Alan Crosland Jr, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 13: Night of the Skulls)” (1966)
A really surprising episode this turns out to be, with surprises and gags following after another, all done in such a way as to appear completely plausible in spite of many daft ideas. Firstly Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) fight over a woman, and West shoots Gordon dead. West then goes on the run while Gordon’s funeral, officiated over by Gordon himself in disguise as a priest(!), is held. Turns out the stoush is a set-up to allow West to infiltrate a secret cult that is swallowing up various murderers on the run and the only way West can penetrate this group is to be a murderer himself.
West not only infiltrates the cult but thanks to a bizarre trial in which he is tried by a jury of “peers” – that is, fellow murderers! – for the murder of Artemus Gordon, he is convicted and made a member of the cult. The cult leader (and trial judge) proposes a new trial in which the murderers whittle down their numbers – that is, one another! – to select three people for a special assignment. In the meantime, Gordon in yet another disguise infiltrates the cult and gets as far as contacting West before they’re both discovered by the cult members and imprisoned down a well. By means of an ingenious though the hokeyest of hokey escapes, the two agents emerge from the well and try to foil the cult members’ plot to kill US President Ulysses Grant, his Vice-President and the Secretary of State.
This is an entertaining episode all the way right through to the end with perhaps the biggest surprise of all in the customary tag scene that takes place in West and Gordon’s private railway car. The cult members are rounded up and sent on their way to justice. There are at least three or four fights, the most notable being a swordfight between West and a Japanese samurai: West can’t handle a sword properly so the fight ends with an accidental tragedy. Conrad and Martin act out their parts in the way they’re supposed to, Conrad as the straight James Bond spy type and Martin as his comedy foil; they keep up the running gag of West nearly killing Martin yet again, and moreover include the cult leader who turns out to be a US senator suffering from a bad case of megalomania in a near-murder scene. The climax is cleverly done, taking place the next day after West has despatched the three would-be assassins, when viewers would have expected West to rejoin Gordon in seeking out the ring-leader.
The cheap budget for the episode gives it a clean bare-bones setting in which West has to keep negotiating a labyrinth of passage-ways and cul-de-sacs that end up as a closed maze. The ambience is somewhat austere as a result and the producers had to resort to unusual techniques, like filming one particular scene from a bird’s-eye view, to maintain the suspense and the shadowy nature of the cult.
The narrative of the plot plays with and confounds viewer expectations of how it should proceed while maintaining the series’ usual tropes of West playing straight man who attracts fights and femme fatales like a lamp attracts moths, Martin’s penchant for outlandish disguises, various eccentric villains, a main baddie with a swollen ego and bizarre motifs that reference and question aspects of modern society at a safe distance for viewers. In this episode, the theme is political corruption and the thin division between legitimate politicians who look and act squeaky-clean, and secret crime organisations on whose help those politicians rely. (Ironically President Grant, the ultimate employer of West and Gordon, in real life was sometimes associated with corrupt appointees, especially during his second term.) West’s trial and conviction appear to mock the rituals of court sessions in the US. At times the episode does not feel much like a Western at all, so closely does it depend on the plot and its characters to pull the story along.
Viewers will enjoy the emphasis on a secret cult within the US government plotting a coup against the President and his cabinet, and the various plot twists that advance the plot along, make it look plausible and tie up all loose ends. Surprisingly the plot and the ideas and issues associated with it resonate with modern conspiracy theories about the possibility that a secret government might exist within the nominal US government and the episode feels very fresh and contemporary.