The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Pieces of Fate Affair”

Napoleon and Illya attend a taping of a talk show, where best-selling author Jacqueline Midcult (repeat guest star Sharon Farrell) is discussing her racy new spy novel, Pieces of Fate. The sensationalistic host refers to it as a “dirty book”, then goes on to label it a “naked obscenity” and “blatant, outright filth.” Hey, put me down for a copy! That sounds awesome. This is 1966, so Jacqueline Midcult is, of course, a thinly-disguised version of novelist Jacqueline Susann, and Pieces of Fate is Susann’s gleefully trashy bestseller Valley of the Dolls, only with spies. I can dig it. Not that Valley of the Dolls isn’t dishy and fun, but think of how irresistible it’d be if Jennifer, Anne, and Neely were glamorous and incompetent secret agents, instead of glamorous and incompetent career women navigating their way through life and love in the big city. See? It’s better already.

“Everybody knows that real secret agents don’t get involved in this kind of intrigue, in this kind of sex,” the host sneers at Jacqueline. From the audience, Napoleon leans over to Illya and murmurs, “Everybody knows we don’t get mixed up in things like that.”

This kind of sex. Hey, what kind of sex, exactly, are Jacqueline’s fictionalized spies having? Why is this host so hot and bothered about it? Asking for a friend.

A man in the audience pops up and, while Illya and Napoleon sit around twiddling their thumbs, sprays the stage with bullets from a machine gun. Our heroes take a token stab at chasing after him, but quickly give up. No sense getting all sweaty.

Jacqueline survives the attack on her life, though she bumped her head and now has full amnesia. U.N.C.L.E. has more than just a prurient interest in her book: Plot twists featured in it match up with top-secret details from several of THRUSH’s most diabolical past schemes. Actual U.N.C.L.E. agents make appearances—for instance, April Dancer, Stefanie Powers’s character from the spinoff, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., shows up in Pieces of Fate under the name “May Waltzer.” At headquarters, Illya asks if there’s any chance Jacqueline raided U.N.C.L.E.’s closed case files for source material. Mr. Waverly adamantly denies this possibility, but honestly, Waverly, it’s not like outside hands have never gotten their grubby hands on your poorly-guarded files before. Suspecting Jacqueline gleaned her story ideas from the missing diaries of a THRUSH historian named Charles Coltrane, Waverly gives Illya and Napoleon an assignment: Help Jacqueline get her memory back, so she can lead them to the diaries.

Across town at THRUSH headquarters, director-in-chief Ellipsis Zark (Theo Marcuse, who, like Farrell, is an U.N.C.L.E. repeat offender) murders his would-be assassin for failing to kill Jacqueline. It’s not specified whether Ellipsis Zark is related to Martin Landau’s Count Zark from “The Bat Cave Affair”, though it wouldn’t be a stretch, as both Zarks possess the same quality of… let’s call it “goofy malevolence.” One of Ellipsis Zark’s hands is made out of what I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to think is solid silver. Yeah, it’s an oven mitt with the fingers sewn together. Ah, season three, when U.N.C.L.E.’s wardrobe department just stopped caring.

Zark checks in with THRUSH’s newest recruit, prominent book reviewer Jody Moore (Grayson Hall). At least… well, her character’s name is listed as “Jody Moore” in the opening credits, though she’s quite distinctly referred to as “Judith Merle” throughout the episode. There’s a reason for this! This episode was scripted by prolific sci-fi legend Harlan Ellison, who based the character on author Judith Merril, who took offense and sued MGM for defamation. As a result of the ongoing litigation, the character name was altered, and NBC yanked the episode out of rotation.

Anyhoo, at Zark’s suggestion, Jody/Judith throws a cocktail party in Jacqueline’s honor. Napoleon and Illya show up at the party to: a) look handsome in fancy suits, and b) protect Jacqueline from THRUSH.

They do a sterling job at a), but utterly fail at b). THRUSH goons kidnap Jacqueline (Jody/Judith knocks her out by clubbing her over the head with a copy of Pieces of Fate, which is a nice touch). When Napoleon and Illya try to come to her rescue, the goons overpower them, then bind them hand and foot and drop them into a coal cellar where, a goon gloatingly informs them, they’ll soon be crushed by a delivery of ten tons of coal.

Oh, these two. So cute! So sparkling and charming! So bloody incompetent! Illya, who I’m just going to quickly remind you, has a doctorate in quantum mechanics from Cambridge, can’t figure out how to remove his gag with his hands tied in front of his body until Napoleon gives him a handy visual demonstration. It’s not Illya’s finest moment.

Napoleon frets about their looming deaths: “I think if ten tons of coal come down on us, it’s going to muss up my hair a little.” “It’s unlikely,” Illya replies coolly. At first I assumed Illya was cracking wise about how Napoleon’s hair is perpetually Brylcreemed into a hard, hard helmet (and I’m still not convinced he didn’t mean exactly that), but he goes on to explain how a coal delivery is improbable: The building’s furnace is powered by oil.

So they escape from the coal cellar in some part of the episode we don’t get to see, then take a leisurely break to open their pores in a sauna before rescuing poor kidnapped Jacqueline.

Speaking of Jacqueline… Zark and Jody/Judith attempt to cure her amnesia with hypnosis, which regresses her to the mental state of a seven-year-old. This starts out vaguely nauseating (watching grown-ass adults pretending to act like little kids: never fun), then slides into unsavory territory when childlike Jacqueline crawls into Zark’s lap and nuzzles against him.

Oh, ick.

Jacqueline babbles to Zark about visiting her aunt and uncle in Mainsville, Ohio, which leads Zark to conclude the secret THRUSH diaries are located there. Fortunately for Jacqueline, Napoleon and Illya track her down via a listening device planted in her ginormous earrings. They whisk her away from Zark’s clutches and take her back to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, where she remains in a childlike state for waaaaaaay too long. It’s still plenty nauseating, but at no point does she crawl into Napoleon’s lap, so I think we should count ourselves ahead of the game here.

U.N.C.L.E.’s top scientists bring an end to this episode’s sojourn into ickiness by kicking Jacqueline out of her regressed state, though they can’t do a thing about her amnesia. Illya and Napoleon take her to Mainsville in an attempt to beat THRUSH to the diaries. While Napoleon tries to trigger Jacqueline’s lost memories, Illya prowls around town in search of miscreants. He promptly gets clubbed over the head by a creaky old man with a cane, who turns out to be a THRUSH agent working with Jody/Judith. Jody/Judith wants to kill Illya, but the creaky old man insists on keeping him alive as a hostage.

Napoleon takes Jacqueline to the home of her garrulous Uncle Charlie (Charles Seel). While Jacqueline tries to remember where she stashed the diaries, Napoleon bonds with Uncle Charlie. Check out the amazing way Napoleon takes a seat at the dinner table.

Do we need a GIF of that? I think we need a GIF of that:

Glorious. One of these days, I’m going to create a YouTube channel devoted to clips of Robert Vaughn, scene-stealer extraordinaire, doing weird and hilarious stuff to yank attention away from his costars. I will have hours of material.

The elderly man leaves Illya bound and gagged in a shed, helpfully providing him with a lit candle so he can burn through his ropes and free himself. “It’s not supposed to be this easy,” Illya mutters.

He contacts Napoleon to fill him in on recent events: “Among other things, I was overpowered by an old man with a cane. When things like that happen, I wonder if I’m not in the wrong business.” Finally! At long last, Illya is experiencing the first feeble tinges of awareness that he might be a terrible, horrible, dangerously incompetent mess of a spy. This is a huge and long-overdue development.

Napoleon discovers that harmless Uncle Charlie is actually THRUSH historian Charles Coltrane, the author of the diaries. Uncle Charlie insists he’s gone straight—he even faked his death a couple of years back to get THRUSH off his tail—but Zark is holding his wife prisoner until he finds the diaries.

Illya sneaks into Uncle Charlie’s cellar and rescues Jacqueline’s captive Aunt Jessie.  A THRUSH goon attacks him. A delightfully acrobatic scuffle ensues.

Jacqueline remembers she hid the diaries in the attic. Napoleon and Jacqueline rush upstairs to retrieve them, only to find Zark, Jody/Judith, and the creaky old THRUSH agent have beaten them to the punch. Zark gains the upper hand, but then Illya arrives, with Aunt Jessie in tow, to even up the odds. This whole sequence is really bizarrely staged, with far too many actors jammed into a tiny, awkward, inconvenient space.

The creaky old THRUSH agent breaks the standoff by knocking out Jody/Judith, then ripping off his face to reveal that he’s actually… Mr. Waverly!

Well! That plot twist didn’t make a lick of sense! Nonetheless, I wholly approve.

Back at headquarters, Illya sulks bitterly about how his boss clubbed him over the head with a cane before subjecting him to inappropriate bondage games. The diaries themselves have been destroyed—turns out Aunt Jessie discovered them and burned them to ashes due to their filthy, filthy contents (I’m guessing she stumbled upon the parts where THRUSH agents torture Illya in various inappropriate ways)—though Waverly is confident this is a minor obstacle: “With our new method of atomic adhesion, we should be able to restore the diaries.” Yes, this seems like a very sensible use of atomic power.

A doozy of an episode. I’m going to damn it with faint praise by mentioning that it’s one of the very best season three has to offer.


Lily said…
Oh man the Valley of the Dolls...I'm going to digress a bit because it makes me think of this Star Trek novel (Collision Course by Shatner!) where Spock and Kirk are young. Spock, age nineteen, thinks Valley of the Dolls is one of the great earth classics and is Very Seriously reading it.

Oh Waverly. He more often than not has to show up at the end and save them.

vintagehoarder said…
Well I was looking forward to watching this one because Grayson Hall was in it. (I'm also a fan of Dark Shadows where she played Julia Hoffman, so this makes this episode a twofer for me!)

As for Waverly's actions during "The Pieces of Fate Affair", he has obviously come to the conclusion that his two best spies are total incompetents so if he wants something done right he has to do it himself. I can't say that I blame him!
Morgan Richter said…
Lily and vintagehoarder -- Sorry for the delay in responding! I keep missing the email alerts about new comments.

Lily, I love the idea of Spock regarding Valley of the Dolls as classic earth literature.

And yes, Waverly has clearly decided that if he wants missions solved with a minimum of disaster, he has to step in and get it done on his own. Fair enough, Waverly.

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