SPOILERS for The Prisoner, The Shield, and The Getaway (novel).
Ever since I first watched the penultimate episode of The Prisoner earlier this year, I have found myself consumed with the concept of Degree Absolute. I think it’s what I’ve been looking for my entire life. In the show, Degree Absolute is the name of a specific kind of psychological torture that the villain, Number Two, decides to inflict on the hero, Number Six. He induces some kind of mechanical hypnotic effect in Six that reduces him to a childlike state and then puts him through a series of exercises riffing on Shakespeare’s Seven Stages Of Man in a kind of regressive therapy. Two describes Degree Absolute as incredibly powerful and incredibly terrifying as a result; he says that the risk is that if he doesn’t destroy Six, he will destroy himself, and he is horrified when his superior tells him he has only a week to accomplish his task. Degree Absolute ends up stripping away everything about these characters except their core qualities. Two’s attempts to recreate Six’s past only serve to wipe them away – he’s a product of his British culture and military discipline and that ends up feeling entirely irrelevant. What we end up finding at his core is rage – rage at being told what to do, rage at expectations put upon him. Meanwhile, Two’s wacky personality and clever references end up falling away to sheer terror as he desperately tried everything possible to stay alive. The battle between these two and the mutual destruction of each other’s identities is awe-inspiring to watch. But what kept puzzling me was the feeling I couldn’t shake that I had been here before.
There are several moments in The Shield that I and others have described as feeling like they take place in some divine space. The one I always think of in this context is in the scene where Shane and Lem talk right before Shane delivers Danny’s baby; watching it makes me feel like I’m peering into a higher plane of existence. But there are other scenes like this – the arguments between Vic and Shane that finish off “On Tilt” and “Chasing Ghosts”, Dutch’s conversation with Falks, and most of all Vic’s confession at the end of “Possible Kill Screen”. Like many, I’ve always struggled to find the word for this despite thinking it was the coolest thing ever, and now it’s clear: these scenes take place in Degree Absolute. I can even see now that there are scenes which do not take place in Degree Absolute but in which it seems to emerge unbidden; I think especially of Dutch in “Of Mice And Lem”, observing that Claudette chose not to trust him and that this attitude would serve her well in her position as Captain. It has the same feeling as Shane and Lem’s conversation and the same feeling as “Once Upon A Time”, just on a smaller scale. I also realised that El Rey of The Getaway – seen only in the novel and not in either filmed adaptation – is in the same place, although it’s a much more nightmarish neighbourhood. El Rey is where a survivor ends up, a place stripped of everything beyond the will to survive. Degree Absolute is a place of no pretense or illusions, and sometimes that can be horrifying and sometimes it can be wonderful. It’s the logical end step to a motivation.