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Cell Review

on Mon, 03/12/2012 - 00:00

During the secret agent craze of the 1960s, British actor Patrick McGoohan developed a television concept designed to turn the overdone narrative on its head. Instead of following the exploits of a world-traveling espionage agent like James Bond, McGoohan wanted to explore what happens when that agent decides to retire against the wishes of his superiors. The result was the cult classic The Prisoner, in which McGoohan’s character is kidnapped and sent to a mysterious Village where the residents are known by numbers instead of names. While the rulers of the escape-proof community initially attempt to force the newly arrived Number Six to reveal the knowledge he has amassed through the years, in reality they want to brainwash the former agent into conformity while likewise breaking his rebellious and independent nature.

Although not as ambitious as the hallucinogenic conundrum that Patrick McGoohan crafted during the counter culture revolution of 1967, the web series Cell incorporates the same basic themes of The Prisoner nonetheless. In the opening episode, a man named Brian wakes up locked inside a jail cell with no memory of how he got there. The locale is not inside a penal institution, however, but a makeshift prison in the apparent basement of someone’s home. When his captor arrives, Brian receives no answers in regards to his situation and is poked with a makeshift cattle prod—along with shot by a Taser—to keep him quiet. Brian soon discovers that a woman named Sarah is likewise trapped in an adjacent cell, another prisoner who has learned to follow the rules of their jailer in order to prevent his wrath.

Cell is more of a slow-burning psychological thriller than the more action-oriented The Prisoner, with a lone setting of a darkened basement instead of the colorful Village in which Number Six suddenly finds himself. Cell ultimately contains a narrative told through words and emotions as opposed to physical exploits while Brian (Danny Cameron) attempts to figure out what happened and how to escape his present predicament. Sarah (Jourdan Gibson) offers small tidbits of information, but more in regards to the expectations of their captor rather than concrete knowledge on their confinement. “We have to be cleansed of our past before we can see the future,” she cryptically tells Brian, suggesting that their imprisonment is a form of spiritual salvation.

Then there is the matter of their anonymous warden (Kevin McCarthy). “If you weren’t special, you wouldn’t have been chosen,” he explains, but chosen for what exactly? More importantly, who is this mysterious man? Is he a sociopath that likes to kidnap people and hold them captive in his basement? A leader in some cult recruiting members by forcing them to figuratively drink the Kool-Aid? A modern day amalgamation of Norman Bates and Jim Jones, or something else entirely? The question becomes further compounded when Brian is shown a newspaper article that claims he is dead. Sarah believes the same fate about herself, a possibility that gains traction when it is discovered that Brian was in Los Angeles while she was in Boston at the time of their “disappearances,” yet they are now imprisoned together despite previously being on opposite ends of the country.

If he is indeed dead, Brian has no intentions of going quietly into the afterlife. Like Patrick McGoohan on The Prisoner, Brian on Cell refuses to conform. Sometimes he plays along with his captor in order to be fed and not beaten, but in the privacy of the basement he refuses to deny his past or accept his fate. Brian also attempts to rescue Sarah by forcing her to remember who she was before being captured, and grows frustrated with her when she spouts such lines as, “Michael teaches us that through tests and challenges, we can grow as members of the family.” Despite such familial epitaphs, Brian and Sarah only have each other to protect their sanity, hold on to their identity and not be brainwashed by their present tormentor or the unseen Michael in charge of the metaphorical Village in which they are being held captive.

Creator Mark Gardner has constructed an intelligent web series that simmers along for extended periods before boiling over at key intervals within the storyline. Like a well-crafted mystery, Cell keeps its audience guessing and adds intriguing twists to keep viewers from gaining a firm grasp on the proceedings. By raising the emotional tension of the situation and analyzing the psychological aspects of their imprisonment, Gardner transforms both Brian and Sarah of Cell into a contemporary Number Six from The Prisoner, with the same belief that the individual is more important than the masses in much the same way that Patrick McGoohan advocated in the 1960s.

In the end, Brian may not have achieved the physical freedom that he craved but he holds on to “who he is” nonetheless, and even manages to free Sarah from the mental bonds that have begun to take hold within her. The final moments of Cell, meanwhile, offer answers to the many questions raised throughout the web series while simultaneously introducing new ones in the process. The Prisoner ended its seventeen-episode run without bringing the narrative to a fitting conclusion and in the years that followed, Patrick McGoohan was reluctant to comment on his surrealistic achievement. “If one gives answers to a conundrum, it is no longer a conundrum,” he once remarked.

Cell is likewise a conundrum, a thought-provoking riddle that entertains just as much as it challenges its audience.

Anthony Letizia (March 21, 2012)

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