She’ll mix you a potion, lace the brew with drugs, but she’ll be powerless to bewitch you, even so.
– Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles
Another in an occasional series about Steed as trickster.
John Steed is a master trickster who well knows the efficacy of flirtation and sex appeal in dealing with the women he encounters when working a case. Sometimes he’s frank and friendly with them, at other times ridiculously gallant, inhabiting a character drawn with broad strokes. Whichever persona he decides to employ, his behavior is always calibrated to the particular situation and the person with whom he is interacting. Because of his skill as an actor, and because he is usually able to correctly read his audience, he is often successful in getting the information he wants.
But what happens when Steed is the one being vamped? What happens when the master trickster is the intended victim of flirtation combined with deception and assumed identity?
Such a situation is played out in “Build a Better Mousetrap.” Steed is visiting a small village near a power plant in order to find out why strange things have been happening to appliances and machinery in the area. He stays at the local pub, which he makes his base of operations. Unbeknownst to Steed, the bad guys – Colonel Wesker along with his niece, Caroline, and one other colleague – have also set up camp there and are pursuing many of the same leads. Just as Steed wants to find the source of the mysterious power failures and put a stop to them, the villains want to take control of the technology causing them in order to put it to their own nefarious uses.
Caroline knows from the get-go that Steed is investigating the odd mechanical and electrical occurrences that have been plaguing the vicinity of the power plant. Steed makes no secret of his interest in this phenomenon. Caroline overhears Steed’s first conversation about it with Harris, the landlord, including Steed’s announcement that he plans to talk to Mr. Stigant, one of the power plant administrators. After this point, she sets herself the project of seducing Steed, attempting to use sex to distract him so that she can find out more about what he wants and to keep him occupied so that her fellow villains can do their dirty work unimpeded.
Unlike Steed, whose ability to read others and to adapt and improvise is finely tuned, Caroline not only gets Steed completely wrong almost from the start, she constantly changes her approach to him based on assumptions about what she thinks he must want and why her previous attempts have failed. Caroline has decided that since Steed is a vigorous male, he must needs be easily susceptible to and distracted by feminine wiles, especially those of a young, pretty female who not only flirts but practically throws herself into his lap. Steed is an inveterate flirt himself, and likes women very much, but he doesn’t respond well to excessive familiarity, even from a beautiful woman, and he’s not about to take up with someone else while he’s there with Cathy.
Steed initially has no clue that Caroline is working for the opposition. All he knows is that he finds her behavior discomfiting at first and then increasingly objectionable. As Caroline escalates her assaults on Steed’s virtue and makes her own attempts to infiltrate the biker gang – which Steed is also doing by befriending them himself and by having Cathy join them as a member – he becomes more and more leery of her. Because Caroline refuses to move past her assumptions about what she thinks Steed must want from a woman, and because she indulges her contempt for what she assumes to be Steed’s own lack of skill as an agent and a trickster, she ends up confirming his suspicions, which helps to set the stage for the failure of the villainous plot, the arrest of her colleagues, and her own capture.
When we join Steed at the bar, he is having a conversation with Harris, the landlord. Harris is regaling Steed with tales about his ex-wife. The two men stand close together, and even though Steed is a little astonished by some of Harris’ revelations, Steed leans in towards him. Steed’s back is to the bar, but his front faces openly towards the rest of the pub: he’s not making any attempt to protect himself, either consciously or subconsciously, from anyone or anything that might come from that direction.
Caroline sits at a table across from the bar. Steed looks up and notices her sitting there. She’s a pretty woman; he looks at her appreciatively. She smiles back at him, demure.
When the Colonel comes downstairs, Steed begs an introduction from Harris. Harris introduces Steed to the Colonel and to Caroline. The three exchange pleasantries. Caroline asks if Steed can ride: he says yes, and she invites him to go riding with her some time. He indicates that he might be interested in joining her.
Throughout this exchange, though, Steed’s body language is different from what it was during his conversation with Harris. His right arm rests on the bar, and he leans away from the Colonel and from Caroline. He has his left hand on his hip, his left elbow jutting more or less in their direction. It’s not an aggressive stance, but it is not welcoming, either. It’s unclear whether Steed actually suspects them of any skulduggery at this point, but his attitude and posture suggest that he has no intention of trying to make friends with them.
At various points throughout the rest of the episode, Caroline attempts to get Steed to make good his promise to ride with her. She also makes the mistake of touching Steed without his consent, not once, but twice. The first time, Steed has spread a local map out on the bar and and studying it when Caroline comes up beside him and caresses his hand. Then she sidles up close to him and makes eyes. Steed is startled by this, and a bit put out. He only just met her for the first time a few hours ago. He dislikes both the familiarity and her presumption. But he covers it with humor.
The subtext in this exchange is complex. On the surface, they’re talking about their riding date, while under the surface seems to be banter about sex, but there also seems to be an attempt to figure out what the other is after in terms of the case in hand. Caroline’s question about a “little secret place” looks like it might be an assumption that Steed is looking for somewhere to make out while they’re on their ride, but more likely it’s a veiled attempt at finding out what Steed has discovered about the source of the electrical and mechanical anomalies, so that she can convey that info to her colleagues.
Steed’s rebuff about not wanting to mislead her and his faulty sense of direction would seem to be calculated both to get her to quit making passes at him and also to put her off the scent with respect to the case. He may not understand exactly how she’s connected to what’s going on, but his instincts tell him not to trust her, at least not just yet.
The following morning, Caroline again tries to get Steed to make good on his promise to go riding when he is getting ready to leave after having breakfasted with Cathy. Cathy is still at the table finishing her meal when Caroline arrives. Steed introduces Caroline to Cathy, partly because it’s the polite thing to do, and very likely partly because he hopes that Caroline will pick up on the hint that he’s there with another woman, and therefore unlikely to have any real interest in her. Caroline doesn’t twig, though. As Steed puts on his jacket, Caroline asks about their ride, but takes a different tack from the one she tried the night before.
This time, she avoids touching him. She gazes at Steed with wide eyes and an innocent, schoolgirl demeanor that she assumes will make her irresistable to him. Unfortunately for Caroline, she has badly miscalculated. She already annoyed him with her forwardness the night before, and studied vapidity is not one of the things that make Steed’s heart go pitter-pat. Even had he not been there to work a case, it is unlikely he would have responded positively to either approach. Cathy, meanwhile, observes this entire exchange with unconcealed amusement.
Caroline’s attempts to seduce Steed escalate even further at the end of the second act. Steed has arranged to meet Cathy and Dave at the millhouse, where they think the center of the problem is located. Steed has told them that he’ll give them a ten-minute head start and then follow on. He’s just about to rush out of the pub when he is accosted yet again by Caroline. He can’t shake her off without either being openly rude or giving away what he is doing, so he joins her at the bar. Steed tries to escape one more time, but she grabs his hand. Steed dislikes this intensely, but he grits his teeth and puts up with it for the sake of the case.
Caroline pours two whiskeys, and slips a drug into Steed’s.
This time Caroline abandons the naive schoolgirl approach for something more sultry and sophisticated. She hands Steed his whiskey, telling him that she was restless because she couldn’t stop thinking about him, and that she’s fascinated by him. Steed is both unimpressed and amused by this, but doesn’t let her see it. Then she tries to get him to talk about why he’s so interested in the mill. This gets her precisely nowhere.
Because her first attempt at intimacy failed, she tried the schoolgirl thing. When that also fails, she assumes that the problem is that a) she hasn’t been intimate enough and b) maybe Steed would prefer a more mature woman. The passes she makes at Steed are all over the map: if nothing else, her lack of consistency and constant adaptations of her character would have tipped him off that she’s playing roles and is up to no good.
Caroline suggests they take one of the tables across from the bar. On the way there, she ups the ante by calling Steed “John.” This shocks him no end. Nobody calls him that, not even Mrs Gale.
If Caroline had actually been paying attention to Steed’s signals, she would have noticed immediately that she offended him by using his first name without his permission. HIs smile disappears for a fraction of a second, and he rolls his eyes at her. But she can’t see past her own assumptions. He’s a man, therefore he must want sex. She’s a woman, offering sex. Therefore he must want her. That Steed would be a man who sees women as more than vehicles for his own pleasure never crosses her mind.
When they sit at the table, Caroline twines her arm around Steed’s. She’s trying to maneuver him into drinking the whiskey. He dodges this, though, by pretending to embrace her so that he can dump the mickey finn into a potted plant behind Caroline’s back. Then he pretends to finish drinking it in front of her.
Of course the pretense must be continued in order to be convincing: Steed wobbles, then falls out of his chair. He writhes on the floor, behaving as though he was feeling the effects of a powerful sedative, or maybe something even worse. Caroline laughs at him, then gives herself away even further when she slaps his hand down and shouts, “Nyet!” She runs out of the pub.
Caroline’s behavior confirms Steed’s suspicions about her. As soon as Caroline has gone, Steed rushes out to the water mill with Dave (who had been tied up in the barn by the Colonel), where they help Cathy collar the bad guys, including Caroline.
One of the strengths of Steed’s approach to the others in this episode (and to other people in general) is that he usually tries to avoid making assumptions. Instead, he makes close observations of people and situations, and goes with what he actually knows. For example, when he tries to join the bikers’ party, he uses information that he has to hand when working his skill as a trickster: he talks about motorcycles with Dave, using the fact that Dave rides a particular brand of motorcycle as a lever to get himself into the party. He also treats Dave and his fellow bikers with respect, which convinces them to work with him, rather than against him.
Because Steed makes no assumptions about Caroline, but rather notices her behavior towards him and adds up the clues, he quickly figures out that she does not mean him well. Even if she hadn’t actually been an enemy agent, and even if Cathy hadn’t been in the picture, Steed likely would have parried Caroline’s advances anyway. He’s not that kind of man, he loathes unearned familiarity and disrespect, and his keen sense of self-preservation would have kept him wary of her, even had her intent been, in fact, benign.
Caroline knows nothing of this, and doesn’t care to learn. She has no respect for him as either an enemy agent or as a human being, and so neglects to observe him at all. He’s a cipher to her, just another stupid male who is biologically programmed to fall into a woman’s arms at the least provocation. It is Caroline’s failure to get to know Steed even a little bit and to meet him where he’s at that ultimately makes her overtures to him so completely unsuccessful.