MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Review: “The Merchant” (spoilers)
“The Merchant”: The season finale is our second Harold Livingston script in a row. Unusually for this season, we open with the tape briefing, which Jim gets in a pharmacy that I’m pretty sure is the same pharmacy set from “Hunted” (it even says “Chemist” on the window, consistent with the faux-British culture of that episode). It was probably filmed during production of that episode. The mission is to stop arms dealer Armand Anderssarian (George Sanders) from making a major purchase of millions of dollars’ worth of American munitions captured in Vietnam, which he plans to sell to guerrilla groups around the world. There’s no “Secretary will disavow” line, something which has only been the case with US-based episodes this year. So is it a domestic setting again? We cut to Willy watching as Jim climbs down from an office somewhere (probably the Lubitsch Building again) and gets captured by a guard dog and taken away by the guards. Willy can only watch helplessly. But is it part of the plan? I’d guess it is, but we’ll have to wait until after the titles to find out.
Turns out we’re in “The Mediterranean,” according to the caption, so the pattern with the disavowal line has been broken. In a hotel room, Barney is explaining to Dana and Paris how he’s rigged the hotel’s poker table with a playing surface that can read the face-down cards and transmit the data to his computer, with Barney then reading off the cards to Paris through the temple speakers in Paris’s glasses. Willy comes in and tells them Jim’s been captured. To prolong the suspense, we cut to Armand (he goes by his last name throughout but it’s too long to keep typing) giving Yin (James Hong) 5 million dollars as a downpayment on the arms shipment. Yin reminds him that another 5 million is due on delivery, and if he fails to make that payment, he forfeits the arms and the downpayment. Armand is fine with those terms, which will turn out to be hubris. We then come back to the team and reveal that, yes, Jim’s capture was intentional. But Willy can’t make the next step until Jim’s been interrogated for a while and refused to crack.
We then meet Armand’s mistress Nicole (Jo Morrow), whose drunkenness is becoming tiresome for Armand. She claims she needs to drink to forget about all the women and children he kills, but he reminds her of just how many children her expensive dress and jewelry cost. It’s a nicely written bit. They go down to the casino, where Dana and Paris are at the poker table as Armand joins in. The game is five-card stud, I believe (first card face-down, the rest face-up). Paris is cleaning up and Dana exceeds her limit and leaves angrily when Paris won’t accept Armand’s offer to let her play “light.” After winning one hand from Paris, Armand deals himself out and goes to the bar, where Dana brazenly flirts with him (and vice-versa) in front of mistress Nicole. Willy then approaches Armand with a card bearing an insignia in the form of a T bracketed by the Nazi SS symbol. He says he was sent by the man who wore a ring with the same symbol, a man Armand believed dead. (In this scene, the symbol is backward on the ring, as though it’s a stamp, but it’s forward in the next scene. I’m not sure which is the error.)
This leads Armand to the imprisoned Jim, who’s playing Tellmann, an infamous Nazi officer that once rescued Armand’s division during WWII but who Armand believed to have died in “the bunker in Berlin” (implicitly the one where Hitler died, I guess, making him close to the top). Tellmann was also famous for stealing an Allied radar installation for the Nazis to copy, and it turns out there’s a major NATO (implicitly) radar installation just across the border, so Armand intuits that Jim planned to steal its equipment. He convinces the minster of defense Sartori (Ken Drake) to release Jim so that Armand can “sponsor” his theft, i.e. pay him for stealing the equipment. They haggle and settle on 5 million dollars as Jim’s price. Armand’s henchman Leon (Jan Merlin) says that would leave Armand without the money to finish paying off Yin, but Armand has convinced the government to give him a loan.
Meanwhile, Dana makes Nicole think she’s calling Armand to invite him to her room, and later the snoopy Nicole sees Dana leaving her room and talking to someone inside (and Dana’s wearing a thin white dress with no bra underneath, and it’s rather more revealing of anatomical detail than I thought they could get away with on 1971 TV). Nicole sneaks in, expecting to find Armand there, but instead she sees Paris in the bathroom — and then notices the fancy card-cheating computer. Later, she brings Armand there, and he figures out he can adjust his hearing aid to tap into the transmitter frequency and piggyback on Paris’s cheating. This is what the team intended, but what they didn’t count on is just how bad the state of Armand and Nicole’s relationship is. She fishes for gratitude and approval for what she’s done, but Armand coldly dismisses her. You could say she’s a woman scorned.
Jim and Willy hide Leon in the back of a pseudo-Red Cross truck along with their fake mercenary extras and use sound effects to fake a drive across the border, actually going to a duplicate radar installation they’ve mocked up, manned by more friendly extras. Leon stays behind and watches while they pretend to use nerve gas to take out the guards (they made him think the gas masks were unreliable so he wouldn’t go in with them). Leon tries to double-cross them and take the components by force, but they use the nerve gas as a counter-threat and successfully get away with Armand’s $5 mil. Sartori later arrives to check out the equipment and finds it’s a fake. Armand won’t be getting that loan from the government.
So Armand needs another way to get his hands on $5 million, and since he’s winning at the poker table, he thinks he can get it from Paris. Of course, Barney has a second channel just for Paris, and the plan is to use their cheatnology to make sure Armand bets it all and loses. But wild card Nicole is now determined to ruin Armand’s cheating scheme, so she “accidentally” pours her drink on the table and shorts out the computer. Armand and Paris have to play for all the marbles with no technological help. It’s down to luck, and they’re playing a single hand, all or nothing (which doesn’t strike me as good poker strategy; my understanding is that strong poker players fold often and only play if they’ve got a strong hand). By the time the final face-up card is dealt, Armand is one card away from a royal flush (or at least a king-high straight flush) and Paris has just a pair of 7s. But both players go all-in and call. Paris’s face-down card is a third 7, and Armand’s is a 10, leaving him only with one pair. Paris wins, and Armand is ruined. Mr. Yin then shows up with the “good news” that his ship has sailed and the arms will be his on receipt of the second $5 million that he no longer has. Armand laughs loudly at how royally he’s screwed himself. The team congratulates Paris that he’s won. ”Of course,” he says. And that’s the last line Leonard Nimoy ever delivers on this series, folks.
Like several of the last few episodes of the season, this one feels more like the stuff of seasons 2 to 4 — a mission that proceeds fairly routinely, with most of the things that seem to go wrong being fakeouts that the team intended to happen or temporary setbacks that they easily resolve. The one major thing that goes wrong, Nicole sabotaging the cheatputer, is a minor variation. It does serve to create some suspense about the outcome, but unfortunately it’s not a very good type of suspense, having the outcome be a matter of pure luck rather than skill. Yes, poker is a game of skill, but as I understand it, the skill comes from, as the man sang, knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em — choosing which hands are strong enough to play and pursuing an effective betting strategy. And from being good at reading other players’ psychology and tells. Having the whole thing come down to a single all-or-nothing hand, though, takes all that away. The only remaining skill component is the ability to calculate the odds.
Although, come to think of it, maybe I’m wrong. Let’s calculate those odds. With a 10-K of diamonds, there were only two cards in the deck that could’ve gotten Armand a straight flush — the ace or 9 of diamonds. If he’d gotten a different diamond (of which there were 6 available, since Paris had one diamond), he would’ve had a flush. Anything else would’ve left Armand with either a single pair (four possibilities) or just a single high card. But with two 7s, a 2, and a jack, there were two cards (the other two sevens) that could’ve given Paris three of a kind, and 5 cards (the other three 2s and the two Js that weren’t already in play) that could’ve given him two pair. So that leaves 8 possible down cards that would’ve given Armand a winning hand, and 7 that could’ve given Paris a winning hand. Well, unless Paris was stuck with just a pair of 7s and Armand drew one pair. That would also have given Armand the victory. I don’t know quite how to calculate the probabilities, but yeah, even given the unlikelihood of a straight flush, the odds were still in Armand’s favor. But Paris still went all-in despite that.
So yes, ultimately, his victory over the bad guy did come down to random chance rather than skill, and I don’t think that’s a good way to resolve an M:I episode, let alone a season finale. This has always been a show that’s celebrated the power of meticulous planning, advanced skill, and cool professionalism. The protagonists succeed because they make their own luck, because they use their wits and abilities to make sure that seemingly uncontrollable situations play out in their favor. It was one thing in season 3′s “The Contender” to have the final outcome depend on Barney’s physical skill in a fair fight, but having it come down to which card the dealer happened to draw, something completely out of Paris’s control, doesn’t really make him seem heroic. It’s not an earned victory, just a favorable accident. If the intent was to show that Paris was a better poker player than Armand, then the way that was chosen to show it didn’t really work, because the specific situation that was chosen removed the possibility of Paris winning through skill.
Overall, then, I’d call this a fairly solid routine episode for the most part, with some enjoyable dialogue writing that elevates it in places, but a climactic twist that misfires and leaves the ending a bit unsatisfying. Which wouldn’t be so bad if it were the ending of any other episode. But this, the fifth-season finale, is the more like the end of an era. As I’ll discuss more in my season overview.