The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The THRUSH Roulette Affair”
Somewhere in the Caribbean, a gaggle of well-heeled gamblers play a high-stakes game of roulette at a private casino. At the stroke of midnight, foppish casino magnate-turned-THRUSH agent Barnaby Partridge* (Michael Rennie, who joins Leo G. Carroll and Anne Francis on the elite list of Man From U.N.C.L.E. actors who get name-checked in “Science Fiction Double Feature” from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) informs the group they’ve been gambling with their lives: Each guest has some vital information that THRUSH wants, and they’ll either tell it to him, or die.
*This makes three episodes featuring THRUSH villains with the last name of Partridge: Along with Barnaby, we’ve got Mrs. Partridge in “The Her Master’s Voice Affair” and crazy old Edith and Emory Partridge in “The Gazebo in the Maze Affair”. Maybe they’re all related! Maybe this was some kind of internal gag! Maybe the writers were too lazy to drum up alternate surnames! We’ll never know.
In New York, Illya escorts an important political figure named Colonel Acevedo on a tour of the Empire State Building. When Illya gets distracted, the colonel climbs over the railing and leaps to his death from the observation deck. As much as I enjoy showcasing examples of Illya’s frequent jaw-dropping bursts of incompetence, he’s pretty much blameless in this. He had no reason to assume Acevedo would try to off himself, and he even makes an earnest (yet doomed and ridiculous) stab at trying to grab Acevedo before he falls. You’re in the clear, Illya. This time.
At U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Mr. Waverly briefs Illya and Napoleon on the recent suicides of several prominent government officials, Colonel Acevedo among them. There’s a single common denominator: Shortly before their deaths, all of the victims were guests at Barnaby Partridge’s exclusive resort/casino (which is named Club Thanatopsis, because Barnaby, for his flaws, is a highly literary-minded villain). Waverly sends Illya undercover to pose as a gambler at the club, while Napoleon tries to gain access to Barnaby’s exclusive guest list.
Napoleon heads to a travel agency, which is owned and operated by THRUSH. Posing as a suspicious boyfriend, he tries to alternately sweet-talk and bribe the tough-as-nails clerk into showing him the Club Thanatopsis reservation list. The clerk wins my heart by chiding Napoleon for not trusting his girlfriend, taking his bribe money, and siccing a pair of goons on him.
Unruffled, Napoleon sets the travel agency on fire, then waltzes inside during the resulting chaos. He’s chased away by goons before he can steal the list of Barnaby’s high-profile guests, though he manages to glean one name off of it, that of billionaire inventor Taggart Coleman.
At Club Thanatopsis, Barnaby informs one of his captive guests, Ambassador Vanderloon, that he’s going to torture him into giving up the location of an upcoming international security conference. If Vanderloon refuses to cooperate, one of THRUSH’s top scientists, Doctor Ieato (Robert Ellenstein), will ferret out his darkest fears and use them against him, which will drive him to either divulge the location or commit suicide.
In his luxurious quarters at the resort, Barnaby berates and assaults his unhappy assistant, Monica (veteran stage actress Nobu McCarthy, best known to my fellow children of the eighties as Mr. Miyagi’s love interest in The Karate Kid Part II). We get it, he’s a villain. This kind of thing is one of the big problems with the fourth season: All the high-spirited fun that characterized the series for so long was deliberately drained away, leaving a whole bunch of dour, unpleasant drama in its place. (The other, bigger fourth-season problem is that the show became unbearably half-assed and sloppy, but that’s neither here nor there.)
Illya flies off to Club Thanatopsis. We’re treated to some footage of him napping on a plane, which is recycled from season two’s “The Project Deephole Affair”. Okay, yeah, this is what I mean about the show becoming unbearably half-assed and sloppy.
Upon arriving at the club, Illya dons a nice tuxedo and slinks around the casino, sticking his pert nose into places where it doesn’t belong. Barnaby spots him on a security camera and pulls up THRUSH’s file on him:
Illya, you beautiful little liar, you are not an inch and a half shy of six feet tall. You are a wee dainty elf. Also, this is all very nice—judo, karate, fencing, sharp-shooting, fine—but I feel strongly that THRUSH’s actual dossier on Illya would be… zestier. Like so:
That’s more like it.
Anyway, THRUSH goons attack Illya and drag him off to Barnaby’s lair, where Barnaby announces his plan to torture him for information on U.N.C.L.E.’s inner workings. Illya can barely keep from yawning at the prospect of being tortured by THRUSH again.
Granted, Michael Rennie is pretty darn tall, but let’s get real: Illya, you are not 5’10”.
Meanwhile, Mr. Waverly urges Napoleon to visit billionaire inventor Taggart Coleman (Charles Drake), who happens to be Monica’s ex-boyfriend, and convince him to help U.N.C.L.E. get to the bottom of whatever’s going on at Club Thanatopsis. Before we’re introduced to Taggart, Waverly describes him, with palpable disgust, as “an eccentric playboy.” Napoleon goes on to admit that Taggart “…does have a reputation for being a bit of a loner.” After all that near-mythical buildup, I was really hoping Taggart, the genius billionaire playboy loner, would turn out to be Batman.
Taggart is not Batman. He’s not even Tony Stark. He’s just some guy. Total anticlimax. Anyway, Taggart initially refuses to help U.N.C.L.E, until Napoleon convinces him that Monica might be in danger.
Napoleon and Taggart arrive at Club Thanatopsis, where Taggart heads off to rekindle his romance with Monica. This episode assumes viewers will be keenly invested in Taggart and Monica, the star-crossed lovers, getting their relationship back on track. This episode assumes wrongly. Acting on Napoleon’s instructions, Taggart tries to finagle an invitation to play in Barnaby’s private casino. Alarmed, Monica urges him to leave the island immediately.
After hours of intensive interrogation, Doctor Ieato uncovers Ambassador Vanderloon’s darkest fear: He’s terrified of trains. To break Vanderloon’s mind, Ieato locks him in a room and projects footage of trains on all four walls; it’s all very goofy, but big props to Czech actor Charles H. Radilak, who plays Vanderloon, for doing his best to really sell this scene.
Ambassador Vanderloon, you are the unsung hero of this episode.
Left a broken shell of an ambassador from the trauma, Vanderloon divulges the location of the international security conference to Doctor Ieato while sobbing and whimpering uncontrollably. To celebrate this success, Barnaby manhandles a frightened and miserable Monica some more. Gee, this is fun.
And then it’s Illya’s turn to be tortured. Illya, of course, refuses to be bothered by the prospect of a little pain. “I have an unusually high threshold,” he tells Barnaby dryly. Well, yeah. After all THRUSH has put him through over the past few seasons, he’d have to.
Taggart and a cluster of other THRUSH-invited guests assemble in the private casino for a high-stakes game of roulette. Napoleon sneaks around the grounds and gets into a scuffle with some THRUSH goons. Barnaby observes the fracas on the security camera, then pulls up his file on Napoleon.
Come on, Man From U.N.C.L.E., this is just lazy! Napoleon’s listed skills are exactly the same as Illya’s, only with this vague and poorly-phrased addition: “Also known to have inclination toward opposite sex.” There’s a germ of a joke in there about Napoleon’s daunting and near-legendary promiscuity, but it just hangs there, half-formed and feeble. Season four, this lack of effort is exactly why I feel so much blistering scorn for you. Let’s just punch this up a bit:
Barnaby gets a brilliant idea: He’ll have Doctor Ieato brainwash Illya into killing Napoleon! So Ieato locks Illya up in his special torture room and bombards him with images of Napoleon’s gigantic honking face.
This is enough to convince Illya that Napoleon needs to die. Illya grabs a gun and heads off to murder Napoleon, who seems less surprised than he probably should be to discover his partner/best friend/soulmate is newly hell-bent on murdering him. Their gun battle soon turns into vigorous fisticuffs, with Illya and Napoleon exchanging punches and breaking chairs over each other, until finally Napoleon manages to punch some sense back into Illya.
As relentlessly mediocre as this episode is, we do get one very charming scene where a confused Illya tries to piece together what just happened:
ILLYA: Napoleon. I didn’t…?
NAPOLEON: (nods vigorously) You did.
ILLYA: I did? (looks quietly impressed and maybe a little pleased) Wow.
Napoleon and Illya raid the casino and free all the captive guests. Monica and Taggart have a tender reconciliation, about which Illya seems to feel every bit as personally invested as I do.
With the casino liberated, Illya and Napoleon head down to the lab to rescue Ambassador Vanderloon. Illya ends up sorta accidentally killing Doctor Ieato, while Napoleon and Barnaby battle in the torture chamber. A switch gets thrown, and the images of the trains are projected on the wall, which triggers Barnaby’s own acute fear of trains (yep, both Vanderloon and Barnaby suffer from debilitating siderodromophobia, what are the odds?). In terror, he races out of the room and throws himself down an elevator shaft. The elevator car (which is actually Barnaby’s entire living quarters, which is a bit of nitwittery I didn’t bother to mention earlier, because these recaps get awfully lengthy and belabored anyway) descends into the shaft and squashes Barnaby to a pulp.
Napoleon and Illya hang out in Barnaby’s quarters and intercept a telegram informing Barnaby that, due to his recent acts of villainy, he’s been accepted into the elite ranks of THRUSH Central. They stare down at the floor, beneath which lie Barnaby’s squished remains, then Illya wordlessly tears up the telegram.
I’m not entirely sure how the show managed to take a juicy, rip-roaring, guaranteed-to-please plot idea like “THRUSH brainwashes Illya into trying to kill Napoleon” and turn it into such a low-energy, noncommittal mess, but it managed. Oh, it managed.