MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S2) Reviews: “The Town”/”The Killing”
“The Town”: As usual, we open with Jim driving his big blue convertible, but wait! There’s music and onscreen credits! And instead of finding a tape somewhere, Jim pulls into a small-town gas station just off the freeway and starts chatting with the attendant. In the first season, this could’ve been an exchange of code phrases prior to getting the message, but that hasn’t been done (at least not audibly) in this season, and it goes on way too long. This time, it’s not spy stuff. Jim is on vacation, heading up to the mountains to do some deer hunting with a friend. He goes into the pharmacy/diner to get a bite to eat, and a good-looking young couple, Jan and Marty (Brioni Farrell and Robert Pickering), come in to pick up something the (very cute) clerk has waiting for them. Jan trips and falls, causing a gas gun to fall out of her bag and spew bright blue smoke like something out of a Batman episode. Jim helps get her and everyone else out into the fresh air, but is surprised when the local lawman pulls a gun on him. It seems everyone in town is in on something nasty. They take Jim captive and escort him to Doc (Grandpa Walton himself, Will Geer), who’s leading a briefing about an upcoming assassination which will send a message to “other defectors.” While Doc discusses the matter of Jim with his henchman, the gas station attendant Williams (Eddie Ryder), the briefing is continued by an assistant (William O’Connell, who played another spy in Star Trek‘s “Journey to Babel”), and Jim overhears some important code phrases. Apparently the idea involves making the target’s death look like a fatal fall in the tub; it’s unclear where the gas gun comes in. It seems this is a whole town of implicitly Soviet agents who’ve successfully infiltrated the States. Since Jim was going to meet a friend, Doc decides they can’t just kill him. He has another plan…
Up at the lodge, we see that it was Rollin whom Jim planned to meet, and he’s troubled that Jim’s late and hasn’t called. Backtracking, he comes into town just as Jan and Marty leave and recognizes Jim’s car at the gas station. Doc tells Rollin that Jim has had a stroke, is unable to speak, and is likely to die. They’ve actually got him paralyzed with curare, but Rollin doesn’t know that yet. Martin Landau’s performance as a Rollin who really thinks his friend is dying is superb, full of much deeper emotion than he ever shows when he’s playing Rollin playing someone else. In short, Martin Landau is a better actor than Rollin Hand.
To build suspense, the scenes in the town are intercut with scenes of Marty and Jan driving relentlessly closer to Los Angeles, accompanied by pulse-pounding Gerald Fried music from “Trek.” Really an awful lot of footage of a car driving along the freeway, but it’s surprisingly effective. Meanwhile, Rollin is keeping vigil over Jim, and reading a newspaper revealing that a prominent Soviet rocket scientist who’s defected to the US is in LA. We see that he must be the target, but Rollin’s still in the dark. Meanwhile, we hear voiceovers of Jim’s thoughts as, trapped in a paralyzed body, he struggles to communicate something to Rollin. It’s refreshing and effective to see Jim so helpless and desperate, Rollin so clueless. Usually the team is completely on top of the situation, with implausibly thorough knowledge of enemy plans and psychology and a strategy for every contingency. The obstacles they face generally crop up fifteen seconds before a commercial break and are resolved fifteen seconds after the break ends. It’s not very suspenseful that way, and sometimes the team is so completely in control that you feel sorry for the hapless people they’re scamming. But here there’s genuine suspense and distress.
Eventually, Rollin realizes that Jim is blinking an SOS. He asks the nurse to go get a cup of coffee and tells Jim to use Captain Pike code, one blink for yes, two for no. Once Rollin learns enough to know it’s a trap, he has to improvise a plan on the spot. He asks whether they’ve called Jim’s wife, and when it turns out they didn’t know he was married, he asks to contact her himself. Knowing the call will be bugged, he calls Cinnamon and asks for “Mrs. Phelps.” She catches on and answers in character. He tells her her “husband” is very ill and may not pull through. He asks her to come at once and hire a chauffeur, since she’ll be too distraught to drive. And he asks after her baby and says he looks forward to seeing “Little Willy” soon. Oh, and to bring some of Rollin’s “things” along with her.
So the team mobilizes quickly, figuring out what to do even with such little information. Barney arrives as the chauffeur hired by Cinnamon. Shortly thereafter, Willy comes in as a trucker who has a breakdown just outside Doc’s house. Willy fakes an injury trying to fix his truck (with some ludicrously bright fake blood), and Chauffeur Barney helps him over to Doc’s house. (I guess it’s reasonable that they could’ve deduced this was what they needed to do. Since Jim was being held by a doctor, they needed an excuse to get the whole team in there.) Once inside, the team overpowers Doc and his nurse, and Rollin can openly interrogate Jim using Morse-code blinks. Jim warns them that “Man woman killers” are heading to Los Angeles (why couldn’t he just blink “LA”?) to kill the scientist/defector. The team figures out that they have to stop the assassination and get Jim out safely even with the whole town against them.
Naturally, this being M:I, it involves Rollin impersonating Doc. Here’s where the plausibility breaks down. What Rollin said to Cinnamon about bringing his “things” seems to have been forgotten; instead, they MacGyver up a makeup kit from the gear in Doc’s office. (Well, Cinnamon does bring a wig and some white dye, but that’s it.) The most implausible part is that they melt down a clear plastic sterile sheet from the surgical bed, which comes out of the process as white latex, and then emerges from the plaster mold of Doc’s face as a perfect flesh-colored mask.
In LA, the assassins have arrived in their hotel, and Marty calls Doc (Great Scott!) for clearance to proceed with the assassination. Rollin, without even practicing first, pulls off a perfect Grandpa Walton impression and gives them the code phrase (courtesy of Jim) meaning to wait. Donning the completed Doc mask, Rollin tells Williams to let Trucker Willy leave town unharmed (though for some reason he phrases this as “Get rid of the truck driver,” and for some reason Williams understands that to mean “Let him leave safely,” in defiance of every tenet of Henchman English 101). Doc Rollie-day then fakes killing Jim and calls in a hearse to take him and the others out. Willy’s already called the cops in on Marty and Jan, and now they’re just waiting for the signal to move in on the town. Rollin calls a town meeting to go over their failure, which is really just an excuse to get all the spies in one place so the cops can move in on them, which they do in force while Rollin pulls off the mask and rejoins his team, including the recuperating Jim. The episode ends exactly as the series pilot did, with a zoom-in on the discarded mask lying on the ground.
Despite its credibility issues (which are no worse than usual for this show), this is just about the most interesting episode of the season so far. It’s a stretch that secret agent Jim Phelps should just happen to stumble across a spy ring while on vacation, but it’s refreshing to see the team taken by surprise and having to improvise like this. There was an attempt to do the same in “The Condemned” two episodes earlier, but it wasn’t as effective. It was also refreshing to see the team members showing some genuine emotion and being themselves in a crisis rather than just in the apartment briefing. That happened far more in the first season — the team members breaking character, letting us see them as they really were. Sometimes it was in extended preparation sequences as in “Memory” or behind-the-scenes out-of-character moments as in “Old Man Out.” Sometimes it was because the need for deception was past and the team confronted the enemies directly, as in the climax of the pilot. Sometimes it was because they spent more time interacting with fellow spies than having to role-play, as in “Elena.” But in the second season, it’s been almost unheard-of for us to see the team ever drop character in any substantive way outside the apartment briefing. That’s why it’s refreshing to have episodes like “The Condemned” and “The Town,” and no doubt why they did a lot more “non-mission” episodes like this in the seasons to come, but it makes the run-of-the-mill episodes rather flat and formulaic by contrast.
“The Killing”: And now, back to the flat and formulaic. In stock footage, Jim is assigned to the case of Bert Gordon (Gerald S. O’Loughlin), a mob assassin for hire, or rather assassin contractor. He never gets close enough to the killings to be linked to them, and he always gets rid of the bodies in his incinerator, or rather his henchman Connie (Roy Jensen, aka Cloud William in Star Trek‘s “The Omega Glory”) does, so there’s no hard evidence of the murders. The team must incriminate him and put a stop to his business.
Given that setup, the scheme is surprisingly domestic — and oddly unearthly. Gordon’s superstitious, so the IMF team sets up one of their patented supernatural scams. Somehow, Jim and Cinnamon arrange to move in next door to Gordon, playing a married couple, and invite him over for a get-to-know-you dinner along with Jim’s “brother” Rollin. (Whose character name is Douglas, but there’s a scene where I’d swear Cinnamon calls him “Dan” and “Danny.”) Jim’s a surly drunk, but the others are more concerned about the ghost of their dead brother Bobby, who shows up and poltergeists around from time to time, including during dinner. But this haunting is taken rather in stride, and once Rollin puts Jim to bed and leaves, Cinnamon gets seductive with Gordon, saying she knows who he is and wants him to kill her husband. Gordon sensibly denies everything, but Jim is outside taking pictures of their makeout session. The next day, he barges in on them in Gordon’s home and attacks Gordon, forcing Connie to stab him to death.
Not to worry, though; Jim’s wearing the latest fashion from the house of Collier, a heavy sweater with several layers of body armor and fake blood in the lining. Connie takes the “body” to the incinerator, and how a professional killer fails to notice that the corpse he’s carrying still has a pulse and respiration is unexplained. Just as implausibly, Connie throws Jim into the incinerator’s active flame, which must be hot enough to cremate human bodies completely, and yet Jim’s totally unharmed when Barney and Willy help him climb out the back.
Anyway, during dinner the previous night, Barney and Willy broke into Gordon’s house to gimmick it up. Now, using special-effects equipment, they fake wind, thunder, and lightning, and Cinnamon shows up at Gordon’s house claiming that Jim is haunting her, or rather hunting her down. Barney’s gimmicks fake spectral visitations in Gordon’s house. Willy breaks back in upstairs and makes noises, then knocks out Connie when he comes to investigate and puts a fast-dissolving Jim mask on him. They set it up so a spooked Gordon thinks he’s seeing Jim’s ghost, or Jim brought back to life, or something, so he picks up a rifle and fires repeatedly. The mask dissolves and he sees he’s killed Connie. Jim calls the cops and the team heads off as sirens wail.
As the quick recap shows, this was a pretty ordinary episode without much of anything noteworthy about it. The most interesting part was the glimpse of the device used to simulate lightning flashes in those days, a pyrotechnic thing that shot out a geyser of smoke and very bright flame, maybe some kind of magnesium flare. Otherwise a forgettable episode, and quite a letdown after “The Town.”