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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Review: “The Merchant” (spoilers)

October 10, 2011 1 comment

“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.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S5) Reviews: “A Ghost Story”/”The Party” (spoilers)

October 10, 2011 1 comment

“A Ghost Story”: We open with a cliched creepy setting: a thunderstorm at night, a big creaky mansion.  A teenage boy thinks he sees someone at his window.  His grandfather Justin Bainbridge (Andrew Duggan) follows the sound of footsteps to the attic and finds his son Howard (Frank Farmer), a defector who’s been working on nerve gas behind the Iron Curtain.  He says he was lethally exposed in a lab accident and wants to be with his son in the time he has left.  The elder Bainbridge refuses to let his traitorous son anywhere near the boy, and he strikes Howard down and buries him in the grounds of his massive estate.  The IMF’s bosses deduce this (maybe they followed Howard to the mansion and he never left), but as Jim is told in a stock tape scene, they don’t know where the body is hidden.  They need Howard’s corpse since it contains the only known sample of Howard’s deadly nerve gas formula (and is thus the only chance of developing an antidote, I suppose).  The mission is to find out where Justin buried the body — and since it’s stateside, there’s no line about disavowal.  Cue titles, and it’s a Willy episode.

In the apartment, Barney explains plans to insert mini-speakers in Bainbridge’s ears and use lasers to create holographic ghosts.  Jim explains that Bainbridge is a crypto-fascist whose all-around nastiness probably drove his son to defect, and that BB’s head of security Sandler (William Smith) is an agent for “the East” who’s also searching for the formula.  No shortage of bad guys to contend with.  Still, Jim explains that while BB isn’t the type to believe in ghosts, Jim’s counting on his guilty conscience.

Jim assumes the role of tutor for Bainbridge’s grandson, Paul (Anthony Norwalk, whose only IMDb credit is this episode), while the rest of the team sneaks into an abandoned bunker on the grounds as their base of operations.  When Sandler’s security troops — whom Bainbridge will later proudly compare to Nazi stormtroopers — drag in Paul, saying he was somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, Sandler is about to strike the boy when Jim intervenes.  Later, Bainbridge explains to Jim that Paul should be taught absolute obedience and enthusiastically recommends corporal punishment.  While BB goes on about the merits of fascism, Jim slips a holographic disk in his drink, giving BB a vision of Howard within the wineglass before it dissolves.  That night, Jim lets Barney and Willy in through a secret panel, and they gas BB through his bedroom keyhole a la The Prisoner and implant the mini-speakers in his ears (shouldn’t they have brought Doug along for that?) while Barney sets up the holoprojector lasers camouflaged as bedknobs.  After Jim shows them out, he hears Paul’s laughter from the attic.  After Paul goes back to his room, Jim goes up to investigate and an unseen assailant karate-chops him and sends him down the stairs.  Jim is found by the housekeeper, Mrs. Cunningham.  Actually it’s Mrs. Foster, but she’s played by Marion Ross of Happy Days.  Mrs. C seems kind of smitten with Jim, though now he’s all business as he goes back up to the attic and finds nothing.

Barney goes to work on BB, giving him auditory and visual hallucinations, first just a heartbeat, then Howard’s voice, then the hologram of Howard begging BB to burn his body to set him free.  Eventually he calls his doctor, but Dana intercepts the call and claims that doctor is on vacation, so Dr. Paris substitutes and tells BB that he’s suffering from a guilty conscience and treatment would involve purging himself of his source of guilt.  Remember how last time I complained that there was no reason for Doug to be in “The Catafalque” instead of Willy?  Well, the reverse is true here.  It should’ve been Doug who implanted the ear speakers and played the doctor role later on.

Willy plants a photo of Dana on an oboe stand in the attic, and a tape of oboe playing lures BB to find it; it’s signed with the name of Paul’s French mother, who died in childbirth without BB ever meeting her.  Dana later appears as a ghost, again urging BB to burn Howard to free his spirit.  That does the trick — BB goes rushing off to dig up the body.  Jim and Willy follow him, but Dana decides to stay and make sure Paul is safe.  She finds him in the attic — and Howard is there with him!

At first I thought this was enemy agent Sandler in a mask, but then we see that BB can’t find Howard’s body in his shallow grave, and when Jim confronts him, Sandler arrives and demands to know the location of the corpse.  They fight, and Sandler knocks out or kills BB (this is unclear), who falls back into the grave.  Willy then knocks out Sandler.  The surprise twist, as Howard explains to Dana, is that he wasn’t really dead, and luckily the grave was shallow enough for him to escape (he says BB was always in a hurry to get rid of him).  He’s the one Paul’s been laughing with in the attic, the one who karate-chopped Jim.  But then Mrs. C shows up and points a gun at Howard!  She’s a spy too!  She and Howard fight on the stairs, and he takes a fall but survives, while she tries to run and is caught by Barney.  Jim arrives and Howard says Paul likes him and told Howard to trust him.   All Howard wants is to spend his remaining time with his son, but Jim convinces him that if he gives up the nerve gas formula, there’s a chance the government can develop a cure.  So they go off together in a surprisingly happy ending.

Overall this would’ve been a pretty unremarkable episode for the most part.  They’ve done fake hauntings before.  But the elements of mystery enhance it, and that last-act twist is really clever.  The relationship between Jim and the boy, what little we get of it, is a nice humanizing touch, and it’s really nice to see Jim achieve the final victory by convincing a man to trust him rather than by playing a mean trick on somebody.  So although it takes a while getting there, the episode is ultimately very satisfying.  It’s also the second episode in a row to feature a new score, a rarity this late in a season.  Benny Golson (“Flip Side”) returns and provides a score with eerie and avant-garde elements to fit the tone of the story — not really my cup of tea, but at least it isn’t stock music.

“The Party”: Col. Alexander Vanin (Frank Marth) of the Eastern European People’s Republic (hey, our first People’s Republic of the season!) makes a call to his wife, Director Olga Vanin (Antoinette Bower, one of the guest female agents from season 4), and has her memorize the numbers 12, 45, 72.  American agents then close in on him and catch him after a rooftop chase (which is inappropriately scored by a stock cue built around “The Plot,” a motif that ideally should only be used for the IMF’s operations).  But he won’t talk.  The tape briefing, which Jim gets at a shop of some sort (I didn’t really notice, but it’s not stock), explains that Vanin, now in prison for espionage (it must be months after the previous scene), has self-hypnotized himself to forget the location and contents of a microfilm he hid before his arrest.  The mission is to retrieve the film.  The credits list Peter Lupus, but both Willy and Doug are in the episode, for only the second time.  The plan involves infiltrating a party at the EEPR consulate (in LA, apparently) in honor of the republic’s 25th birthday.  It also involves a fake bomb with a live detonator, since the consulate security chief Valenkoff (Arthur Batanides) is a demolitions expert who needs to believe it’s real.

With the cooperation of the prison warden, Jim and Doug play EEPR agents sent to repatriate Vanin in a prisoner swap, and to question why he’s deemed so unimportant as to be swappable.  Did he talk to the Americans?  Meanwhile, Paris flies to the EEPR, where Olga returned following Vanin’s arrest, and poses as an intelligence agent to get Olga to come to the US to help determine whether her husband talked, telling her that her luggage is already at the airport and she needs to leave in an hour.  She heads out so promptly that her diligent aide discovers too late that Paris’s credentials don’t check out, and Dana runs interference to make sure he doesn’t reach Olga with the information.

Prison guard/spy Fitzgerald (Robert Sampson) reports to the consul Mishenko (Alfred Ryder) that Jim and Doug interrogated Vanin for hours on suspicion that he talked.  Mishenko gets a little meta when he wonders why American agents would go to such “extreme, even absurd lengths” to convince Vanin he’s being repatriated — and he orders Vanin killed.  But Jim and Doug don’t give him a chance.  They clear Vanin and take him to the consulate, and Vanin is pleased that they’re just in time for the anniversary reception.  (And I keep forgetting to mention this, but Sam Elliott was absolutely dreadful at doing foreign accents.)

But Willy has snuck Barney into the embassy inside a load of spirits for the party, and Barney’s planted the bomb, set off an alarm, and let himself get captured, pretending to be a Cuban terrorist.  Valenkoff tells Mishenko he can’t disarm the bomb, so Mishenko orders everyone evacuated from the consulate — except Barney, to disarm it, and Valenkoff, to guard him.  Then — this is kinda awesome — Willy and Dana sneak a whole troupe of fake party guests through the sewers into the building, and Dana really seems to be enjoying herself as she gets everything ready and cues the performers in to their roles.  Willy then goes up and works with several hired drivers and a traffic light controller to block Mishenko’s view of the consulate when the limos carrying the respective Vanins and the team members arrive.  Vanin is really enjoying himself, but wonders why Mishenko and his wife are missing on such an occasion. Dana, playing the new protocol attache, says they’ve been called to Washington so the ambassador can chastise Mishenko for filing biased reports that accused Vanin of talking.

Then Olga arrives and the couple has a happy reunion.  The party goes on, complete with saber dances and accordion music (but no composer credit, so maybe they’re traditional public-domain pieces).  But a fallen chair accidentally knocks open a vent that lets Valenkoff hear the party noises from the basement.  He locks Barney in with the bomb and goes up to investigate, but fortunately Olga has just led Vanin into the study to talk.  And we get a hoary old fakeout cliffhanger where the threat of Valenkoff holding a gun on the partygoers is resolved five seconds into the new act by a karate chop from Doug.  Paris goes down to fake Valenkoff’s voice on the walkie-talkie to Mishenko, assuring him that Barney’s almost done disarming the bomb (although he’s not sure that’s the case, and the real detonator charge could kill them).  It’s unlikely that Paris could mimic Valenkoff’s voice so perfectly after having virtually no contact with the man, but it works.  The bomb is disarmed, and Mishenko begins to return.

The Vanins are discussing their future, hoping to be posted together in Europe as they were in America; they’re really a loving couple.  But they realize the party noises have stopped.  They find the consulate empty, except for the returning Mishenko, who explains how they’ve been duped by the Americans.  Since the ruse is apparently over, Mishenko is convinced that Vanin talked.  To prove that he didn’t, Vanin has Olga tell him the numbers to trigger his repressed memory.  He blurts out that it’s the number of a bus where he hid the microfilm, but Mishenko shushes him, saying the Americans had plenty of time to plant bugs.  And of course the team heard everything, so when the EEPR folks reach the bus garage, they find the film missing.  Mishenko is about to shoot Vanin for his failure, and in earlier seasons the team would’ve let him.  But now, they come in and hold Mishenko at gunpoint while they take Vanin away to serve out the rest of his prison sentence.  Mishenko gently asks Jim to let the EEPR have him — “We’ll take good care of him.”  Jim says they can have him in about 19 years, then he nods politely and leaves.  It’s a fascinatingly collegial atmosphere between the two, not animosity but respect from one professional to another.

Another strong episode from writer Harold Livingston.  It’s always cool when the antagonists are aware of the team’s actions and barely a step behind them rather than being totally in the dark; Mishenko is an effectively smart adversary.  And I love the recursive structure: the endgame of the caper depends on what the marks do after they discover the caper.  They think the scam is over, but there’s another hidden layer of the scam.  I also enjoy the warmth between the Vanins.  It’s nice when the show is willing to depict antagonistic characters in a sympathetic light.  Also, this has got to be the most festive IMF caper ever, revolving so much around a lively party.  It gives it an unusual and refreshing tone.  Except for Doug’s accent, this one is solid all around.

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