The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: “The Suburbia Affair”

Swinging bachelors Napoleon and Illya rent a home together in the bucolic suburban community of Peaceful Havens. It’s all in the name of duty: They’re searching for one Dr. Rutter, a famed Danish scientist rumored to be living in the neighborhood under an assumed name. Ten years ago, after coming up with a revolutionary formula for creating antimatter, Dr. Rutter went into hiding to prevent his discovery from falling into the wrong hands. Evil terrorist organization THRUSH has recently ramped up its efforts to get its sticky fingers on Dr. Rutter’s formula to use it for its own dastardly purposes; U.N.C.L.E. is trying to beat THRUSH to the punch by finding Dr. Rutter themselves.

Within seconds of moving in, Illya and Napoleon receive a free milk delivery from Barrows (King Moody), the friendly neighborhood milkman, who happens to work for THRUSH. The bottle is laced with deadly explosives, and… well, this happens:

There are already strong indications this is going to be a doozy of an episode.

This episode hails from deep in the murky waters of the much-reviled third season, in which the lighthearted goofiness that characterized this show from the start burgeoned into giddy nonsensicality. It’s a silly little piffle of an episode, loaded with nitwittery and unburdened by anything resembling logic or reason. Nevertheless, it’s worth a gander, if only for all the strangely sexy scenes of Napoleon and Illya doing household chores in their suits and ties and gun holsters.

Huh. I just discovered a fetish I never knew I had.

While Napoleon and Illya are embracing domestic bliss, Mr. Waverly stops by to check on the progress of their current mission. As Dr. Rutter suffers from a rare disease called Humboldt Syndrome, which can only be treated with a drug known as Dyamin, Napoleon volunteers to find out whether anyone in Peaceful Havens has a current prescription for Dyamin. Illya, meanwhile, volunteers to make a soufflé for dinner.

Don’t laugh. Illya’s valiant efforts to bake a soufflé despite countless obstacles thrown in his path will provide this episode with the closest thing it has to a resonant emotional core.

Napoleon stops by the drugstore. Posing as an employee of the nearby chemical plant, he engages the pharmacist in a not-at-all suspicious off-the-cuff chat about Dyamin. As soon as Napoleon leaves, the pharmacist, who is yet another THRUSH agent, calls his superior, Miss Witherspoon (Reta Shaw), to tattle on Napoleon. Witherspoon, a sweet little old lady, is in the middle of threatening Barrows with her knife-tipped cane for failing to blow up Napoleon and Illya. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: For all its flaws, THRUSH has an irreproachable track record of employing women of all ages and backgrounds in high-powered positions. It’s almost enough to make you overlook the rank incompetence, the gratuitous sadism, and the endless barrage of ludicrous and doomed-to-fail schemes for world domination.

Back at their new home, Illya, who is approaching his soufflé-making duties with the same grim intensity he brings to his spycraft, grows incensed when Napoleon returns from his errands without eggs. Chastened, Napoleon heads next door to forage for groceries from his neighbor, a pretty young math teacher named Betsy Wilson (Beth Brickell). While Napoleon is busy wheedling eggs out of Betsy (and smearing a thick layer of his signature charm all over her in the process), he first encounters her boarder, a shy Danish music teacher named Mr. Willoughby, who is played by legendary pianist Victor Borge.

Napoleon may a terrible spy (he is, he’s a terrible spy; that’s just a fact), but he’s not dumb. His assignment is to find a Danish scientist hiding in this small suburban community, and he’s just run across a Danish music teacher… Napoleon begins to suspect that maybe, just maybe, Mr. Willoughby is the mysterious Dr. Rutter.

To find out more about Mr. Willoughby, Napoleon invites Betsy over, under the pretense of needing her to show Illya how to make a soufflé. As Betsy helpfully gives him step-by-step instructions, Illya seethes with barely-contained hostility. “I am perfectly capable of making a simple soufflé,” he informs Betsy and Napoleon through gritted teeth.

It’s growing dark, so Napoleon switches on the overhead lights. Out of nowhere, Betsy goes berserk, attacking Napoleon and Illya with a spatula and accusing them of harassing her.

Illya and Napoleon manhandle a crazed Betsy out the door, while Mr. Willoughby rushes over to investigate the commotion. Outside, Betsy immediately becomes contrite and baffled by her sudden mood swing. Per Mr. Willoughby, everybody in the neighborhood has been experiencing random bursts of violent anger lately—in fact, an emergency community meeting has been called to address the problem.

To soothe any injured feelings, Napoleon offers to take Betsy out to dinner. Illya, who still has his heart set on making his soufflé, bristles in wounded resentment.

Back in their kitchen, Illya and Napoleon immediately start picking soufflé-related fights with each other. They soon realize they’ve fallen under the same mysterious spell that drove Betsy to momentary madness, though, honestly, they’re not behaving all that much out of the ordinary. Illya and Napoleon squabble with each other all the time. Their dynamic is built upon wisecracks and sniping, and bless them for it, because it’s the most magical thing on television, past or present.

To get to the bottom of whatever is causing all the unrest within Peaceful Havens, a still-squabbling Napoleon and Illya attend the community meeting. While this takes place, Miss Witherspoon spies on them via hidden camera. THRUSH, obviously, is behind the rash of outbursts of rage in the community: In an attempt to cause Dr. Rutter’s rare medical condition to flare up, Miss Witherspoon has (somehow) manipulated the electrical current in the overhead lights, which is making all the residents become irrationally angry.

I did warn everybody in advance that this episode is a little short on logic.

Back at home, Illya intercepts a delivery of a loaf of raisin rye bread from the local bakery. Suspecting another THRUSH trap after the milk incident, Illya plunges the loaf into a bucket of mop water, much to the consternation of Napoleon, who had, in fact, ordered the loaf. Throughout the entire series, this is Illya’s go-to method for defusing bombs: Plunge it in water and hope for the best. I’m not convinced this would actually work very well, but I’m not a globe-trotting elite super spy, so what do I know?

So Illya orders a replacement loaf for Napoleon. This time, it explodes.

Napoleon visits Mr. Willoughby and does a half-assed job of grilling him as to whether he’s actually Dr. Rutter. (Napoleon: “Are you a renowned Danish physicist in hiding?” Willoughby: “Nope, I’m just a humble music prodigy with a Danish accent. Please ignore all the physics journals lying about.” Napoleon: “Okey-dokey.”) This whole scene is really just an excuse to have Victor Borge act charming and adorable while playing the piano. I mean, fair enough. If you hire Victor Borge for a guest spot on your show, you’re going to want him to be charming and adorable while playing the piano. It’s what he does.

Mr. Willoughby—who is indeed Dr. Rutter, let’s just get that out of the way—is feeling poorly, thanks to the THRUSH-aggravated resurgence of his rare disease. When Betsy grows concerned over his health, he urges her not to tell anyone, particularly Napoleon, about his condition. Instead of telling her the truth, he spins a bizarre web of lies about how he’s wanted for trigamy in Prague, and how he suspects Napoleon is a policeman sent to arrest him: “That Mr. Solo looks a little Czechoslovakian to me.” He sends her to the pharmacy to get a prescription for Dyamin, urging her not to let the pharmacist know it’s for him.

At the pharmacy, Betsy lies to the pharmacist and claims the Dyamin is for Mr. Barkley, the community’s garrulous realtor. Let’s not dwell for too long on the obvious question as to how Betsy could waltz into a pharmacy and pick up the drug without a prescription, shall we? On the long list of improbable occurrences in this episode, this ranks fairly low. The pharmacist calls Miss Witherspoon and tells her that Barkley is Dr. Rutter. Napoleon and Illya eavesdrop on the call, thanks to a bug Napoleon planted during his earlier pharmacy visit.

They’re bringing their usual level of enthusiasm and consummate professionalism to the task.

Now convinced Barkley is Dr. Rutter, Illya hitches an ice cream truck to the trailer Barkley uses as his office, intending to tow him out of Peaceful Havens. This is one of Illya’s least well-planned schemes, and that’s saying a lot. A horde of THRUSH goons, who are also inexplicably driving an ice cream truck, follow Illya in hot pursuit. A gunfight ensues, which ends when Illya is knocked unconscious by an ice cream bar to the head.

Yeah. I know. Earlier in this scene, Illya’s truck also is taken out by a well-aimed exploding ice cream bar. Look, I’m not saying critics of Season Three don’t have an excellent point about the show-crippling levels of silliness; I’m just saying it doesn’t matter so much, as long as you sit back and enjoy the snappy banter and perfectly-timed physical comedy while letting the waves of goofiness wash harmlessly over you.

With Illya out of commission, the THRUSH goons kidnap Mr. Barkley, along with two of his prospective customers. Barkley, by the way, is played by Richard Erdman, who looks kind of famil… great merciful Zeus, that’s Leonard from Community!

The THRUSH goons lock up Illya, Barkley, and the two unwitting customers in a cell in a secret lair beneath Miss Witherspoon’s home. Fortunately, no one could be bothered to confiscate Illya’s communicator, so he uses it to call Napoleon and tell him to come rescue him.

Napoleon, meanwhile, has discovered that Willoughby, not Barkley, is the true Dr. Rutter. To avoid Napoleon, Willoughby hides out in Betsy’s house, where he’s promptly kidnapped by THRUSH agents. They bring him to Miss Witherspoon’s lair, where she tortures Betsy until Willoughby agrees to give her the formula for antimatter, which he has, uh, set to music.

Napoleon breaks into Miss Witherspoon’s lair and frees Illya from the cell. They overpower the THRUSH goons and rescue Betsy and Willoughby. Miss Witherspoon shoots Willoughby; as his dying wish, Willoughby begs Napoleon and Illya to destroy Miss Witherspoon’s computer to prevent his formula from ever falling into the wrong hands. Illya whips out some explosives and blasts the computer to bits, because there’s nothing he likes more than blowing up world-changing technology.

Oh, and Illya also beats up an old lady.

And Willoughby, as it turns out, isn’t actually dying. He recovers in a hospital with Betsy at his side, and everybody’s happy. Except for Napoleon, who, with the assignment over, realizes he’s out of excuses to avoid eating Illya’s soufflé.

Nobody’s ever going to mistake this for a good episode, but it sure is entertaining.


DKoren said…
This might be my favorite review yet, cuz this episodes sounds delightfully wacky. The souffle, the household chores, the plot, exploding ice cream bars... This is pure awesome. Sometimes you don't need logic, you just need a rollicking good time, and this episodes certainly sounds like it fits the bill. Also, Victor Borge as guest star just makes this even more must-see. I got to see him live once, and it was so funny and awesome.
Morgan Richter said…
It's a complete train wreck of an episode, but in a delightful way. Victor Borge is absolutely charming (very cool that you got to see him perform!), and Napoleon and Illya's adventures in suburban living are wonderful (Illya takes it all very, very seriously--his earnestness over his souffle is the best part of the episode--while Napoleon gives everything his usual lick and a promise. Early on, they determine that Illya will handle the cooking and Napoleon will handle the cleaning... and then for the rest of the episode, we only see Illya doing housework. Typical, Napoleon. Very typical).
Paper_Crane_Song said…
Did you hear Illya reading out the Soufflé recipe? He says it's a Transylvanian recipe and it begins with stealing two chickens.... love it.

PS am working my way through your reviews, they are brilliant, so spot on!

Morgan Richter said…
I absolutely love Illya's weird souffle recipe, Paper_Crane_Song. This episode has enough weird little touches that I feel very kindly toward it, despite it being... well, not any good.
vintagehoarder said…
Put me down as another person who loved this episode, while boggling at the illogic of it all. It really had a sort of joie de vivre about it, didn't it? And Napoleon and Illya sounded like an old married couple as as they squabbled their way through the episode. (Fair enough, they were married a few episodes back in The Jingle Bells Affair!)
Morgan Richter said…
Even though the episode is a silly mess, it has so many weirdly charming touches! I would happily watch a series about Illya and Napoleon living in domestic bliss in the suburbs -- no spy action necessary.
Lily said…
I just rewatched this--for the 3rd? 4th time? yikes I guess I like this one a lot. It's just so endearing. Anyway, I noticed that Napoleon and Illya's house is the same set as the suburban home in the Quasimodo Affair (which I just recently watched. It's kind of a terrible episode, though there's a great ending scene), as is the 'somewhere in' placeholder picture of suburbia. I mean, this is UNCLE, so I'm not surprised.
James Trexler said…
Knowing Victor Borge was in this episode was all I needed to know. He's absolutely delightful. Did I hear him mention Liszt, though? I thought it was Fliszt...
Admittedly, if all my lights were flickering like a bad fluorescent bulb, I'd go a little crazy myself, but this was just bonkers. I'm okay with the "equations set to music", though, as I've heard of connections between the two before. And if anyone could make math into beautiful music, it would be Mr Borge.

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