MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “The Innocent”/”Homecoming” (spoilers)
“The Innocent”: No tape at all this time; the cold open drops us right into the middle of a mission at the Interoco chemical company in a nameless Mideastern country, as Barney and Willy break into a vault containing barrels of “Dehominant-A” (like a defoliant, but for people) while trying to break into a computer room next door. But Willy’s a little clumsy and inadvertently opens the valve on one of the barrels, and Barney steps in the highly toxic chemical, which paralyzes his leg. Willy tries to get him past the guard, claiming a sprained ankle, but a doctor shows up and realizes Barney’s been exposed. Willy knocks out the guard and the doctor, but not before the alarm is sounded. Barney can hardly move, so he tells Willy to get away and tell Jim. Cut to the main titles — featuring a whole new arrangement of the main title theme, with very different percussion. We also get a new composer contributing the incidental score, Harry Geller (no known relation to M:I creator Bruce Geller), who does a decent job in a more conventional style than the previous two episodes have featured. No idea if he’s responsible for the new theme arrangement.
We see the rest of the team (except Jim) worrying about Barney — and among them, with no introduction or explanation, is the newest semi-regular, Dr. Doug Robert (Sam Elliott, who is not yet listed in the main titles). Jim comes in and tells them he’s spoken to Washington; the mission must go ahead regardless of Barney’s status. The local government and their implicitly Soviet backers are only hours from completing a new, deadlier Dehominant-B and unleashing it on a neighboring country. Jim has a new plan, but with Barney out of commission, they have to recruit the only other person in the country able to reprogram Interoco’s computer: Jerry Carlin (Christopher Connelly), who’s brilliant but a “dropout” — not in the collegiate sense, but in the “turn on, tune in” sense, a hippie-type who’s turned his back on the system. Dana tries to recruit him by honestly telling him what’s at stake, but he’s not about to help The Man with his petty international power squabbles, and when she falls back on plan B — offering money — he rejects that too. Later, Paris and Doug arrive at Jerry’s place as local cops who plant heroin on Jerry’s girlfriend and arrest her; Paris then reveals himself to Jerry as an enemy agent who blackmails Jerry into going along with the IMF’s plan as their mole on the inside, in exchange for his girl’s freedom. Jerry has no choice.
So the team, plus one, breaks in through the cooling pipes, with Paris and Doug wearing gas masks to hide from Jerry. The folks in the plant choose that moment to flood the pipes with seawater, so the team has to run to get out in time, which they barely do. Then they do the usual M:I stuff; Paris cuts into the pneumatic message-tube system to deliver fake IDs to the file room for later, and Jim calls up the dehominant’s creator Dr. Vazan (a toupeed, barely recognizable Robert Ellenstein), pretending to be a colleague interested in his pesticide research and setting up an interview with a colleague (Dana). Jim then briefs Jerry on the computer he has to hack. The cynical Jerry doesn’t see much difference between Their weapons and Our weapons, and Jim’s reassurances that they intend to destroy the dehominant rather than using it fall on deaf ears. But Jim says that doesn’t matter, since they have a deal. But when Paris and Doug come in, Jerry realizes he’s been had and sounds the alarm. The team hides in the furnace and muffles Jerry’s cries until the searchers leave the room, and then they tie Jerry up and try to proceed without him.
Dana arrives to interview Vazan, while Paris dons a Vazan mask. The familiar M:I routine is mocked by Jerry, who says the mask won’t fool anyone. He asks Paris why they’re bothering to do this. Paris says there are a lot of reasons, but the simplest one is that they’ve got a friend a hundred feet away who’ll be dead in 20 minutes if they don’t help him. That gives Jerry pause to think.
Once Dana manages to get rid of the hyper-paranoid implicitly-Soviet agent Orlov (Larry Linville in his third M:I role, acting more Linvillesque than ever), she sticks a knockout-needle ring into Vazan’s neck — and Lesley Ann Warren gets this scary-ruthless look on her face that makes it clear you do not want to mess with this woman. Willy brings in a collapsible filing cabinet that was hidden under Dana’s car, and they use it to sneak Paris into Vazan’s office and the real Vazan out. So Paris-Vazan goes to interrogate the dying Barney and slips an earpiece into his ear so Jim can tell him what to confess — which is that the two guys currently manning the computer are his accomplices. Then Barney fake-dies and Vazan orders him taken to the autopsy room where the team is hiding. Doug manages to pull Barney back from the brink, but he’s in no condition to take on the computer, and with Jerry unreliable, Jim is willing to risk doing it himself. But Jerry’s figured out that he won’t survive unless they do, so he agrees to help them, getting some instructions from Barney. (And among the caged lab animals used to test the bioweapons, there’s a cute little white kitten! How dare they hurt a kitten! They must be bad guys!)
Orlov arrests the innocent computer techs (well, not innocent, since they’re complicit in making a chemical WMD and being mean to kittens), giving Paris-Vazan an excuse to bring in Jim and Jerry as the new techs, using the credentials Paris planted earlier to placate Orlov. We then get to see how Jerry uses his advanced computer skills to accomplish the intricate programming task that nobody but he and Barney could’ve accomplished, which is done by… pressing three buttons. He then deletes the formula by pressing two more buttons, which don’t correspond in the slightest to the procedure Barney explained to him. This is intensely anticlimactic. Explain again why Jim couldn’t do this?
So Jim hands Paris-Vazan a note saying “Split,” and there’s a funny line where Paris-Vazan shows Orlov the folded note and says “Read this and you’ll see what our next step is,” then TV-karate-chops him unconscious. The three of them walk out casually, joined by Willy, and head for the exit. But standing at the guard post is the guard from the teaser, chatting to his friend about how he was just about to let the spy go when the doctor showed up, and then someone knocked him out from behind! And then he looks over and there’s Willy standing right next to him. And the poor schmo gets knocked out by Willy again, and the team makes a break for it, rendezvousing with Dana, who’s brought Jerry’s girlfriend for a happy reunion and concluding driveaway.
Well, first off, after the season opened with two stateside crime-related stories, it’s good to see they haven’t abandoned overseas espionage stories yet. And it’s also great to see how determined they are to shake up, deconstruct, and reinvent the formula of the past few seasons. Just about everything I liked about the early first season is back with a vengeance: stories driven by character interaction with the guest team member, stories where things go seriously wrong with the mission, moments of humor, the works. We even get to see the characters make mistakes, unlike previous seasons where the only things that (rarely) went wrong were due to outside factors. Barney only got poisoned and captured because Willy didn’t watch what he was doing. And we get to see them being morally ambiguous when they use dirty tricks to maneuver Jerry into cooperating. And it’s intriguing to see a story in which the characters have to work with someone who doesn’t want to be part of the mission. It really brings a fresh slant to things.
Moreover, I have a feeling that Jerry was meant to be a surrogate for the members of the 1970 viewing audience who were growing suspicious of authority and less inclined to identify with a bunch of government spies playing dirty tricks on other countries. And maybe also for those viewers who’d simply gotten tired of the formulaic, dehumanized storytelling and the implausible gimmicks like the masks. Jerry questioned the team’s legitimacy and mocked their methods the way a critical audience member might, and this episode was the show’s way of trying to win those viewers over, to convince them it was still worth caring about these people and believing in what they did. And it did a good job at it too.
“Homecoming”: No tape, no mission. Jim is back in his hometown, reflecting on his past; we see a worn-out sign for “A. Phelps and Son Boat Rental,” and Jim has memories of himself as a child with his father back when the sign was more intact. (This flashback will self-destruct in five seconds.) He’s mending a fence on the edge of his family property when an old friend, Connie (Sharon Acker), drives by and waves hi. Not far down the road, her tire blows out, and her spare is punctured. A creepy voice whispers “Pretty girl” from the bushes and calls her by name; she sees someone with thick glasses hiding in the brush and runs back toward Jim, screaming. He hears the screams and runs to intercept, but before he can get to her, we get the main titles, which are back to using the old theme arrangement. Anyway, he scares off the assailant and finds Connie half-strangled.
Back in town, the townsfolk are harassing Norville County sheriff Brad Owen (Joe Maross) about his inability to catch the person who’s killed two women and nearly killed a third. They call for Brad’s resignation, but Jim points out that wouldn’t solve the real problems, which are that the department is understaffed and has no crime lab. Afterward, Jim is interviewed by reporter Stan (Jack Donner), who seems a little too inquisitive about Connie and happens to be wearing thick glasses. But we quickly find he’s not the only suspect; the deputy has thick glasses too. Which makes it odd that Connie’s willing to accept his guardianship until she can get out of town at Sheriff Brad’s suggestion (because her tires were intentionally punctured; she was targeted). Then there’s Seth (Frank Webb), the young, PTSD-suffering Vietnam vet who also wears thick glasses. Jim is in the bar belonging to old friend Midge (Loretta Swit), who fills him in on how Seth was the only survivor of his unit and came back troubled. Suspecting him, Jim acts friendly to sound him out, but one of the locals, Joe (Fred Beir), picks a fight with Seth, during which an earpiece breaks off his glasses.
Later, Connie sneaks out on the deputy to meet with Joe, her lover (he’s married), but she gets killed and Seth’s earpiece is found at the scene. This leads Jim and Brad to Seth’s home, where they find a list with the names of the three victims — all single women living alone — plus two other women who are married. It’s enough to put out an APB on Seth. Meanwhile, Jim calls in Barney in the role of a criminologist (and it’s suprising for an engineer to suddenly manifest CSI skills), and has the other team members standing by. We see them at a party thrown by Dana; apparently they all socialize together (and Paris plays the piano). Dana spends the first half of the episode in backless dresses, as if to make it even more obvious than usual that she doesn’t wear a bra. Thank you, the ’70s!
Seth breaks into Jim’s place, clearly confused about whether he’s at home or in ‘Nam, and Jim talks him into coming with him to the sheriff’s office to make a statement about how the real murderers are the townsfolk who sent him off to kill. This lets Brad get the drop on him and put him in a cell, but Barney’s convinced the killer is someone short with small hands and feet, much smaller than Seth. Also Jim remembers that the glasses earpiece broke off in the bar before the murder; anyone could’ve picked it up. Brad and the townsfolk are convinced it’s Seth, though, so Jim needs to call in the rest of the team. Dana comes in and applies for the waitress job at Midge’s, with the intention of making herself fit the victims’ common profile — which basically comes down to flirting with Joe, who had affairs with all three victims (as Joe’s wife ultimately confesses to Jim) and is starting to look like a suspect.
But the townsfolk are ready to lynch Seth, leading Jim to make some Timely Social Commentary about how we sent our kids off to kill in Vietnam and turned on them when they came home. Then Willy and a couple of extras (maybe from one of last season’s repertory companies?) sneak into the jailhouse to break out our Rambo-lite in a coffin that’s supposedly holding Connie’s body. With the supposed killer on the loose, it’s a perfect opportunity for the killer to strike, and Dana’s the obvious target, at least after Paris comes into the bar as her drunk ex-boyfriend and blurts out to all the suspects that she spent the night with Joe (which is apparently not true). Jim and Barney already happened to get themelves deputized as a delaying tactic while Willy snuck out Seth, so they work together to stake out Dana and catch the killer. So Dana’s tending bar and the three men watch as the patrons gradually leave, and finally Midge leaves Dana to close up and tend to the last customer, heavy-glasses-wearing Stan. She goes downstairs to get a new bottle of booze for Stan, and the whispery killer whispers at her and then attacks her. Luckily, one of Jim’s childhood flashbacks that we’ve been seeing throughout the episode kicks in, and he remembers a tomboyish girl who beat the boys at sports. He rushes in just in time to pull the killer off Dana — and it’s Midge! Motivated by her unrequited love of Joe and her jealousy of all the unworthy tramps he slept with. (And no, I can’t tell what they see in the guy.)
So this is yet another attempt to do something new with the show, humanizing Jim by delving into his past. (We learn he was a high-school football star, he served in the Navy, and he takes his coffee black.) It’s the first episode of the series where he never assumes a false identity. It’s also a clear attempt to bring some social relevance into the show, in contrast to the spy-vs.-spy fantasy world of past seasons. It’s interesting that such a radical format-breaker is written by Laurence Heath, who’s been a regular writer for the show since the first season. Unfortunately, it’s the least effective episode of this revisionist season so far. The murder mystery is a bit clunky, and Jim’s frequent flashbacks to childhood (and child Jim had a creepy-looking grin) are seriously corny. The musical score by Robert Prince (another composer who, like Harry Geller, had previously worked with M:I producer Bruce Lansbury on The Wild Wild West) is mixed, with a lot of very hokey ’70s easy-listening stuff, although there are a couple of strong jazzy moments, particularly when Connie is murdered. And Jim doth protest too much, methinks; there are too many times where he makes a point of going, “Well, I’m just a simple country guy who doesn’t understand any of these law-enforcement matters, but here’s exactly what you need to do.” And I don’t know… even though I’ve found this season’s eagerness to break with formula refreshing, this one departs a little too much from feeling like a Mission: Impossible episode. Murder mysteries, small-town drama and intrigue, Vietnam commentary… it’s the sort of thing a lot of other shows could do, and the M:I-style roleplaying and schemery is a minor component. It almost seems like a script written for another show and adapted to fit this one.