Tuesday, November 14, 2006

British Secret Agent Week: The Avengers: "The Winged Avenger", Part 2

When we last left our intrepid avengers, they were in an office building in London. How then, in the matter of a blink of the eye, did Mrs. Peel get on the side of a craggy mountain during a snowstorm, interviewing Sir Lexius Cray as he ascends to the summit?

Why, that's no real mountain at all, but merely the right of an English nobleman to have a working model of the face of the Eiger in his drawing room:

It's one of the quirky elements I love best about The Avengers: the eccentricity of the British (usually upper-class) that's put on full display and yet never mocked, even by our surrogates in this world, Steed and Mrs. Peel. In the British Empire, well by gum, it's every Englishman's right to have a manor home filled with giant playing cards or race car simulators or a full-fledged movie studio or yes, a mountainside complete with giant fan to blow snow across the summit. In small but very specific ways The Avengers therefore often reminds me of the brilliant writing of my favorite author, P. G. Wodehouse: the idea that there's nothing unusual with an aristocrat spending his days either contemplating a prize pig or climbing a false mountain—in fact, that's what the class structure is all about: being titled is less about having money than being able to dive to unfettered limits into your hobbies or obsessions.

There's nothing like hot tea on the terrace following a snowy ascent, even a fake one, so Mrs. Peel accepts Kray's invitation gracefully. "See you downstairs, then!" he bellows cheerfully, and takes not the stairs but climbs out the window and rappels down the side of his manor house to get to the first floor...excuse me, we're in England, the ground floor.

Hmm, an expert skilled at climbing sides of buildings? Could this be a clue for our keen-eyed Mrs. Peel? Maybe, but don't bet your pounds and pence on it just yet: The Avengers delights in tossing us dozens of red herrings throughout each episode, and this one's no exception.

Down on the terrace, Mrs. Peel interviews Sir Lexius, while Kray's sinister butler Tay-Ling lurks about. Tay-Ling is one of the problematic bits of this episode: a Chinese character played with the usual distressing political incorrectness by Caucasian actor John Garrie, complete with a couple horrifyingly cringe-worthy jokes about how he pronounces the word "exploits.". It's not Garrie's sole role on The Avengers: he played a role in the Tara King episode "Fog," but at least he didn't have to play a horribly clichéd Asian straight from stock theater pantomime there!

Emma is posing as a journalist from a magazine published by the Roberts & Son company. Sir Lexius has indeed heard of the murders of the Robertses, and declares it "good riddance!"—he'd been swindled by them out of royalities for his recently-published memoirs. Emma thanks him for his gracious hospitality and leaves, and doncha know it, the second her jaunty little roadster disappears down the lane, Sir Lexius and Tay-Ling reflect that inquisitive Mrs. Peel is "nothing we can't handle!" and Kray summons his prize falcon with a whistle, glowering sinisterly after the departing Emma.

Back at the big house with the mountainy goodness packed inside, Tay-Ling telephones an unknown party to threaten him over a letter Sir Lexius has recently received from a man called Poole. Tay-Ling sets up a midnight meeting with the man at the other end of the phone. Midnight meetings: never a good idea where murder is concerned, doncha think?

Now, on CSI they'd be moving in there, grabbing that falcon, testing its beak and talons in glowing computerized montage segments, but Steed and Emma do things the old-fashioned way: Steed has created a scale model of the Roberts Building using a shoebox, and he doesn't need any calculator to work out the height, wind velocity, and temperature and Steed is intent on using these to detect scientifically how someone (or something!) could get up the side of a sheer building without being detected. "Using a shoe box?" Emma questions. "They laughed at Edison," Steed points out. "Only when he was serious," counters Emma.

Steed's scientific approach is fine for him, but Mrs. Peel prefers the more active path and sets out on a midnight re-visit to Sir Lexius Kray, where Tay-Ling awaits his visitor and we sit on the edge of our seats with the terrible premonition something sinsister's about to happen but at least maybe it will happen to the horrible stereotypical character.

Emma arrives at the Kray estate in the middle of the day-for-night and shows that she doesn't need a ladder (or taloned claws) to do her bit of good old-fashioned British B&E:

I definitely wouldn't recommend trying this stunt unless you've got an action catsuit like Mrs. Peel, kids.

Meanwhile, a pair of shiny silver boots skulks through the wooded edges of the Kray estate, the moonlight glinting off silver talons. Emma hears the rustling and follows to investigate. She enters the house just in time to miss seeing Sir Lexius fetch his sleeping falcon. Now count along with me: that's four people (and a falcon) skulking around the Kray estate trying to keep hidden from each other. It's practially a Wodehouse country house novel right here, only minus a silver cow creamer but with bonus added killing man-bird.

In the drawing room, it's that man-birdy shadow that falls across Tay-Ling, who doesn't fare much better than any of the previous victims. Not only is he clawed neatly to death, causing all of us to breathe a sigh of relief, but he too whimpers and shrieks like a little girl. That's enough to draw the attention of Mrs. Peel, who sprints into the room just in time to find shredded Tay-Ling next to a newspaper straight from the Ironic Newsagents:

Sir Lexius arrives on the scene, well-armed with a revolver in one hand and a falcon in the other, displaying his keen and canny sense of being equipped for every defensive emergency. Let's see, gun, bird, maybe a cricket bat in his back pocket...he's set for anything.

Emma questions Sir Lexius: is anything missing or disturbed? Clueingly enough, there's a folder marked POOLE on the desk. That's Professor Poole, Kray explains: a crackpot inventor who claimed to have invented a set of special mountaineering boots that would allow their wear to climb up the side of a house. A ha! Another clue alert, another British eccentric to interrogate. Avengers stories often follow this same general path: a series of murderous episodes, each of which reveal the next person in line as a potential murder victim...or maybe the murderer. It's reminiscent at times of a video game puzzle: you can't move onto the next bit until you've finished with this bit right here. Avengers episodes therefore often give the impression of being very simplistic, a simple episodic movement from one scene to the next, but to an Avengers script is seldom that straightforward and simple: there are more twists and turns to come.

By the way, looks like Emma may have overlooked the most important clue of all in the debris at Sir Lexius's:

Oh yes! That Winged Avenger comic book. Forgot about that, didn't you? The main reason I'm reviewing this specific episode. More on that comic book as Steed and Emma pursue the mysterious hawkman-killer: the mystery deepens when we continue with Part Three tomorrow.


Matthew E said...

The best thing about this show--well, second best; the best thing is Diana Rigg as Emma Peel, who is completely awesome in every conceivable way--is Steed's obvious delight upon encountering all of the eccentrics and monomaniacs that populate a typical Avengers plot.

Fortress Keeper said...

Emma totally rocks, as long as Diana Rigg is playing the character.

Uma was less convincing and even needed to be rescued by Steed. *ugh*

MD said...

I've only ever seen half of an episode of the Avengers, but this review makes me think that is would be something I like. Thanks, Bully.

Evan Waters said...

I would point out that the original Emma Peel sometimes needed rescuing as well. I think she got put in bondage more than Wonder Woman.

Paul Saether said...

Probably stating the obvious but does everyone know that the (most)famous Emma in bondage episode was the basis for the X-Men Hellfire club story in #129 etc.?

Evan Waters said...

Well, that was a slightly different sort of "bondage" than what was being talked about- but for more trivia, the episode in question ("A Touch of Brimstone") was actually banned for some time because of the heavy S&M overtones. At one point it was actually being sold on video in the S&M section of adult bookstores.

PAUL said...