35: The garage, the prisoner, the holy mountain



     ‘... Entropy’s setting in. Or so they say.’

     ‘Why should that be true?’

     ‘It’s Time—it’s all used up, I’m told.’

     ‘This is metaphysical nonsense!’

     ‘Very likely.’

(Michael Moorcock, The Final Programme p.137)




Patrick McGoohan’s quirky and inventive television series, The Prisoner, was first screened in France in 1968. Its premise was that a secret agent (such as McGoohan had played in his earlier and popular series, Danger Man, also known as Secret Agent) has resigned, but is then kidnapped and held prisoner in a closed community—the Village—ostensibly because his captors want to know why he has resigned. Possibly he’s no longer considered trustworthy by his former employers.

     McGoohan would definitively betray that trust when he wrote and directed an experimental and radical two-part story to bring the series to an end. The final episode didn’t exactly answer the questions raised within the series, but it broke apart the conventions of the kind of popular adventure series in which he was starring. Broadcast in a peak-time evening slot, it caused a minor public scandal when first aired.

     The passage of time has lessened the shock. After half a century, the conventions on which the series was built—fist fights and chases—look creaky, and some elements of the plotting look shoddy and obvious; but at least some part of the interest the series later sustained may be supposed a consequence of how it ended.

     Parallels presented by the ending of The Prisoner to the ending of Jean Giraud’s Le Garage Hermétique are fairly obvious. Let’s start right at the end:



When McGoohan’s protagonist at last escapes from the enclosed world in which he’s (mostly) been trapped throughout the series, he escapes not into another location within the world of the fiction, but onto the crisp winter streets of a very real London, one day early in 1968. Giraud can by no means match the documentary clarity of this transition, but he makes it sufficiently clear that when Grubert finds his way through the last locked door in the Garage, he is also stepping out of the fiction, into the everyday world inhabited by his author and his audience.



McGoohan’s escape is preceded by chaos. In the Garage, chaos had been overtaking the story since cracks began appearing in the plasma fabric in episode 29.

     Chaos is such a natural and frequent end to popular adventures that this would hardly be worth mentioning were it not for the fact that in this case it serves to disrupt the fiction itself, paving the way for an escape into reality.



The escape is prepared for by a self-reflexive foregrounding of the fiction as fiction. In The Prisoner, props and footage from earlier episodes are in the last episode recycled; several actors from earlier episodes (including two whose characters died) reappear. In the last episode of the Garage, an array of both major and incidental characters who appeared throughout the series are gathered on a stage, seated and dressed in identical robes. Assembled supposedly to act as a jury, they actually have no role to play, but serve, briefly, as representatives and reminders of the preceding narrative.



The trial for which this jury has been gathered is designed to serve a very partial idea of justice. In the last episode of The Prisoner, the proceedings are presided over by rather a pompous judge, who at one point declares, “Guilty! Read the charge.” In the Garage, this role is taken by Sper Gossi. Both present what’s going on as a kind of formality, or ceremony, to mark a change in the status of the protagonist; both, in the end, lose control of the proceedings.



The climax of The Prisoner has McGoohan coming face to face with No.1. The climax of the Garage has Grubert reaching the 1st level. This barely qualifies as a coincidence: structurally, the similarity is very basic—each represents the endpoint of a quest; but where the question “Who is Number One?” was explicitly posed in The Prisoner at the beginning of each episode, Grubert’s intention to get to the first level was not announced until late in the story. Grubert set out, rather, in search of Jerry Cornelius. Even so, parallels may be detected:

     It may be observed that when McGoohan, as No.6, is allowed to meet No.1, the latter mysterious figure is seated, dressed in white robes and holding a crystal ball. The jury assembled by Sper Gossi in the Garage is likewise seated and robed; furthermore, each is holding a ball—albeit they look more like variously decorated bowling balls.

     Also, in the final episode, when No. 6 tears off No. 1’s mask, he finds under it first another mask, then his own face. In the Garage, when Grubert comes face to face with Jerry Cornelius, his presumptive nemesis, they are all but indistinguishable: each has essentially the same costume, except Grubert’s is white, Cornelius’s black. A black/white conjunction of opposition and identity is far from uncommon: No.1’s outermost mask—identical with those worn by the robed jury—likewise combines black and white, tragedy and comedy.

     In The Prisoner, the face behind the mask is that of a madman, and madness is precisely what Cornelius accuses Grubert of in episode 34. In 36, Grubert says to Sper Gossi, “So... it is always fools and madmen who end up holding temporal power.” Alas, if not always, it is too often so.



Several minor coincidences of detail are also worthy of note:


In the final episode of The Prisoner, one character is apparently brought back to life. Immediately before that happens, he is given a shave and a haircut. Grubert is likewise given a shave and a haircut (in episode 31) before being “reborn”. This may appear a minor detail, but the issue of rebirth, for which it prepares the way, is very much to the point—a point, however, which will not be argued here.



The location for the setting of The Prisoner was not widely known when the first sixteen episodes of the series were first broadcast, but the last episode led off by advertising that it had been filmed at Portmeirion, in Wales. The setting for Le Garage Hermétique is not quite the same kind of mystery, though I’ve suggested elsewhere (20: Where and/or what is the hermetic garage?) that one might legitimately be uncertain about what the whimsical title originally referred to. Giraud’s declaration at the beginning of the episode 34, “VOiCi LE GARAGE HERMÉTiQUE!..”—translated in 1987 as “BEHOLD THE AIRTIGHT GARAGE! ”—appears to identify the title with the expanded asteroid where the action takes place, just before the climax of the story.



It may also be noticed that one of the odder episodes of The Prisoner was “Living in Harmony”, in which McGoohan was pitched—along with viewers, who were denied even the reassurance of the usual opening titles—into the setting of a western story. Compare the “ÉPISODE CHEZ DES COW-BOYS” in the Garage



And let’s not forget that, as far back as episode 21, Grubert was making his way to the mysterious room where he would later be made ready for his passage to the first level—Room No.6. It’s the same number by which McGoohan’s character in The Prisoner is identified.



The Prisoner is by no means the only drama that ends with the dispelling of fiction, and an invocation of reality. Giraud was certainly familiar with Alexandro Jodorowsky’s the Holy Mountain, even before he met the actor/writer/director in 1975. At the end, Jodorowsky, as leader of a quest for the secret of the immortals, tells his followers—and the audience:


This is the end of our adventures. Nothing has an end. We came in search of the secret of immortality, to be like gods; and here we are, mortals, more human than ever. If we have not obtained immortality, at least we have obtained reality. We began in a fairy tale, and we came to life; but is this life, really? No. It is a film. Zoom back, camera. We are images, dreams, photographs. We must not stay here, prisoners. We shall break the illusion. This is maya. Goodbye to the holy mountain. Real life awaits us.