Unlocking The Prisoner


The Prisoner is an iconic drama series from the Sixties whose enigmatic theme and message has continued to puzzle viewers in the fifty years since its inception.  The basic premise of the story, outlined in the opening credits of the show,  hinges around the attempt of a top secret agent to hand in his resignation and progress to an idyllic life, free from intrigue and danger,  on a beach in the tropics. After handing in his notice, he is gassed in his apartment while packing and whisked off to a secret location, The Village, where he is stripped of his identity and given a number, No. 6. His gaolers, led by an ever changing No. 2, seek to discover the reasons for his resignation through all manner of devious and subtle tortures. No.6’s goal is to escape to freedom and become an ex-spy, ex-citizen, ex-everything!

I will not try to detail all the incredible twists and turns surrounding the struggles of No. 6 with No. 2 and the system but rather strongly recommend that you watch the series before progressing further. Presently, at the time of writing, the complete episodes have been uploaded on YouTube. There is also an article in Fortean Times celebrating its 50th anniversary (October 2017, FT358:48-53) that gives a thorough account of the underlying memes and themes identified within the show. This article aims to distill an underlying pattern from the abundant and powerful symbolism within The Prisoner and use this pattern to explain  the means of escape in the baffling final episode, “Fall Out”. In order to achieve an understanding of this world of numbers, some esoteric number-based tools are first required.

The Tools

The first important item pulled from the tool bag is Pascal’s Triangle.

Top six rows of Pascal’s Triangle

Each number in a row is obtained by summing the two numbers immediately above it. For example, “6” comes from adding the two “3” ‘s on the previous row. One can immediately see the first three numbers along the central axis of the triangle, (1, 2 and 6)  are those crucial within the plot of The Prisoner – No.6 is always trying to get past No.2 to reach No.1 at the top of the chain of command.

All positive whole numbers are found in Pascal’s Triangle and appear twice in one row except those on the central axis, which appear only once. Each number is restricted to appear in only one row with the following three exceptions.

No.1 appears along the edges of the triangle and hence defines  the shape of the triangle without a base line , “∧”.

If the numbers in a row are added, they give a power of No.2:

1+2 +1 = 4 = 22   ,    1+3+3+1 = 8 = 23   ,    1 + 4 + 6 + 4 + 1 = 16 = 24

Thus through aggregation and assimilation (property, ownership), the powers of No.2 extend to every row throughout the triangle. Do they apply even to the very pinnacle, given that 20 = 1? All zeroth powers (e.g. 20 , 110 , 190 , 1230 …) are defined to be No.1 and hence No.1 is the zeroth power. Thus, No.2 cannot approach the pinnacle by his aggregative powers.

No.11 also has access to all rows other than the pinnacle by virtue of the property of Pascal’s Triangle called Magic 11’s. Here, powers of No.11 are represented as the “face value” of the digits of a particular row. For the first five rows there is direct correspondence, while in subsequent rows, carrying of digits must be applied.

11 = 111  ,  121 = 11,   1331 = 113   ,   14641 = 114

The second tool to help with the study is the  Thoth Tarot deck.  The Trump cards of the deck are particularly important as the numbering and position of the cards in the sequence of Trumps is associated to their underlying meaning. With the cards we have a method to ‘put flesh on the bones’ of the numbers that form the basis of Pascal’s Triangle and hence give them more meaningful significance.

The final tool in the toolkit is the set of Roman Numerals. As you will see in the subsequent analysis, numerals were used to express multilayered themes throughout the series. Firstly it is important to note that the Tarot Trump cards are numbered as Roman Numerals.

‘X’ in The Prisoner

In the opening credits , the man to who receives the letter of resignation sits in front of a map of the British Empire. From this image, one can suppose our hero wants not only to be an ex-spy and ex-employee but also an ex-citizen of The Empire.  Within The Prisoner, the idea of “ex-” is expressed through the letter “X”. Many examples of the usage of the  letter are seen throughout the series. It is seen in the posture of No.1 when confronted by our hero’s sudden appearance, used to void our hero’s ID card and shown on the cover of the cage that becomes  his escape vehicle in the final episode. As an aside, it is interesting to note that there are three X’s on this cover which hints at an alternative meaning for the eponymous greeting in The Prisoner. The hand gesture of the greeting conveys O.K. while concealing ‘666’ within its shape. The verbal element consists of “Be seeing you”, alluding to the all-pervasive surveillance, but phonetically could also be written as “Be C-ing you”.

Be seeing you!

Now as a Roman Numeral:

C = 100 = 10 x 10 = X x X = XXX

Thus each greeting No.6 makes is a promise of liberation. Hints of the numeral are also to be seen in the strange C-shaped telephones. Were you hearing or C-ing when you used them?

c-shaped telephone
Eye in the triangle as crown

The final Roman Numeral to be considered is “I” that has the value of No.1. There are direct references to the letter in the final episode and it is implied throughout the series in the presence of the all-seeing eye, especially when set at the top of a triangle. This is the “Eye in the Triangle” and is synonymous with the No.1 at the top of Pascal’s Triangle. This symbol represents the controlling force or entity steering the fates of the residents within The Village from behind the scenes. It does also allow for interpretation as representing the “I”, self-identity or ego of No.6. Thus the battle becomes an internal struggle of competing forces within our hero’s mind seeking ultimate control. To understand the nature of this battle, we need to consider our hero’s mental state prior to being abducted and the method by which the conflict was instigated by the abduction. Finally, on the topic of numerals, it is interesting to note these three Roman numerals when taken together as “CIX” phonetically give “six”.

The Prisoners Dilemma

The aim of our hero is laid out clearly in the opening credits. He is a spy working for the British government who wishes to leave the world of espionage and intrigue behind for a life of leisure in The Tropics. He hands in his letter of resignation which is duly processed in an automated system. He rushes home and is in the process of packing for his new life when he is gassed and kidnapped, to awake the prisoner No.6 in The Village. The letter itself holds clues as to the nature of his imprisonment and the ensuing struggle to win freedom.

The resignation letter

The letter is marked “Private + Personal” and “By Hand”. These inscriptions are normal practice when used to indicate a sensitive communication to be read by the person to whom it was delivered by hand. Other layers of meaning may be indicated. “By hand” is  considered later in the notes at he end of this analysis. “Private + Personal” may be a harbinger of the future No.6, stripped of both privacy and personality. The former is certainly achieved through the panopticon – based society of The Village. But what of the latter? To explore this we need to go deeper into the psyche of our hero before and after removal to The Village.

We know our hero only as No.6 . He professes he is a free man and not a number. He must gain freedom through resignation which suggests he was a number while in the employ of the empire. As all numbers are derived from other numbers, it is reasonable to presume No.6 was derived from this previous number. I contend No.11 was his original number.

I have written in a previous article how Pascal’s Triangle is a useful and simple model to represent hierarchical society. As I described above, a property of Pascals Triangle is that the powers of No.11 extend to every level. Thus No.11 represents the everyman who could belong to any social sphere. By the same token it can stand for a spy who has access to all levels of society. This power of No.11 is linked to taking things at “face value”. Our idea of self-awareness and self-identity is strongly linked with this idea – The Mirror Test is the means by which the presence of self-awareness and self-identity is determined. Thus a child’s individual personality and ego has begun to develop when it first recognises itself in a mirror. Our hero was fully in harmony with himself and takes himself at “face value” until the resignation. He woke up that morning and didn’t like what he saw in the mirror: the conflict with his ego had begun. The two 1’s in No.11 can be seen as the two individual aspects of the divided self bound together, the dominant outer self or ego and the inner self. In Roman Numerals, the nature of the two selves becomes clearer. Together XI is the Tarot card “Lust”, also known as “Strength”. Our hero is certainly a strong character, demonstrated by his purposeful march into the office to tender his resignation. The two components of the number are “I” and “X”. Here is the controlling ego and the wish to escape. The associated Tarot cards “The Magician” and “Fortune” reflect this antithesis admirably. “The Magician” represents total order – “The Magician” controls all aspects of his environment with nothing left to chance. “Fortune” represents chaos, randomness, chance and absence of order. “X” and “I” are thus diametrically opposed opposites. Our hero craves freedom from order and rails against his “I” or mirror self. He has a dilemma in this struggle – “The Magician”, as the ultimate controller, is an entity from which he cannot escape. By the cruel arts of the controlling forces our hero is transported The Village where the dissection of his mind is pursued…

Our hero is split from his mirror image which is now the part of him who was the citizen, spy and servant of the empire. This element of his identity has been dominant up until the resignation and thus assumes the role of Tarot Trump IV, “The Emperor”, desperate to know from his rebel self, No.6,  ” Why did you resign?”

No.6 is represented by Tarot Trump VI, “The Lovers”.  This card represents the union of two separate identities in a new relationship. On an abstract level it is the integrating of seeming immiscible forces in a harmonious fashion. Thus the whole mission of No.6 is to unite with his other half… but he has to get past No.2 first.

The Priestess

No.2 is a vital stepping stone towards the final goal of No.6, that of union with his once-dominant half. As mentioned earlier in Pascal’s Triangle, it stands between No.1 and No.6 along the central axis of the triangle. A more important property of No.2 are its powers of aggregation and assimilation whereby every level of Pascal’s Triangle is a power of No.2 through addition. No.6 needs this ability in order to “add” his other half to himself and thereby assimilate it. The Tarot Trump II, “The Priestess”, can give us further clues to the role of No.2. It represents the link or bridge between the higher spirtual realm and the lower world. Mathematics in its Platonic sense is transmitted through “The Priestess” which is in agreement with No.2’s arithmetic powers. In the final episode, “Fall Out”, the ex-No.2 tells of how he was once a normal and honest man, taking things at face value before he was twisted into service by the system. Was he thus also once No.11 but tried to solve his problem of divided self by simple addition of the digits, thereby being caught in the trap of aggregation, property and possession. One final property of “The Priestess” is that it represents The Moon in its exalted sense and is a symbol of the powers of the unconscious mind. “The Priestess” can be seen as the bridge between the unconscious and conscious mind. No.6 will need to cross this bridge to solve his inner conflict.

The Resolution

No.6 as “The Emperor”

In the penultimate episode, “Once Upon a Time”, No.6 breaks No.2 through the ordeal of Degree Absolute and crosses the bridge into the inner, hidden world of The Village. The final episode, “Fall Out” is the adventures of No.6 inside this inner sanctum. As he has defeated No.2, he assumes the role of proxy leader and is enthroned on the royal chair. He has become “The Emperor” and hence taken on the role of his once-dominant other half.  The President, in his welcoming speech, recognises our hero is no longer a number and is elevated beyond the world of numbers. Whether this is strictly true, we shall soon know. The Assembly is called together in judgement over two revolutionaries, No.48 and the late No.2.  No.48 begins singing “Dem bones, dem bones…” to indicate Death come amongst them. Through the intercession of our hero, the song is adopted by The Assembly to “expedite” matters. Hence the judgement becomes “The Last Judgement”, Tarot Trump XX, and all are condemned to death. The late No.2 then takes the stage as the next revolutionary and berates The Assembly for his abduction and transformation. He leaves, the last to give the eponymous greeting “Be seeing you”, but this time without the associated hand gesture. He promises three X’s and not three sixes. We have met two X’s (i.e. ex-everything’s) in the late No.2 and No.48 but what of the third? Our hero is given his severance package and offered the chance to lead. He quickly learns he has not the control of “I” to carry out this role – he needs to confront his mirror self first to gain full control. Towards this final confrontation, our hero is next led deeper into The Village.

The Sun

He passes the two revolutionaries trapped in their “orbits”. One pod is empty, awaiting its new incumbent: our hero is walking into a trap! The symbolism of the orbit suggests each person in The Village is an individual world imprisoned in an orbit. The symbolism is further reinforced by the proliferation of globes at the top of the winding stair.  Of course the planets must be orbiting around a centre, Tarot Trump XIX “The Sun”.  This card indicates the promise of utopia, The Brave New World. But this world has its price.The wall in the card is the necessary control to achieve this “heaven on earth”. The Village is the crazed vision of “The Sun” realised. The two children in the card remind us of the split selves of our hero and his mirror self first seen in Tarot Trump VI, “The Lovers”. They are now skipping happily together hand-in-hand. Is our hero fooled by this sudden openness and hand of friendship?

Our hero spots a hooded figure busy at the controls of the inner sanctum. The figure turns and reveals the masked figure of No.1 holding a crystal ball in his hand. He is not truly No.1 – if we see the crystal ball as a zero, he has two digits, a one and a zero. In truth the hooded figure is No.10. He hands the crystal ball to our hero and immediately puts his hands up in mock surrender but also in the shape of “X” – he is mirroring our hero as the new No.10. Our hero has solved the conundrum and united his divided self through addition…

The crystal ball

By transferring the zero, the antagonist self has returned to being No.1 and our hero transformed from No.1 to No.10. Has our hero not fulfilled his wish, received his severance and become an ex-everything? The trap is sprung! He is still a number! He looks inside the crystal ball and sees his prison bars. He knows this world will only ever be a prison to him. But our hero has moved beyond the rules of numbers. He drops the crystal ball and allows his vision of the future to shatter into a thousand pieces. By dropping the  zero he once again becomes “I” forcing his other half to mirror him.  We now have the two ones of No.11 facing each other without the mirror to separate them. Our hero will not take his antagonist at face value and  allow him to hide behind the masks of duality or the bestial self but unmasks the inner madman. At this point both selves mirror each other in their shared schizophrenia and a mad, confused pursuit ensues. Our hero manages to trap his enemy by his own crazed ambition to rise to the top. What better way to do this but to send him upwards in a rocket to become the super-ego. Our hero sets the countdown for the destruction of utopia and “extinguishes” any minions of his enemy that get in his way. He then escapes with his two fellow revolutionaries thus finally making good on the promise of “Be C-ing you”. The antagonist self takes off in the rocket to become the Man on the Moon, symbolically representing his return to the unconscious realm. The three escapees travel back to England in the portable prison cage but the bars are on the outside. The man driving past in his Rolls-Royce is looking through his own prison bars at the free souls within. The revolutionaries return to life to do as they please, whether it be to wander the world, rule the imprisoned or just go for a drive in their favourite sports car.

Additional Notes

“Dem bones dem bones…”

The repeated references to the song, even on return from The Village to normal life, suggests there is added significance to the theme of death within the final episode. The fact that the late No.2 and No.48 have both died in previous episodes opens up the possibility that our hero is also dead, having not survived the gassing at his flat. The whole series of episodes have in fact being the freeing of his soul from his mortal bounds much in the same way as is portrayed in the film, Jacob’s Ladder. The dropping of the crystal ball is emblematic of his leaving the world of the material behind, transcending its rules and overcoming his materialistic self in the process. In this interpretation, heaven is an open-topped sports car.

By Hand

The Hermit

The hidden meaning behind the term “By Hand” is apparent when one considers an alternative title of Tarot Trump IX, “The Hermit”, is The Hand. Hence on the day of handing in his resignation, our hero was No.9 rather than No.11. His change of heart from being No.11, taking everything at face value, is symbolised by the reversal of the position of the numerals. He wants to get away from everyone and become “The Hermit” on his own personal, private desert island.  “The Hermit” signifies a coming to wisdom which drives the need to resign. The splitting of IX into its mirrored elements also gives VI and IV, so our hero could equally well have undergone this transformation as No.9 or No.11.


I confess to have no clear idea of the numerical significance of this number. Let me know if you work it out 🙂