Roundtable Review: I Spy, “Magic Mirror”

By Sabienna Bowman, Les Chappell, Heather McLendon, Anthony Strand and J. Walker

I_Spy_Title

I Spy
Season 2, Episode 25: “Magic Mirror”
Original airdate: March 15, 1967

Les: After most of us were let down by the events of The Man From U.N.C.L.E last week, I was hopeful that our next installment would restore some of my faith in selecting this theme for our next roundtable discussion. And I Spy managed to do that, and did so in a rather unexpected way. Not being hugely familiar with the show, I was expecting more of a buddy cop-style dynamic between stars Robert Culp* and Bill Cosby (in his pre-Cliff Huxtable days) as they bantered their way through international acts of espionage. And while we do get some of that, what takes up the majority of the episode is a far more serious affair that depicts the fact that espionage is a dirty business where the good guys don’t always win and—more poignantly—don’t always get the girl at the end.

*Culp is of course no stranger to our roundtables, as long-time readers will recall him as the star of “Demon with a Glass Hand.”

Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott and Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson, I Spy, "Magic Mirror"“Magic Mirror” takes Kelly Robinson (Culp) and Alexander Scott (Cosby) to Madrid, where the deposed dictator General Vera (Ricardo Montalban, in a bit of synergy from last week’s discussion) is plotting a return to power on his island nation. He’s enlisted the help of the Soviet Union, who are trading military support for the right to put long-range missiles on the island—something that, only a few years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, makes for an understandably high priority affair. Further complicating matters is the fact that Vera’s been sighted in the company of fellow agent Sam (France Nuyen), Robinson’s current love affair, and someone who’s now walking within inches of a burn notice or a bullet.

I certainly enjoyed “Magic Mirror” more than “The King of Diamonds Affair,” but my enjoyment was rooted in the fact that it was more interesting as opposed to it being more entertaining. Any indication that this would be a lighthearted romp was deflated in the opening scene with their commanding officer, who not only makes it clear that he had Robinson monitored—with Scott’s cooperation no less—and coldly hammers in their orders with no room for negotiation and an immediately rejected resignation (“Your heart, body and soul are the property of the United States government”). That did a lot to deflate the secret agent mythos, and cast our heroes in a more sympathetic light. Robinson and Scott might be highly trained operatives, but they’re also working stiffs who have to take orders just like anyone else with a day job. There’s plenty of the traits we associate with the spy genre—a playboy agent in love with a potential enemy, maps of missile sites underneath a desk, the concealed camera in the briefcase—but the actual act of spying lacks much of the glamor those traits tend to convey.

I Spy, "Magic Mirror"And I also appreciated the fact that the episode didn’t feel the need to end on a high note, and instead subverted expectations nicely. Vera had no real desire to get involved in the Cold War, and is more than happy to let Robinson and Scott complete their mission as it shifts attention to the Soviets, allowing him to slide back into power while the U.S. concerns itself with the missiles in transit. Yes, they still win in the long run, but it comes with the bitter knowledge that the bad guy is still getting a win out of it. And even more bitterly, Robinson’s unable to persuade Sam to return, as she’s simply tired of the entire espionage life and knows he’ll never leave it (promises of selling shoes aside) and is willing to take her chances in Vera’s company just to be rid of it all. That final moment in the steam room was the opposite of triumphant, as both men wearily acknowledge the way things played out—and are likely to play out again, and again.

“We did the job,” Robinson says. “Yeah. But who’d we do it for?” Scott replies.

Anthony: I too was surprised by how serious this episode turned out to be. I was only vaguely familiar with I Spy before watching this episode. I know I saw at least one episode (probably on TV Land during one of their Black History Month events back when they used to show interesting things.) But mostly I just knew it as that one show Bill Cosby used to be on, and I always thought it was weird that he spent three years on an action spy drama.

Having seen this episode, I think it’s even weirder. Of course, Cosby doesn’t get a whole lot to do, outside of that lovely scene at the end. But this is dark stuff, and that darkness kicks in right away. The decision to show Robinson’s relationship with Sam through filmstrips (rather than as flashbacks or in the “present” at the start of the episode) is a strong one. In the opening scene, we get two moments that set the tone for the rest of the episode—Robinson shaking nervously while watching the films of him and Sam, and Scott coldly admitting that he planted a mic on Robinson to help get that footage. I wasn’t expecting such tension between the two of them, but it helped set up a very effective hour of TV.

France Nuyen as Sam and Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson, I Spy, "Magic Mirror"For one thing, it strikes me as probably being an unusually personal episode of the series. I can’t imagine that Alexander and/or Scott got this emotionally invested in female guest stars every week. I’ve been watching a lot of James Bond movies lately—my first trip through those films—and this episode struck me as a dark, realistic follow-up to all of Bond’s trysts with female henchmen of the villain. Sam isn’t quite Vera’s henchman, of course,  but she does end up devoted to him for similarly idealistic reasons. In the Bond movies, the affairs are light and frothy and completely forgotten by the time the next movie begins.  Here, we see (almost exclusively) the bitter aftermath, as an agent lets himself become too attached to someone he could never be with because they see the world in fundamentally different ways.

Robert Culp and France Nuyen play the heck out of those scenes, lending a tragic believability to their relationship (even though we see very, very little of the good times). Sam’s speech about her devotion to Grace is lovely, and Robinson’s bitter, spiteful “I’ll quit. I’ll . . . I’ll sell shoes” is a knockout. That last line in particular could easily have played as a joke (intentional or unintentional), but you can see him imagining himself in that kind of life. You can hear the hesitation in his voice, like he wants to walk away but knows he can’t.

I thought I would have more to say about Ricardo Montalban, who is fun but plays more of a plot device than an actual character. He gets one standout scene when he yells at an underling about the importance of fighting to save his people, but he doesn’t chew nearly as much scenery as I would have hoped. This story is too down-to-earth for that, but he’s effective in the straighter scenes too.

Finally, am I the only one who thinks that Ricardo Montalban with that salt-and-pepper hair and moustache looks strangely like Ron Glass on Firefly?

Heather: “Magic Mirror” reminded me of the relationship-centric episodes of Mission: Impossible: “Nicole” and “Lover’s Knot.” The espionage is dialed down in both these plots, and the focus is more on Jim Phelps and Paris falling in love with women in the midst of a mission. The same happens here in “Magic Mirror,” and I found the episode interesting to watch. As Les said, this storyline is more interesting than entertaining, yet I enjoyed that aspect.

Ricardo Montalban as General Vera, I Spy, "Magic Mirror"While I appreciate it when spy shows (and movies) underscore the strain and personal hardship that agents experience as part of their work, I found myself immensely disliking Kelly Robinson in this episode. His responses to Sam’s affair and her final decision to leave with Vera are indicative/reflective of the time. They’re also honest. But I don’t think that was an intentional honesty. I wish I could say that the writer of this episode (Culp himself!) wanted to place the show’s hero in a less-than-favorable light so as to present a fuller, more complex and more honest portrayal of the character to viewers. Was this the actual intention? I would hazard to say not.

Sam is one of the most fascinating, infuriating and saddening characters I’ve seen on classic TV in a long time. I wanted to kick her in the butt and tell her to grab some agency over her future. Both men—Robinson and Vera—desperately love her; she could have manipulated those emotions to achieve her own end goals and contentment. You could argue that she does exactly this at the end—she clearly doesn’t love Vera and goes with him for security and provision (for however it lasts), though it’s an action devoid of any soul. (I believe I’m proposing a different interpretation than Anthony posited here. I didn’t see any devotion to Vera on her part, simply resignation.)

In a bizarre way, she reminded me of Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones. Yes, she technically and biologically lives, but her spirit and soul are deadened. That scene when she’s lying on the bed at night, after Robinson reveals her assassination plot to Vera, you can physically sense the futility and depression within her. She can’t bring herself to sit up. It’s as though all her energy and will have left her.

France Nuyen as Sam, I Spy, "Magic Mirror"While I found her inaction and lack of agency frustrating, I also recognize that Sam was in the middle of abusive relationships. (She was also operating from a distinct cultural lens. Was anyone else as shocked to hear her statement: “I’m Chinese… I go where I am kicked”? Talk about a cultural indicator of the late-sixties and the perspective/experiences some Chinese-Americans may have held at that time!) Sam may not have been physically hurt by Robinson or Vera, but the language they use over her is an example of verbal abuse. Arguably, Robinson’s language could have been born from hurt and confusion; Vera, however, exhibits abusive, manipulative language time and again. The psychological trauma that such relationships leave upon women (and men) cannot be understated. Whether intentional or not, “Magic Mirror” offers a heartbreaking example of the situation so many women experience with abusive partners. Sometimes, there is no happy ending. Sometimes a person chooses to endure and endure and endure, as their own spark and life and personality slowly seep away. I think Robinson realizes this, only too late.

Sabienna: Having never seen an episode of I Spy before, I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but I took the presence of Bill Cosby as an indicator that it would be a comedy of some sort. Wrong, I was. There were a couple of nice comic touches in the episode, and Kelly and Scott’s banter* while they were trapped in Vera’s cell made me grin:

“Got a plan?”
“You wouldn’t like it.”
“Gotta be better than mine.”
“Which is?”
“Sitting here until September.”
“…Yelling.”
“Yelling?”
“I told you you wouldn’t like it.”

Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott and Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson, I Spy, "Magic Mirror"This aside, “Magic Mirror” was a downright somber examination of the toll that living the spy life can take on a person. Sam was a fascinating character, and one of the more interesting fictional spies I’ve encountered outside of The Americans‘ Jennings. Parts of her story and personality felt dated (if this same episode were made today, Sam totally would have deployed some spy moves to get away from Kelly and stab Vera), but overall she played as the ultimate jaded agent caught between her duty and her personal obligation to protect the woman who raised her. In order to be an effective spy, one has to feel a deep sense of devotion to their country, but with Sam we were given the sense that she was a woman without a country, beholden not to the agency, but to her own personal moral code. This is an attitude that completely baffled our prototypical white, male hero Kelly, but one that his partner Scott understood.

“I am Chinese; I am a stone… I go where I am kicked,” Sam said in the episode’s haunting conclusion that saw her following Vera back to his country. Her line was startling and poignant; a perfect summation of a woman who knows she’ll never be free. If she’s not being treated like a possession by Vera, who Kelly insists will throw her away, she’ll be beholden to a country that wants her to serve without question while being used as a dispensable asset. Whether she goes with Vera or returns with Kelly, Sam has no real choice in her fate and that fact seems to drain her—as Heather points out, it’s as if her very soul has left her. At the ripe old age of 24, Sam has already been all used up.

Sam’s utter isolation was played in stark contrast to Kelly and Scott’s partnership. This was very much a Kelly episode, but Scott was never far away from his friend. Even though the bulk of the episode was devoted to Kelly and Sam’s tragic love affair, what I took away from the story was that the spy game is a lot less hazardous to your mental health if you have a support system built in. The camaraderie between Kelly and Scott came off beautifully, particularly in the final scene wherein Scott was tasked with challenging his partner’s naïve views on what is right or wrong. These are clearly two men who keep each other centered. If Kelly didn’t have that connection to fall back on in the field, I wonder if he would have reacted so harshly to Sam choosing Grace over the job?

Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott and Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson, I Spy, "Magic Mirror"The moral complexity on display in this episode was astonishing for the period and the genre. Spy shows tend toward the camp, but this outing was downright gritty. I was impressed. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have an I Spy marathon to get back to.

J.: Well, it doesn’t seem like I’m alone in being completely surprised by I Spy. I don’t know what I had based my assumptions for this series on—probably Cosby’s presence, and wasn’t there a wacky-mismatched-partners movie adaptation about a decade ago?—but this was not what I was expecting at all. This was dark, tense, and utterly compelling.

The exchange that summed up the story for me came in that fantastic opening scene, when Gabe tells them their jobs are more important than the people doing them; Scott replies, “How do you know?” Gabe doesn’t answer, and the rest of the episode doesn’t take his side. Instead, it shows how that work grinds the very humanity out of the workers. And that sense of weary resignation permeates everything: these guys are international spies, leading lives of danger and excitement, but both of them seem to have lost their taste for it.

And the biggest shock comes in the revelation that the work they did in this episode was completely pointless. Vera played them all for fools, playing both Cold War powers against each other for his own gain. That only adds to the existential crisis at the episode’s center—Scott and Kelly do their jobs because they have to be done, but it’s a zero sum game. The Russians don’t win, and the Americans don’t lose, but the only one who really comes out on top is the power-mad dictator with the powder blue uniform. Maybe they would be better off selling shoes.

Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott and Robert Culp as Kelly Robinson, I Spy, "Magic Mirror"

***

As a reminder, we’ll be sampling a different series every week for the next few weeks:

04/25: Get Smart, “Too Many Chiefs” and “Kisses for KAOS” (season 1, episodes 11 and 17); available through YouTube.

05/02: Mission: Impossible, “The Heir Apparent” (Season 3, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant.

05/09: The Avengers, “You Have Just Been Murdered” (season 5, episode 22).

05/16: Airwolf, “Fallen Angel” (season 2, episode 7); available through Hulu and Netflix Instant.

05/23: Scarecrow and Mrs. King, “Welcome to America, Mr. Brand” (season 3, episode 5); available through Amazon Instant Video.

05/30: Alias, “Truth Be Told,” (season 1, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant.

14 Responses to “Roundtable Review: I Spy, “Magic Mirror””

  1. Marty McKee

    Ahh. I thought you were doing “The Warlord,” but you called an audible. However, just as “The Warlord,” a brilliant I SPY written (and directed) by Robert Culp, is an atypical episode, so is the equally brilliant “Magic Mirror” (also written by Culp, as you noted). Not to say I SPY wasn’t regularly brilliant, as it was a fast, funny, picturesque, and often poignant spy adventure. But it was not usually this dark. And that’s a hallmark of Culp’s more personal work (I highly recommend Culp’s lone feature, the downbeat private-eye flick HICKEY & BOGGS). You say, ” I wish I could say that the writer of this episode (Culp himself!) wanted to place the show’s hero in a less-than-favorable light so as to present a fuller, more complex and more honest portrayal of the character to viewers. Was this the actual intention? I would hazard to say not.” Oh, it absolutely was. Culp’s audio commentaries on the I SPY DVDs are among the most personal, most candid, and most fascinating I’ve ever heard. Or check out his interviews with the Archive of American Television–highly recommended.

    Also important when looking at “Magic Mirror” now is the fact Culp and France Nuyen, who appeared on I SPY four times, fell in love during the run of the series–while both were married to other people–got divorced, and married each other during a tumultuous series of events. So the rocky relationship between Sam and Kelly was based on a similar relationship between the stars, adding, in retrospect, a fascinating layer to this story.

    “I found myself immensely disliking Kelly Robinson in this episode.” Part of this is the way Kelly is written (by his portrayer), but some of this is due to Culp, a consistently wonderful actor who never became an A-lister because, IMO, of his inherently chilly demeanor (and was not always particularly well-liked off-stage, though he and Cosby remained lifelong friends). This made him a terrific heavy (oh, goodness, you should see A COLD NIGHT’S DEATH or his COLUMBOs), but made it sometimes hard to get behind him as a hero. This is where Cosby’s natural humor came to play, as it rubbed off on Culp, and it’s fascinating to follow I SPY through the years and watch how Culp slowly turns into Bill Cosby.

    If you continue to watch I SPY, I think you may enjoy it, but be warned that–with the exception of a few episodes, mainly Culp’s (“Home to Judgment” remains as powerful forty years later)–it did not normally have the same level of intensity and drama as “Magic Mirror.” I think it’s a wonderful series with two compelling stars and a fascinating counterpoint to the gadget-heavy spy shows glutting small and big screens at the time. As you note, I SPY was about a couple of working stiffs, civil servants whose office happened to be in Mexico or Morocco instead of a strip mall.

    Reply
    • Anthony Strand

      Thanks for the info! I’m definitely thinking about watching a few more episodes, maybe this summer.

      Reply
    • Les Chappell

      Marty – thanks for your thoughts on the episode. Lots of things that didn’t make it into the discussion, particularly the real-world relationship between Culp and Nuyen. Was this the episode they met on, or was that “The Tiger?”

      To answer your question about switching episode orders, I did watch “The War Lord” over the weekend and decided it wasn’t a great fit for the discussion. It was too philosophical of an episode and less about the actual business of being a secret agent. I also found Culp’s decision to play the warlord himself very distracting – leaving aside the dicey question of just how racist we were supposed to find that makeup, it meant that Kelly wasn’t in the episode nearly as much. (This led to a particularly hilarious moment when the camera panned around all of the characters having dinner, and as the warlord talked “Kelly” was always either obscured by a pillar or had his back to the camera.) Had we been discussing six-eight episodes of the show it certainly would have made it into the mix, but I felt we’d have a much different conversation.

      We switched to “Magic Mirror” for a few reasons: I did want us to cover a Culp-written episode, I liked the synergy of covering two Ricardo Montalban appearances in a row, and the premise looked more like it fit into our broader discussion.

      You say that Culp’s episodes were atypical for I SPY. Any recommendations for more typical episodes for those of us planning to watch more episodes?

      Reply
      • Marty McKee

        Culp and Nuyen met, I believe, on “The Tiger” (I forgot “Magic Mirror” was a sequel of sorts, adding still another layer to the show), but they may have known each other before. I don’t remember. If you get a chance to hear the Culp commentaries, take the several hours and do it.

        Recommendations off the top of my head: “Bet Me a Dollar” (though it keeps the stars apart for most of the show), “Tatia” (another Kelly-falls-in-love story), “So Long, Patrick Henry,” “Mainly on the Plains” (maybe the funniest episode, and Karloff is so wonderful), “Home to Judgment” (not typical, but the best I SPY and one of the best TV hours of the 1960s), “A Cup of Kindness,” “Tag, You’re It,” “All Done with Mirrors,” “Little Boy Lost,” “Room with a Rack,” “Bridge of Spies,” “The Loser.” Well, that’s a lot. I love I SPY and could probably come up with 20 more.

        Reply
  2. Wilma Heberlin

    We never missed this show when it was on the air originally. Apart from the fact that is was one of the first to team an African American and Caucasian on an equal footing, the story line was nearly always valid (we all have bad days!) and it took a good hard look ay international espionage of the time. All of these shows have to be viewed in the context of the time in which they were originally aired.

    Reply
  3. Jim Mills

    I happened upon this site because I was looking for commentary on ‘Magic Mirror’ which I watched yet again last night. Great writing, and Marty McKee said most of what I wanted to in response.

    The only thing I want to add is that that great line “I am Chinese. I am a stone. I go where I am kicked” was something that France Nuyen originally said; it was printed in LIFE Magazine in an early article about her. Robert Culp apparently saw that and thought “Wow! Who is this woman??!” They later met, worked together, and fell in love (and married and alter divorced), but it all started with that line.

    Reply

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