The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 20: Night of the Vicious Valentine): fantasy, eccentricity and camp comedy in an original plot

Irving Moore, “The Wild, Wild West (Season 2, Episode 20: Night of the Vicious Valentine)” (1966)

This episode is notable for winning the series its only Emmy award for Best Actress, the gong going to noted actor Agnes Moorehead, better known for her role as Endora the witchy mother of main witch character Samantha Stephens in the famous TV show “Bewitched”.

The story is a murder mystery in that agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) are investigating a series of unfortunate and untimely deaths of wealthy industrialists linked by the fact that they’ve been married for several months to much younger women whom they’ve met through a match-making agency run by one Emma Valentine (Moorehead). The episode runs in a narrative similar to the Diana Rigg colour episodes of “The Avengers” series with the agents chasing various leads, trying to prevent more tragedies and nearly meeting with tragedy themselves – Gordon nearly losing his head in a print shop but not over some gaudy stationery – and the colourful, almost surreal and even saccharine sets and the lavish costumes on all characters suggest a Western fantasy-land not far removed from that inhabited by John Steed and Emma Peel a hundred years later. Oh, Grant might be President but then Avengersland also had Queen Elizabeth II and Carnaby Street. A dastardly, eccentric villain with a noble quest to save women from economic and social exploitation that hide an agenda to take over the United States’ wealth and gain power, attended by equally strange and eccentric minions and claiming some bizarre torture and death-dealing devices, including one that looks like a steampunk version of Barbarella’s Orgasmatron. West and Gordon are even equivalent to Peel and Steed: West does most of the strong-arming but ends up spending a good part of the episode tied up and Gordon inveigles his way into Valentine’s love-nest. The climax is one of the highlights with both men trussed up helplessly attached to a glass structure that will collapse on top of yet another hapless industrialist on his wedding day. As ever, improbably the agents get out of that bit of trouble and into another but fight their way out and all good people in that episode live to see another day.

Moorehead is the star of the show here and doesn’t everyone from Conrad and Martin down to the script-writers and technical crew know it: the plot revolves around her, the script-writers give her the best lines, the actors acknowledge her star presence and let her dominate, the sets are as luxurious, spacious and decadent as the budget allowed, and even the folks in charge of furniture and ornaments give her a set of dumb-bells in the shape of love-hearts to exercise with. Moorehead knows she is playing an essentially campy role and deploys all her witchy Endora charm in infusing it with drama, character and wit. The only let-down here is that she doesn’t get enough screen time with Martin’s Gordon so they could parry witticisms; Conrad’s character is clever and resourceful but not allowed to trade puns and double entendres with Valentine while trapped in her creepy touchy-feely contraption which doesn’t get much of a work-out. (What the script-writers for The Avengers could have done with those hands to Mrs Peel!) I tip my ten-gallon hat off to “The Wild, Wild West” for combining the surreal, the campy and the plain bizarre with the spy adventure form in a way that makes this fantasy-land plausible without it looking twee in the way many Avengers episodes do.

The episode is an amusing commentary on the status of women in the US in the late 19th century and also in the 1960s: West’s conversation with Valentine on women seeking political and economic equality with men plays safe so that West doesn’t come off as too conservative or too progressive on the idea of feminism. A minor female characters plays a stereotypical simpering type but shows unexpected courage in the plot’s climax. Perhaps the producers could have done much, much more with the theme but as is, “The Night of the Vicious Valentine” is a real highlight with everyone pulling out all the stops in creative flair, camp comedy and inventive plot devices.

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