Mike Wallace is in Warsaw to extract a defector. When the defector doesn’t make the rendezvous, Wallace realises he’s been spooked by the clumsy efforts of the local station. Mike is then forthright in expressing his displeasure to the Head of Section Walter Wheatley (Patrick Godfrey).
Wheatley, with his own reputation to protect, sends an immediate signal to London and blames Wallace for the aborted mission, which results in an investigation being launched, headed by Peele (much to Burnside’s disgust). When a situation later arises in Stockholm (there’s a suggestion that the Stockholm Number Two may be a KGB agent) Burnside elects to send Wallace, which is Burnside’s way of proving to him that he still has his full support.
A Question of Loyalty might not revolve around matters and life and death for once, but it’s still a compelling episode. We open with Wallace in Warsaw and it’s a good chance to see him work solo for the first time. His inexperience is made clear after he’s less than diplomatic with the Head of Station (although it’s easy to imagine Burnside having a similar attitude, so maybe he’s just taking after his boss).
Michael Cashman had been appearing on television since the mid 1960’s, but The Sandbaggers was his first regular television role – although given how the series has run through a number of Sandbaggers, it’s far from clear he’ll be a permanent fixture.
The fallout from the Warsaw mission sees the relationship between Burnside and Peele drop to a new low. There’s a real bite to their early scene, as Burnside bitterly tells him that he’s sure to side with the Head of Section (since Peele was a former Head of Section). Peele retorts that Burnside’s bound to side with the Sandbagger (as an ex-Sandbagger). As ever, it’s riveting stuff.
Neither the Warsaw or Stockholm missions are important in themselves – they just provide the backdrop, whilst the character conflicts and interactions play out. This is made clear when Burnside attempts to obtain assistance for Wallace in Stockholm. He doesn’t want to send his other Sandbagger, so he asks Jeff Ross if Karen Milner is free. This does give us a rather parochial view of both the British and American intelligence services – the British only have two special operations agents and the Americans seem to be just as short-staffed (although it’s possible they have hundreds more in the office next door).
Jeff says he’s happy to send her, if Langley agrees, but suggests that Burnside briefs her over dinner. It’s his way of trying to play cupid, but Burnside’s legendary spikiness makes it a far from convivial meal (at one point she asks him if he’s drinking coke or vinegar).
When Langley refuses to authorise the mission, she still attempts to assist by dropping a broad hint the next day that eventually allows Burnside to realise that the Stockholm Number Two isn’t a KGB agent, he’s a CIA one. It’s an interesting development which shows that even so-called friendly powers are capable of deceit and deception.
But is Burnside grateful for Karen’s assistance? Hardly, as he calls her a bitch, leading Willie to wonder exactly how much of Burnside died in Berlin last year. This is the starkest picture of Burnside we’ve yet seen – a compulsive/obsessional, with no interests apart from his career and a man who displays a complete unwillingness to let anybody make emotional contact. The reason’s clear – he let Laura get close and she was killed, so he’s not prepared to let it happen again. When Willie asks him why he hates Karen, he says it’s “because she’s alive.”
And a further twist is that Peele agrees that Warsaw Station were at fault and Wallace is cleared. Given that Burnside was convinced Peele would come down against the Sandbaggers, it provides us with another example that Peele isn’t the fool that Burnside often believes him to be – and also that Burnside’s tunnel-vision can sometimes be a handicap.