“Wheels” was originally broadcast on October 29, 1966. Directed by Tom Tries and written by Laurence Heath, the episode finds the IMF dispatched to a South American country to prevent a fraudulent election, so a police-controlled right wing party won’t become a terrorist dictatorship. What makes this mission impossible is that the team not only has to fix the rigged machines are housed in the police station under the strict supervision of the very people who rigged them. They are also not allowed to enlist the help of any locals or contribute in any way that will not “honestly reflect the vote of the people.”
1.) History Repeats Itself
Chalk this episode as being accidentally topical. Right now, in our current day real life, this aspiring autocrat is doing whatever he can to steal an election, though not as discreetly or competently as the people in this episode. That he’s been buddying up with the police force, who grow more nationalistic and fascistic every day, and making them all kinds of promises in the wake of protests against their brutality, raises red flags on its own.
“Wheels” begins with police officers shoving a group of student protestors into jail, probably with the intent to prevent them from voting. There are other, quick glances of police brutality scattered throughout, just so you know what’s at stake if the IMF are caught or killed. And to make it more tense, the police captain and commandant might be the first villains we’ve seen on Mission: Impossible who seem aware that something’s odd and actively move to prevent the team from efficiently pulling off their mission.
This abusive behavior from law enforcement officers in not a new thing. And before you say this takes place in a fictional foreign country and doesn’t reflect on what was happening in the United States then and now, just remember, the Civil Rights Movement was well underway in 1966, and those images of police violence didn’t come out of nowhere.
2.) Times Never Change
Also accidentally topical: when the IMF stage a prison break to mask their own escape, the cops respond by immediately opening fire. Barney Collier, y’know, the Black guy, gets shot and spends the rest of the mission struggling against his wounds. The best moment of the night comes when Dan Briggs and Willy Armitage bring him back to their base. “Barney’s been shot,” Briggs says. “Get him a drink.” I guess in the ’60s, a shot was enough to recover from a grievous injury.
Later, while trying to work and set up equipment while recovering from a gunshot wound, Barney collapses. “I don’t know why I passed out,” he says. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”
Alcohol might be a suitable disinfectant, but it’s not a great medication.
3.) Stumbles and Roadblocks
Much like the overly ridiculous gadgets in the last episode, there are a few moments here that gave me pause, where the fun and ridiculousness was stretched almost too far. I can buy that the student protestors would remain quiet when they saw Armitage judo chop a guy, sure. But the ambulance that crashes into a building? “Wheels” established early on how much oversight the police have in this city, and I would be willing to bet they knew about the accident and new ambulance almost immediately. Also, during the climactic scene where Barney repairs the rigged machines, the commandant and police captain seem too willing to stand aside while Briggs and Armitage stall for time. Like, I don’t buy that cops would allow that happen? Instead, I could easily see them, if they’re feeling generous, shoving the injured parties into an ambulance, or, more likely, arresting everyone for some dubious claims. Especially because not a scene before the police confronted Rollin-Hand-as-Miguel-Cordova for conspiring with a person of interest. What’s more, the scene’s already fairly tense, what with Barney close to passing out from his gunshot wound and over-exertion, and the delay almost undercuts that tension.
I did think it was funny that the person they chose for Rollin Hand to impersonate was a prominent and vocal anti-nationalistic figure. “Wheels” doesn’t do much with this plot point. It holds it for a beat, then moves to something else.Continued below
4.) What’s in Store
“Wheels” ends on a quiet, cautiously hopeful moment. Cinnamon Carter’s job involves distracting the person Rollin Hand’s impersonating. (Of course both are played by Martin Landau.) She and the target, Miguel Cordova, who runs an anti-nationalist bookstore and is under constant supervision from the cops, end up far outside of town when the news comes over the radio that the leftist, democratic party won. Miguel Cordova — whose name, by the way, everyone pronounces strangely — is left shocked and dumbstruck. Obviously, even he fully expected the police to take over.
“We won,” he says. “Can you believe it?”
Cinnamon Carter looks at him with something between compassion and pity. “That’s great,” she says. “That’s just great.”
Let’s hear it one more time for Barbara Bain because I don’t think they heard it all the way in the back, but her performance in this moment is truly something powerful. She knows that although the election is finished, the fight is far from over. That the cops aren’t going to go crawling, defeated, into the night, that they probably plan to retaliate with more force and coercion. The right will take any opportunity, especially through fear and greed and oppression and retaliation, to assert their power. She knows that the problems haven’t been fully solved. You can see all this in the gaze she gives Miguel Cordova, the expression that is both happy for him and worried about him at the same time. Because the moment you let your guard down, the fascists rear back up.
5.) The Fight Continues
Not much has changed since 1966, but the march against tyranny goes on. Here, a secret team might have come in to save the day, but I appreciate how “Wheels” establishes the people of this country have been fighting this regime before the IMF showed up. There’s the students protesting, there’s the signs in the shops, there’s the fact clusters of cops roam the streets, which happens especially when law enforcement are trying to show dominance. Like a cop T-pose.
We can’t trust a secret spy team is going to come in and help make sure everything is all right. We can only rely on our communities and ourselves to get through this, to keep marching.