put through the ringer to the breaking point multiple times is a painful process, and seeing him beg for death before turning the tables on the equally intelligent and stubborn Number Two is an edge of your seat emotional roller coaster of an experience.

"Once Upon a Time" raises the stakes higher than ever before by reducing the elements at play to little more than the will of the two opponents. As a result, it is not only the best episode of The Prisoner, but a landmark bottle episode and a perfect example of the potential advantages to being severely limited. The more bottle episodes I watch, the more it becomes clear that the key to a successful bottle episode is stripping down the show to its basic elements and playing with its core concept with no distractions. The shows that turn in subpar bottle episodes seems to have a simple fear; not the fear of experimentation (as we saw earlier this year, Mad About You experimented greatly and turned in a pretty bad bottle episode), but a fear of what their show is at its core. Those who succeed know the elemental form of their show and can use that to remind us what we love about it in the first place. All bottle episodes somehow imprison their characters. In the best bottle episodes, we too are prisoners.

Read more Bottle Up and Explode here

Coming up on Bottle Up and Explode:

4/22: "A is for Aardvark," Bewitched

5/6: "Day 5: 7:00 pm-8:00 pm," 24

5/20: "The Next Phase," Star Trek: Next Generation

6/3: "The Beast in the Cage," One Foot in the Grave

Tags: The Prisoner
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