This is my response to the episode. Many thanks to Rick Davy for lending me the video! This article is not suitable for children or for anyone who is easily shocked or particularly sensitive. If you are under 18 years of age, or if you are easily shocked or particularly sensitive, please use the back button on your browser.

1. Introduction
2. Sade And Power Relationships
3. Sadism In The Plot Of ‘The Girl Who Was Death’
4. Sadism In The Imagery Of ‘The Girl Who Was Death’
5. Black And White Choices
6. Conclusion: Sadism Elsewhere: Barbara Windsor, Lulu, Abba and Ant and Dec

1. Introduction

I’ve now watched the whole of ‘The Prisoner’ series. I was struck by how much sadism there is in ‘The Girl Who Was Death’. This is a brief overview of how Sade’s work is an element in the episode, how sadism appears in the plot and the imagery.

2. Sade and Power Relationships

I will not attempt an overview of Sade’s life and work here, let alone an in-depth assessment of its quality. Sade’s work is far too extensive and too complex for that. I will simply offer a few brief comments about those elements in Sade’s writing which are relevant to ‘The Prisoner’.

Sade’s output consists of a number of novels, short stories, drama and discursive writing. A large part of his fiction is taken up with people expressing ideas and opinions: discourse is a major element of his fiction, but it would be a mistake to see any of Sade’s characters as his mouthpiece. Much of his work has been banned – for longer in Britain than in France – or was unavailable simply because it was never translated and published here. There are also problems with his non-fiction as some of it was written under duress. His own ideas are broadly speaking progressive, democratic and egalitarian. He favoured universal education provided by the state free of charge. Lever credits Sade with being the first French writer to advocate abolishing the death penalty. Sade also made some apt comments about prison damaging inmates when it should be reforming them.

Sade spent most of his adult life in prison. He lived through two revolutions. He lived through the rain of Louis XVI (the ‘ancien régime’), the First Republic (with its ‘reign of terror’) and the Empire of Napoleon. Sade was imprisoned by all three! Napoleon considered Sade so dangerous, he personally signed the order to lock him up. He eventually died in a lunatic asylum.

Sade’s literary and dramatic art focuses on sexual encounters and relationships. Almost invariably, those relationships involve power. They involve political power, economic power, social power and the power of violence. All these other kinds of power are endowed with a sexual appearance in Sade’s literature and drama.

As noted by Barthes, other writers put their lives into their work; Sade put his work into his life. His own sexual encounters also involved power relationships between one dominant and one submissive partner. Sade was always inordinately proud of his aristocratic ancestry and position. In his life as in his art, he insists on the economic and social status of his sexual partners and links their status to the type of sexual encounter they enact.

As noted by Beauvoir and Walton, Sade’s work never really celebrates eros. It always links the erotic to crime and hideousness. Barthes says Sade’s passion is theatrical, not erotic. Sexual congress is normally accompanied or followed by acts of violence, cruelty, torture, blasphemy and horror. Penetrative sex is often related to or appears as a form of stabbing, impaling and shooting. The penis is primarily a symbol of violence and slaughter; rarely if ever is it a symbol of potency and fertility.

There is no masterpiece by Sade. His work expresses a simple erotic impulse. On the aesthetic level, there is no development within one of Sade’s novels or plays or across his output; his work is tedious and humourless. Sade was a poor novelist and playwright and a minor philosopher. The importance of Sade’s work does not lie in its literary, dramatic or intellectual quality. Its importance lies in the light it sheds on other people’s work.

3. Sadism in the Plot of ‘The Girl Who Was Death’

The eponymous character seems to be a witch. As noted by Howard Foy in ‘The Door In The Wall’, she turns Number 6’s car round in a psychedelic manner. She accomplishes this feat of magic using her little finger, in a way reminiscent of Samantha Stephens in the early episodes of ‘Bewitched’. The place she entices him to is called ‘Witchwood’. But this is a witch of a very different kind from the benevolent Samantha. She emanates simultaneously attraction and repulsion. The episode uses a phenomenon available in the cultural environment: the witch as a profoundly sexual but highly dangerous embodiment of feminine energy.

Number 6 is forced to risk his life to chase after the girl. She says the more she loves him, the more she wants to kill him. Unequivocally, the episode establishes sadistic relationships, between murder and eros and between the two central characters.

These relationships appear in the dialogue. The girl says:

‘I love you madly….You’ll make a beautiful corpse.’

Time and again, she declares for Number 6 and her determination to kill him at the same time. At another point she says:

‘This is to be our last tryst.’

The ambiguity of the last word in that sentence reinforces and reiterates the sadistic relationship between violent death and sexual passion. The erotic relationship is presented as a power relationship.

4. Sadism In The Imagery Of ‘The Girl Who Was Death’

The visual vocabulary of the episode reinforces this relationship between sexual arousal and slaughter. The episode’s imagery is chock-full of erotic references.

There are countless phallic symbols in the episode: I won’t try to list them all. They are mainly connected to killing and conquest.

Sonia tries to kill Number 6 with phallic spikes, while making some wicked humorous remark:

‘You’ll soon get the point.’

They rise from under the floor as if in erection.

The next weapon she uses to try to kill him is a set of penis-like candles. The long, thin cylindrical weapons which Number 6 modifies to reverse their charge are clearly another phallic symbol. The lighthouse which is really a rocket is another obvious priapic image. It eventually explodes in a kind of symbolic ejaculation.

At an earlier point in the episode, in the scene in the Turkish bath, Sonia tries to murder Number 6 using a phallic broom handle. She inserts it into the handles of the steam-booth in an act of symbolic penetration. She is not just the girl who was death; she is the girl who was penetrative sex, too. This act represents on a symbolic, image level Number 6 penetrating her vagina at the moment she kills him, like the black widow which kills her mate after copulation.

At all these points the relationship between violence and eros is maintained, in the same way it is in much of Sade’s literature.

Schnipps, impersonating Napoleon, says the line:

‘Of course Nelson’s Column will go; it’ll be Napoleon’s Column.’

At that exact moment, he walks behind a phallic metal column in the lighthouse. This links a number of phallic symbols: Nelson’s Column, the pillar in the lighthouse and the lighthouse itself. It reiterates the sadistic relationship between power on the erotic level and power on the military and political level, between male sexual power and conquest.

The imagery of the episode is also littered with symbolic references to penetrative sex. At a pivotal moment, in the fun fair, a scene takes place in ‘The Tunnel Of Love’, a clear evocation of a woman’s vagina both in its name and its shape. Number 6 is lured in and enters ‘The Tunnel Of Love’, symbolically penetrating Sonia’s vagina at another moment when she tries to assassinate him. She tells him not to look round: she can see him but he cannot see her. This is a look in Foucault’s sense of the word, a sexual power relationship between the seer and seen, of the type described by Stephen Gallacher in his article, ‘The Prisoner Vs The Panopticon’. The image of the phallic train symbolically penetrating is repeated twice in other rides in the fun-fair scenes. At another point, Number 6 enters a cave, again symbolizing penetration.

At a moment when Sonia thinks she has managed to murder Number 6, he removes a manhole cover and emerges from a manhole. Despite its name, this is of course a symbol of female, not male sexuality. Number 6 removing the manhole cover and coming through the tube represents deflowering Sonia: he is symbolically taking her virginity. In the episode’s discourse, the manhole becomes her vagina and the manhole cover her hymen.

There is another resonance to this image. Number 6 emerging from a hole into the open also suggests birth. There is a hint of an oedipal relationship here: one woman as mother and wife. This is consistent with Sonia’s status as a witch, as a manifestation of malevolent, perverted feminine energy. She is in a sense for Number 6 as Jocasta is for Oedipus: wife and mother simultaneously. Again there is common ground with Sade. In one of his novels, he narrates how a man has three children by his own mother. By arranging the marriage of two of them, he manages to have sexual congress with his daughter, his daughter-in-law, and his sister all at once.

This moment is linked to two later moments in the episode: Number 6 later throws a male enemy down another manhole (again reiterating the sadistic linking of violence with penetrative sex) and Sonia’s change of clothes from white to black, a theme on which I will expand in the next section.

5. Black And White Choices

The use of black and white imagery is of paramount importance in the episode. Sonia is dressed from head to toe in white clothes. She carries a white parasol. She drives a white with car, wearing a white crash helmet. She hides behind a white veil. She later wears a white German-style helmet with a phallic spike. When she reappears at the end with Schnipps as Number 2, after the story-book tale is told, she is dressed completely in black.

White clothes represent purity. They are an archetypal symbol of virginity, as evidenced by the ancient and continuing tradition of a bride wearing white at her wedding. The story-line of the episode is Sonia’s failure to kill Number 6; the whole episode is taken up with his gradual overcoming of her, his conquest of her, his power growing as hers diminishes. Symbolically, he deprives her of her virginity and she acknowledges this by changing into black clothes as she becomes ‘real’ – no longer a story-book witch.

White clothes and black clothes recur constantly throughout the episode. The cricketers at the two cricket matches are dressed in white, symbolizing their innocence, their powerlessness to defend themselves.

Whilst white clothes suggest a wedding, black clothes are redolent of a funeral. By changing from white to black clothes, Sonia is in a certain sense mourning the death of her fairy-tale power as a witch. In the boxing match scene, she disguises herself as an old woman, dressed in black when she lures Number 6 into the fight. Black clothes are of course the uniform of the witch as well as the funeral mourner.

The other boxer is played in a brilliant cameo role: he is a superb minor character, as he contributes a great deal in a short space of time, avoiding subtle nuances of character. His name is ‘Killer Kaminsky’ and he is dressed totally in black. Black clothes represent killing and misdemeanour once again. This connection is not isolated from the surrounding culture: the word ‘blackguard’, an old-fashioned word for a scoundrel, confirms that.

Number 6 is dressed in the white cricketer’s kit when he withstands the first murder attempt. After that, he wears some black and some white clothes throughout the episode. So does the boxing referee who comes between him and Killer Kaminsky. Whereas Sonia wears black and white clothes sequentially, Number 6 wears them simultaneously. He has in that sense a foot in both camps: he can deal with both the virginal and the deadly and is in that sense in control of both – a victor in two lands. His clothes represent his ability to overcome Sonia and Schnipps.

There is more to the history of dressing in white for practical and symbolic purposes. Bakers, chefs and scientists traditionally used it as a means of declaring their profession. White material can be laundered at a higher temperature than coloured material. If you’re working in a laboratory on a scientific activity such as biology or chemistry and you spill bits of frog or copper sulphate crystals over your white overall, the stains can be washed out more effectively then they could with darker clothes.

I think there is also a hint of the Cartesian background to science there: the pure scientist getting his hands dirty dealing with an impure universe. The same would apply to the history of information technology: the photos of people using computers in the 1930s and 1940s very often show men in white overalls.

Besides clothes, there are other white images in the story: the lights in the Turkish Bath and in the cave and the mask in The Tunnel Of Love. In ‘The Regrettable Bullet’, Peter Dunn noted the importance of chessboards in several episodes of the series. The alternating black and white squares, that complement each other like the Yin and Yang, prepare the viewer for the black and white masks in the final episode, ‘Fall Out’, a change from the pure white mask in ‘The Girl Who Was Death’.

Perhaps it suggests childish innocence juxtaposed with adult sexuality. The only episode with children (correct me if I’m wrong!) is in a sense the most adult one of the whole series. At the end, Number 6 looks at the camera and says: ‘Goodnight, children, everywhere.’ (I think this is an echo of BBC Children’s radio of the time.) He addresses the television audience and Sonia and Number 2 at the same time, as if to celebrate his victory. There are other examples of this juxtaposition before that: the van advertising ‘Sweets for children’ that the two central characters drive past is an example. So is the laughing sailor at the fun fare. It seems to laugh a wicked, mad horrific laugh.

6. Conclusion: Sadism Elsewhere: Barbara Windsor, Lulu, Abba and Ant and Dec

‘The Girl Who Was Death’ is not my absolute favourite episode of ‘The Prisoner’. I prefer ‘Arrival’, ‘A Change Of Mind’ and ‘The Chimes Of Big Ben’, for example. But it is striking, well-written and well-acted. I have looked at how Sade’s work elucidates this episode. It does the same with some other phenomena in popular culture, too. A few examples spring to mind:

In one of the ‘Carry On’ films, there is a dialogue between Barbara Windsor and Sid James, which goes something like this:

‘Windsor’s Character: “Have you got a big weapon?”
James’s Character: “I’ve had no complaints.’”

(If anyone knows the correct reference for this, please let me know.) Fenella Fielding is the connection between the ‘Carry On’ films and ‘The Prisoner’, of course.

Several of the James Bond 007 films had sadistic content, as did the theme songs. For example, Lulu sang the theme song for ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’:

‘He has a powerful weapon,
He charges a million a shot
An assassin that's second to none,
The man with the golden gun
One golden shot means another poor victim
Has come to a glittering end…
Love is required, whenever he's hired,
It comes just before the kill…
Who will he bang?
We shall see.’

In these places in popular culture, sadistic relationships are established between sexual passion and slaughter. The second one also maintains the relationships among sexual power, violence and economic power. Note the ambiguous use of the words ‘weapon’, ‘shot’, ‘gun’ and ‘bang’.

There is also unequivocal sadistic content in the theme songs for ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Goldeneye’.

When Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest with ‘Waterloo’, they tapped into a bland European 1970s aesthetic. They sang in easy English and they took advantage of a recognisable event in European history. They had their accomplice dressed, like Schnipps, as Napoleon – or possibly Wellington - when he conducted the instrumental accompaniment to their song.

‘My my, at Waterloo Napoleon did surrender
Oh yeah, and I have met my destiny in quite a similar way…
Waterloo - I was defeated, you won the war
Waterloo - Promise to love you for ever more
Waterloo - Couldn't escape if I wanted to….
My my, I tried to hold you back but you were stronger
Oh yeah, and now it seems my only chance is giving up the fight.’

Napoleon losing his political, social and military power is the metaphor for the woman losing her sexual power. I wonder what the penultimate line is really about – a rape fantasy perhaps?

‘I’m a Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here’ is Sade’s ‘One Hundred And Twenty Days Of Sodom’ transposed to the modern world. A deserted spot in the Australian Bush replaces the Castle of Silling in the Black Forest. The contestants replace the harem while the presenters Ant and Dec replace Sade’s four libertines. Ant and Dec subject the contestants to a series of clearly defined and precisely planned physical and mental tortures, in exactly the same way as the libertines do to the harem. The series exhibits people being subjected to cruelty for the delectation of those watching. Even the television audience at home were empowered to commit some sadistic acts through the telephone voting. The erotic power content, which is explicit in Sade’s novel, is implicit in the television series. This goes right down to the controlled use of the toilet in both stories.

This has been my take on ‘The Girl Who Was Death’. I have also written some other pieces that involve television series from the 1960s onwards:

The Look: Sade, Sartre, Foucault, and British Television
Heroes and Villains of British Comedy
The Monkees, Ronald Reagan, Existentialism and Plato

If you would like to read these other works (or any of my other writing), please contact the website, and messages to me can be passed on. Tony Woodrow.


Roland Barthes: ‘Sade, Fourier, Loyola’, translated by Richard Miller, Jonathan Cape, 1977
Angela Carter: ‘The Sadeian Woman, An Exercise in Cultural History’, Virago, 1979
Michel Foucault: ‘Discipline and Punish’ translated by Alan Sheridan, Penguin, 1977
Francine du Plessix Grey: ‘At Home with the Marquis de Sade’, Chatto & Windus, 1999
Stuart Hood and Graham Crowley: ‘Introducing Marquis de Sade’, Icon, 1999
Aldous Huxley: ‘Brave New World’, Chatto & Windus, 1932
Aldous Huxley: ‘After Many A Summer’, Chatto & Windus, 1939
Anthony Kenny (ed): ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy’, Oxford University Press, 1994
Maurice Lever: ‘Donatien Alphonse François, marquis de Sade’, Fayard, 1991
Friedrich Nietzsche: ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ translated by R. J. Hollingdale, Penguin, 1973
Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘Discourse on the Origins and Foundation of Inequality Among Men’, translated by Maurice Cranston, Penguin, 1984
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade: ‘The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings’, translated by Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver, with introductions by Simone de Beauvoir and Pierre Klossowski, Arrow, 1989
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade: ‘Justine, or, The Misfortunes Of Virtue’, translated and with an introduction by Alan Hull Walton, Spearman, 1964
Neil Schaeffer: ‘The Marquis de Sade, a Life’, Hamish Hamilton, 1999
Donald Thomas: ‘The Marquis de Sade’, Allison and Busby, 1992
Peter Weiss: ‘The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade’, translated by Geoffrey Skelton and Adrian Mitchell, Marion Boyars, 1965

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