"Fall Out" is the title of the controversial seventeenth and final episode of the British science fiction-allegorical series, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan as Number Six. It originally aired in the UK on ITV on February 4, 1968 and was first broadcast in the United States on CBS in the summer of 1968.
"Fall Out" generated controversy when it was originally aired because the last third of the episode was designed to be very obscure, have no dialogue, and be open to interpretation. So many viewers called ITV to complain about the ending that the switchboard was literally blown. It also forced McGoohan, who wrote and directed the episode, to go into hiding for a period of time because he was hounded at his own home by baffled viewers demanding explanations .
This episode omits the usual long opening and instead shows a recap of the last episode, "Once Upon a Time". It is also the only episode in the series in which Portmeirion is given a specific credit in the opening titles, as a result of an agreement with Portmeirion's architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis that the location would not be revealed until the final episode.
Through a door marked "Well Come", he enters into a large chamber where there is a semi-circular seating area filled with masked people and a presiding judge (played by former Number Two actor Kenneth Griffith, though it is unclear whether it is the same character) in the centre (the credits actually refer to this character as "The President" but he is never referred to on screen by any name or title, although he does wear the traditional powdered wig worn by judges in British courts). Military police are posted all around the chamber. Dominating the room is a tall, cylindrical structure with a mechanical "eye" built into it, marked with the single large numeral "1". The Supervisor dons a mask and presents Number Six to the judge before disappearing into the assembly.
The assembly members wear masks and robes to hide their identity. The assembly represents those who are in control of the system. Placards in front of each member include Identification, Security, Activists, Welfare, Pacifists, Reactionists, Defectors, Therapy, Nationalists, Anarchists, Recreation, Youngsters, Education, and Entertainment. Other placards are visible in the background but are difficult to make out.
The judge begins the proceedings by making a speech saying that they are all gathered here in a state of democratic crisis and that Number Six has survived the ultimate test and therefore should no longer be called by a number. Instead, the judge says, "he has gloriously vindicated the right of the individual to be individual, and this assembly rises to you... sir."
The judge then apologizes to Number Six, explaining that "the transfer of ultimate power" requires some tedious ceremony.
The self-contained room seen in the previous episode (Once Upon a Time) is first lowered into place, then the metal covering slides off. Interns bring a stretcher and bring it to rest by the steps leading up to the caged room.
A siren from the mechanical "eye" catches The Judge's attention, and the two appear to be in telepathic communion. "Resuscitate!" The Judge orders. A film sequence on a screen in the chamber shows previous footage of Number Two (Leo McKern) in reverse, so Number Two appears to leap to his feet.
"A revolution!" says the Judge. "Get him out."
The Butler (Angelo Muscat) walks to the cage, unlocks the door and two interns rush in with the stretcher. As they are doing so, The Butler walks up to Number Six, and after a gentle bow, stands beside him.
The seemingly dead Number Two (Leo McKern) is then brought out, wheeled into a laboratory inside the chamber and resurrected. During this process he is also given a haircut and a shave (leaving a neatly trimmed mustache). Whilst the process continues, The Judge says, "Revolt can take many forms. Here we have three specific incidences. Number 48..."
Number 48 (Alexis Kanner) is brought into the chamber via one of a number of tubes which sink into the ground. He is a young man dressed formally yet with his shirt open, a bell around his neck and a flower in his hair. He is lectured by The Judge about the follies of youth and how rebellions are pointless. In reply, Number 48 simply laughs, but seemingly out of genuine amusement rather than hostility. He starts to sing the spiritual song "Dem Bones". The Judge tries to silence him, but fails to do so, and the masked delegates, reacting to the indiscipline and confusion, fall into confusion and disarray themselves.
During the furor, a signal is sent to The Judge from the mechanical eye, and The Judge orders Number 48 to be released into the chamber. The Judge continues his lecture, but Number 48 simply rings his bell again, and begins to run about the chamber maniacally. Armed soldiers, orderlies and interns all try to catch him, but they fail. Only Number Six, who loudly says "Young man!", manages to capture Number 48's attention and halt the proceedings.
Despite Number Six drawing Number 48's apparent revolt to an end simply by acknowledging him as a "young man", for which The Judge thanks him for his "kindly intervention", The Judge seems more concerned with the breach of procedure. After more signals and communication with the mechanical eye, the guards return to their places.
The Judge and Number 48 then engage in some confusing verbal jousting, which ends in The Judge and the delegates shouting "Take! Take!" When things calm down, The Judge demands that Number 48 confess. The scene quickly descends into chaos when The Judge and the Delegates clap and dance in time with "Dem Bones". Eventually Number 48 joins in, and even the soldiers are tapping their feet. Only The Butler and Number Six watch on, motionless.
Number 48 is pronounced guilty, but only then are the list of charges read out. He is found guilty of starting a revolt and is carried back to the holding tube, which descends into the basement of the chamber.
The scene then returns to Number Two. As the revival is completed, the sound of Number Two's hearty laughter echoes around the chamber. The only person not laughing is Number Two himself, who is astonished to be alive and to be in the chamber.
He steps out, and says, "I feel a new man!" and laughs. After realising that The Butler's allegiances are to the still bemused Number Six, he continues his speech. "My Lords, Ladies and Gentleman, a most extraordinary thing happened to me on my way here. It has been my lot in the past to wield a not inconsiderable power. Nay, I have had the ear of statesmen, kings and princes of many lands. Governments have been swayed, policies defined and revolutions nipped in the bud at a word from me in the right place, and at a propitious time."
His face grows serious and hostile. "Not surprising therefore, that this community should find a use for me. Not altogether by accident that one day I should be abducted, and wake up here amongst you. What is deplorable is that I resisted for so short a time. A fine tribute to your methods."
After explaining to the delegates that Number Six had emerged victorious, this had apparently been at the cost of his own life. He demands to know how he was resurrected, but he is not answered.
Number Six asks Number Two if he ever met Number 1. Number Two simply laughs incredulously, and then stares intently into the mechanical eye. It very quickly becomes clear that Number Two has no idea who or what lies beyond, but seems determined, despite the threat of death from The Judge, to die with his own mind and his own will.
After spitting at the mechanical eye, he is carried off by two soldiers, placed in another tube and descends into the basement. As he descends, Number Two becomes the only character in the series to break the fourth wall when he appears to turn to the camera and says, "Be seeing you", though it is quite likely he could be addressing a guard or even Number Six, instead.
The judge then makes a speech about Number Six, saying that he is a "revolutionary of different calibre" and that "he has revolted, resisted, fought, destroyed resistance, overcome coercion, the right to be person, some one or individual."
Number Six is then shown his home being made ready for him. He is given a large sum of money in travellers cheques, his passport, the keys to his London home and his car, and a purse of petty cash, then Number Six is invited to make an address. He goes to the podium, and begins speaking, "I feel...", but his attempts are drowned out by the multitude's inane chanting of the word "I." He begins anew, "I...", but the crowd again echoes the word "I" and he is seen having a near-emotional breakdown as he tries to make his message heard.
The judge then invites Number Six to meet Number One. He descends into the basement, past the imprisoned Number 2 and 48 (the former laughing hysterically, the latter still singing), and goes up a circular metal staircase. At the top, he enters a control room full of globes and sees a masked, hooded figure with a number 1 printed on his robe, who is watching surveillance footage of Number Six (actually scenes from earlier episodes). He pulls Number One's mask off to reveal the face of a chimpanzee. Underneath this second mask, he sees briefly sees his own face, albeit contorted by maniacal laughter.
Number Six chases Number One around the room until Number One climbs up a ladder and disappears through a hatch in the ceiling. After closing and locking the hatch Number Six returns to the control room, which he quickly deduces is the control centre of some sort of rocket or missile. He starts the rocket to begin its launch sequence. This causes panic in the judge's chamber and a mass evacuation of the entire Village starts.
Number Six returns to where Number Two and Number 48 are imprisoned, knocks out the guards, and releases them. With the help of The Butler (Angelo Muscat), they return to the upper chamber where a gun battle breaks out. (For the second time in the series, Number Six is shown shooting people, as "All You Need is Love" plays on the soundtrack.) The four of them eventually escape in the cage-cum-mobile home seen in "Once Upon A Time", which is revealed to be on the back of a lorry, and drive through an underground tunnel. Meanwhile, The Village is evacuated as the rocket launches to parts unknown.
The four rebels find themselves on the A20 road headed for London (contradicting earlier episodes that suggested The Village was located elsewhere in Europe or Africa). Number 48 gets off the lorry to hitch-hike - back in the direction they just came from. The remaining three drive to the Palace of Westminster where Number Two gets off. A passing policeman then stops to talk to Number Six. As Number Six talks to the policeman, both men are shown from a distance in a long shot, and all that is heard over the soundtrack is the song "Dem Bones" performed by The Four Lads, while we hear nothing of what Number Six says to the policeman, his gesticulations gradually become increasingly elaborate.
Number Six, with The Butler following him, returns to his home. After Number Six gets into his car and drives away, The Butler walks up to the door which opens by itself (just as the doors in The Village do, including the same sound effect). When it closes, the Number 1 is visible on the door. Number Two is then shown in a suit walking to the Peers' entrance to the Palace of Westminster. Notably, this sequence, spanning the final few minutes before the end of the episode, features credits for Kanner, McKern and Muscat, yet as we eventually see an aerial shot of Number Six driving around Westminster, his credit reads simply "Prisoner".
From here, the final few seconds are visually identical to the first few seconds of the usual Prisoner opening titles, with a clap of thunder, followed by Number 6 driving his car toward the camera, followed by the close up of him at the steering wheel. The music, however, is missing from the footage. The usual Prisoner credit sequence is then shown, notably without the usual "face" sequence at the beginning (in which Number 6's face rushes to the camera from a photo of The Village, only to be trapped behind prison bars). Also, the final few seconds show the completed Penny Farthing painting, rather than cutting to the usual shots of Rover.
This intentionally ambiguous ending leaves viewers uncertain of whether Number 6 has actually escaped, or as in "Many Happy Returns" the whole thing was part of a ploy to make him believe he had escaped in order to survey him. The sound of Number Six's house door closing as he drives away strongly suggests that he is still in The Village, or at least that The Village still exerts power on Number 6's life (and perhaps everyone else's too). The re-use of the footage of Number Six driving to his resignation suggests that events will repeat themselves. Evidence of "genuine" escape comes from the omission of the "face" sequence and Rover footage from the end credits, suggesting that perhaps he is no longer trapped within The Village and subject to its rules. McGoohan himself refuses to comment on the matter.
Number Six's characterization in this episode is also distinctly unlike his previous depictions. In previous episodes, Six raged against The Village's ceremonial proceedings or reacted with sarcasm and mockery, refusing to be a quiet participant or observer. In this episode, he seats himself in the "chair of honour" without complaint and watches with little involvement as the assembly goes on.
Patrick McGoohan has stated that the episode is not meant to be taken literally, but as an allegory. According to McGoohan, the idea behind this episode is that people are prisoners of themselves. As he explained, "Now this overriding, evil force is at its most powerful within ourselves and we have constantly to fight it, I think, and that is why I made Number One an image of Number Six. His other half, his alter ego." Also representing the continued state of individual imprisonment, McGoohan explained, is the cyclical loop that this episode presents; Number Six, in escaping, finds himself leaving his home, driving his car as he did in the very same sequence in "Arrival" that led to his captivity in the Village. "There you know it's going to start over again because we continue to be Prisoners," declared McGoohan.
A suggested rationalization is that The Village is an institution of the British government that determines whether or not those who know military secrets and seek to return to civilian life are susceptible to giving up that information under interrogatory pressure. After Number Six endures the breadth of tortures, psychological ploys, chemically-induced states and questioning techniques that The Village administration has at its disposal and divulges close to nothing of what he knows, The Village's administration allows him to go free, lauding him for the principles of individualism and personal liberty that equipped him to withstand all manner of interrogation methods.
Allegorically, this episode reinforces the sense that the Village is really a representation of the entire world. Number Six can no more escape or destroy the Village than anyone else can escape or destroy the world. The Village's dictatorial demand for social conformity, disguised as concern for the common good, is present throughout the entire world, not just The Village. Number Six's front door opens automatically just as its counterpart in the Village does, because Six is in the Village no matter where he goes – at least metaphorically speaking.
When asked for his opinion, George Markstein, co-creator of the series, commented, "I think it was an absurd pantomime. You tell me what it means. I think it was a bit of gross self indulgence by someone who was fed up with the whole thing and wanted to get out of it and wanted to go out in a blaze of something or other.
However, according to James Follett, a protegé of Markstein's, it had been Markstein's plan to reveal that Number Six, as a young man, had conceived of a retirement home for spies. Markstein had intended for the series to explain that, years later, Six had been horrified to discover his idea had been implemented, not as a retirement home, but as an island prison camp. The reason for his resignation had been to allow himself to be kidnapped to the Village, where he might uncover the secrets of the Village and find a way to destroy it. However, Six quickly became unsure of whose Village he was in; the one created by superiors, or by the other side. Nevertheless, Six's conception of the Village would have been the foundation to declaring him 'Number One'. For whatever reason, McGoohan's final episode produces a similar revelation, although without George Markstein's plot elements.
Even today, "Fall Out" sharply divides opinion among fans of the series, with some lamenting the lack of a coherent ending, and others taking the view that any form of logical explanation of the series would defeat the object of the entire show.
The comic book sequel mini-series, Shattered Visage, contains in its trade paperback a text-piece prelude. It is in the form of a classified intelligence report on the Village. It describes the events of this episode as "a theatrical tour-de-force involving actors as well as hallucinogenic drugs," organized by Leo McKern's Number Two, in which Two "staged his own death and resurrection." Further explanation of this episode is suggested when Number Two narrates the life of Number Six and recounts how a psychologically broken Six was convinced to choose a number -- Number One. The comic suggests that the final sequences of this episode, from the gun battle to Six driving his Lotus Seven, represent a skewed perception of actual events.
Shattered Visage interprets the inauguration of Number Six in this episode as psychologically entrapping him. Where before The Village sought to crush any sense of free will Number Six possessed, here, its administration claims to respect his self-identity and offers him the reward of leadership. This position, however, requires that Number Six accept that he is a number -- the Number One. According to the comic, Six's acceptance of the number and abhorrence for being a number breaks his mind. It is implied that all this is initiated by the Degree Absolute interrogation process of the previous episode.