The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair”
In Central Park, an avuncular old man named Mr. Hemingway (Richard Haydn) enlists the aid of two young boys to get his remote-controlled model propeller plane aloft. The plane soars up into the air and heads for the midtown skyscrapers. The boys worry that Hemingway will lose control of his plane, but he assures them he doesn’t want it to return: “It’s on a suicide mission.”
At U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Illya and Napoleon track the progress of the toy plane on their radars with growing alarm: It’s headed right for their building! Suspecting it contains explosives, Illya tries to zap it out of the sky with a rooftop-mounted laser beam, which malfunctions. This is really all you need to know about the inner workings of U.N.C.L.E.: Of course U.N.C.L.E. has a rooftop-mounted laser beam, and of course it never works when you need it to.
The plane crash-lands on the roof. No explosion, no drama. Napoleon and Illya investigate the wreckage and find an enigmatic note left inside: “Boom! You’re dead.”
A summit of top world leaders is set to take place at headquarters later in the day. Concerned about security gaps, Mr. Waverly orders Illya and Napoleon to work closely with fellow agent Riley (Peter Haskell), an expert in explosives, to find out who’s behind the trick with the model plane before the delegates arrive for the summit.
Meanwhile, Riley secretly meets with THRUSH scientist/evil mastermind Dr. Egret (Lee Meriwether). Riley, it seems, is a double agent, who’s been conspiring with Dr. Egret to plant explosives at the upcoming summit in the hopes of killing all the high-ranked delegates. Riley has already replaced the table in the conference room with a duplicate table topped with a thick slab of plastic explosives. As soon as a lit cigarette touches a specially-designed ashtray on the table, the ashtray will explode, which in turn will cause the table to explode, which will destroy the building.
Egret gives Riley a gift: a fountain pen that can be used as a lethal device. If he places the tip of the pen against someone’s head and clicks it, it’ll shatter the skull. Or, as Dr. Egret explains it, “The brain, in effect, is homogenized. Death is instantaneous.”
Homogenized. Is that really the word you want, Dr. Egret? By shattering the skull, the brain will get emulsified? Fats and liquids combined into a smooth mixture, like a really disgusting salad dressing? Don’t get me wrong, that’s a very evocative and very gross concept, and I sure wouldn’t want that to happen to my brain, but I’m not entirely convinced that’s likely to happen when the skull shatters.
Her part in the mission over, Dr. Egret bids adieu to Riley, then peels off her face to reveal a totally different face beneath it. She’ll surface again later in the season in “The Girls of Nazarone Affair”, where she’ll be played by a different actress. Ah, the brainy and lethal ladies of THRUSH. I’m just going to quickly point out that in all the episodes I’ve recapped thus far, we’ve yet to see a single woman employed by U.N.C.L.E. in any kind of scientific capacity. Women at U.N.C.L.E. tend to be secretaries, receptionists, researchers, and translators. Across town at THRUSH, though, women are doing all kinds of weird, shady, science-y crap, like designing brain-homogenizing fountain pens. I know which organization I’d rather join.
Outside U.N.C.L.E. HQ, a young woman named Kay (Zohra Lampert) squabbles on the sidewalk with her fiancé about their upcoming nuptials. Mr. Hemingway buys a hotdog from a nearby cart, then walks over to Kay, smashes it under her breast, and smears it across her abdomen. He apologizes profusely and offers to pay to have her dress cleaned at the tailor shop that serves as the secret entrance to headquarters.
The young couple accept his apologies with good grace, assuring him that they’re sure it was an accident. They’re being remarkably chill about this. Dude, he just waltzed up to her and deliberately smeared a hotdog across her stomach. That’s assault. People have been stabbed for less.
Anyway, Hemingway escorts Kay into the tailor shop, hustles her into the changing room, and, while she’s whipping off her soiled dress, uses a hand-held electronic device to activate the secret door leading into headquarters. Kay finds herself half-dressed and surrounded by a slew of very surprised U.N.C.L.E. agents.
Far be it from me* to criticize the inner workings of U.N.C.L.E., but between this episode and “The Ultimate Computer Affair”, there’ve been at least two separate occasions where scantily-clad women have unwittingly ended up in the secret bowels of U.N.C.L.E. following a changing room mishap. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to move the secret entrance to a more secure location?
*Oh, who am I kidding? I live to criticize the inner workings of U.N.C.L.E. The entire organization is delightfully lampoonable.
On high alert after the earlier attack, Napoleon and Illya haul Kay off to an interrogation room. Confused and terrified, Kay insists she has no idea what’s going on. At one point, she refers to U.N.C.L.E. as a “chrome and gunmetal madhouse”, which is sort of brilliant.
Oh, Kay. How do I explain Kay? Kay is a doozy. Throughout this episode, her emotional state will careen from bouts of sobbing to hysterical laughter to irritated boredom to easygoing humor, often all within the same short scene. It’s really bizarre, and yet kind of mesmerizing.
All right, this is how I can explain Kay to those who haven’t seen this episode: Kay is so bizarre that at no point does Napoleon flirt with her. Just try to wrap your head around that: Napoleon, who has no problem sleeping with women who’ve tried to murder him, looks at Kay and thinks, “Hmm, I don’t really need that level of drama in my life.”
Napoleon gets nowhere with his gentle grilling of Kay, probably because she won’t stop sobbing and/or laughing hysterically long enough to answer his questions, so he sends in Illya to scare the information out of her. Illya protests that he always ends up playing the villain, but Napoleon overrules him. Resigned, Illya dons his dark glasses: “I better go and snarl at her.”
Illya is pretty good at playing the villain, actually.
While Illya is off cheerfully traumatizing Kay, Napoleon and Riley examine the wreckage of the model plane. Even though their conversation is friendly and innocent—Napoleon clearly has no inkling Riley is a THRUSH mole—Riley clutches his lethal fountain pen throughout, ready to seize any possible opportunity to turn Napoleon’s brain into a milkshake.
Illya and Napoleon loiter in the corridor outside the interrogation room, debating how to handle Kay. Mr. Hemingway strolls up to them and asks them for directions to the elevator. Illya and Napoleon happily oblige.
Yep. Everyone’s on the highest possible alert following a couple of alarming security breaches on the day of an important summit of world leaders, and U.N.C.L.E.’s two top agents just gave directions to a stranger wandering around the building. Excellent work, boys.
It dawns on Napoleon and Illya belatedly that, hey, maybe this is something they should investigate? When they chase after Hemingway, they find he’s rewired the security system to block their path.
The compromised security system has caused chaos throughout the building (Mr. Waverly: “I was trapped for forty-five minutes in the men’s room without my pipe!”). Meanwhile, Kay becomes unraveled again (sob! laugh! repeat ad infinitum!), culminating in a severe case of hiccups. Napoleon fetches her a glass of water from the tap, which turns out to be filled with guppies: Mr. Hemingway has wreaked his prankish brand of havoc on their water supply.
Meanwhile, one of Riley’s fellow explosives experts starts to investigate the rigged table in the conference room. Thinking fast, Riley murders him with his pen (brain: homogenized!) and stuffs his corpse in the laundry hamper.
Riley, Illya, and Napoleon do one last check of the conference room before the summit. Illya, inscrutable as always, holds a lit match very close to the highly explosive surface of the table. Upon first watching this episode, I assumed this meant Illya suspected something was amiss with the table, but nope, he doesn’t. He’s just being his usual strange and inexplicable self.
Illya starts to toss his match into one of the exploding ashtrays. In a panic, Riley stops him, then explains that they shouldn’t present the world leaders with a dirty conference room. Illya agrees with this logic: “If we can’t impress them with our security, we can at least show them that we are neat.” Ha! Illya, you are a very weird little man, but I love you.
They seal off the conference room until the start of the summit, only to discover someone has tampered with the electricity in the building: All of the metal doors and walls are electrified. En route to the fuse box, Napoleon and Illya run into a distressed Mr. Hemingway, who has just discovered the body of the murdered agent.
It turns out Mr. Hemingway has been working for Mr. Waverly all along—Hemingway, in fact, is Waverly’s brother-in-law. Waverly hired him to test U.N.C.L.E.’s internal security in advance of the summit. Considering how Hemingway managed to sabotage the alarm system, electrical wiring, and water supply all in the span of an afternoon, I’m assuming U.N.C.L.E. did not pass this test. Hemingway explains his role: “I was simply meant to be a sort of gadfly, just to sting you into awareness.” “Yes, I thought it might be something like that,” Napoleon notes with a trace of lofty smugness. Sure you did, Napoleon. Sure.
Realizing there’s a murderer at loose in the building, Napoleon and Illya summon all possible culprits to the conference room: Hemingway, Kay, Riley, and everyone who worked with the murdered agent. Napoleon explains the situation to the suspects: Someone in the room is a murderer, so they’re all going to sit there until the culprit ‘fesses up, or until the room explodes. This is a terrible plan! The plan is made much worse by the fact that everyone immediately breaks out cigarettes and starts smoking.
Kay stubs out her cigarette in an explosives-laced ashtray. Riley knocks it off the table before it can detonate the tabletop, thus revealing himself as the murderer. He makes a break for it; Illya and Napoleon chase him through the building, but he escapes into an elevator.
Hemingway uses one of his electronic devices to trap Riley between floors. Napoleon and Illya climb down the cables and break into the elevator. Oh, man, in these early episodes, before the show had a big enough budget to cover luxuries like stunt doubles and adequate rehearsal time, the action scenes were rough. Everything stops dead for a while as Vaughn and McCallum dangle awkwardly from ropes, looking like they haven’t the foggiest idea how they’re supposed to get down from there.
Napoleon brawls with Riley, who keeps trying to use his exploding pen to turn Napoleon’s brain into a high-protein smoothie. Riley accidentally plunges the pen into his own chest and drops dead. “It looks like permanent writer’s cramp,” Napoleon quips while staring down at Riley’s corpse. Illya breaks into a delighted grin, pleased by his partner’s disturbing penchant for ghoulish humor in inappropriate circumstances.
Her day of excitement and danger and glamour finally over, Kay reunites with her fiancé. With all security threats neutralized, the summit goes on as planned. Check out that amazing display of Important World Leader Headwear on the table outside the conference room: Turbans! Trilbies! Pith helmets!
A thoroughly loopy and charming episode, in which we learn that, on the inside, U.N.C.L.E. is even more slipshod and poorly-run than it seems from the outside. Hard to believe, but true.