Looks Can Be Deceiving

In the Season 3 episode “Death of a Batman,” Steed breaks into Lady Cynthia’s flower shop to look for clues. While he is there, he is confronted by a very large man who is guarding the shop. After a brief scuffle, Steed manages to knock him out.

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The next morning, Steed is dragged out of bed by the sound of the doorbell. He opens the door, and an effusive Lady Cynthia bounces into his flat, bearing gifts. Steed, who isn’t quite awake yet, has no idea what Lady Cynthia is so happy about.

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Steed: What did I do?

They go into his living room, where Lady Cynthia examines him from head to toe, and then starts feeling him up. “You don’t seem all that muscular,” she observes. “You must be very deceptive.” Still puzzled, but not entirely immune to her flattery, Steed replies, “Yes. Yes, I am.”

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Lady Cynthia: How did you do it? You don’t seem all that muscular. You must be very deceptive.
Steed: I am. Now, what have I done?

It turns out that Lady Cynthia is no end impressed that Steed managed to knock out the guard in the shop, a former professional wrestler who goes by the name of Goliath. She has a hard time reconciling Steed’s relatively slender physique with the fact that he laid out a much larger, heavier man, one who used to clobber people for a living in the wrestling ring and who now rents himself out to do the same as a security guard. Steed, of course, does not bother to disabuse Lady Cynthia of her (possibly erroneous) impression of his brute strength—which she manifestly finds completely on-turning—by telling her that he managed to trick Goliath into hurling himself over the counter, and then used a flower pot to knock him unconscious.

Although Steed’s answer to the question about his deceptiveness arises in part from a puckish impulse to maintain Lady Cynthia’s perception of him as Samson in the flesh, it is nonetheless quite true: other people frequently take Steed at face value, underestimating both his brains and his brawn. Steed is usually content to let them do that, sometimes because he enjoys the feeling of superiority it gives him in the moment, even if he ends up not needing or not getting to reveal his skills later, while at other times he relishes their surprise when they find out how very wrong they were. In the latter case, Steed is after more than just the fun of giving villains their comeuppance: he also allows his opponents to continue underestimating him because doing so brings him tactical advantage.

I could dredge up numerous examples from pretty much every season, but I’m going to stick with the Emma Peel era for the purposes of this post, partly because those are the episodes I know best and partly because I have a corollary blog about Mrs Peel in the hopper: her skills and strength complement Steed’s very well, and she’s sometimes the reason Steed doesn’t have to show off his own fighting chops. (I’ll link here in addition to posting when that one is fit for human consumption. You can read about Mrs Peel here.)


Manners Maketh Man …

This motto, chosen by William of Wykeham for his collegiate foundations in Winchester and Oxford, was probably intended to encourage the fellows and scholars there to cultivate good manners in order for them to be able to function at the very highest levels of church and court. Wykeham knew that proper behavior and deportment speak volumes, and speak them much louder than words or even money. The idea that identity, education, skill, and talent can be revealed by manners and deportment has never really been news, and wasn’t even in the fourteenth century, but it is an important idea often traded upon by fictional heroes who use these characteristics not as a way to reveal identity but to subvert or conceal it.

One such hero, the Scarlet Pimpernel, is the alter ego of Sir Percy Blakeney, an Englishman who works to save French aristocrats from the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Blakeney conceals his actual swashbuckling, deadly dangerous, heroic self behind a lace-bedecked, limp-wristed, foppish façade. In fact, the Blakeney/Pimpernel character was one of Patrick Macnee’s reference points in his creation of the character of John Steed.

Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy Blakeney

Blakeney goes to great lengths to distance himself from the Pimpernel, especially through the conscious and even exaggerated adoption of styles of dress, gesture, speech, and comportment that are usually considered effeminate. This is intended as a form of  misdirection, since in Western culture effeminacy traditionally has been considered the direct opposite of characteristics such as strength, martial skill, and courage, characteristics which are traditionally coded as masculine and which apply instead to Blakeney’s heroic alter ego, the Pimpernel.

Steed does share some important characteristics with the Pimpernel. Steed is a snazzy dresser, having a weakness for bowler hats, perfectly-tailored bespoke suits, expensive silk ties, and jeweled tie pins. He’s extremely well mannered, treating everyone with courtesy, including the baddies. Like the Pimpernel, Steed is good at assuming personas in order to trick the villains and their agents. However, while Steed does sometimes put on an extravagantly gallant or loopy aristocratic persona in the service of a case, his dress sense is not part of that role: that’s how Steed really is. Further, unlike the Pimpernel, Steed doesn’t conceal his masculinity behind a carefully engineered façade—in fact, his masculinity is often the very thing he trades on in his quest to solve a case. His enemies’ misjudgement of him therefore is not usually related to (mis)gendered perceptions of his behavior or character.


… Or Is It the Clothes?

Percy Blakeney’s deception of his enemies is rooted both in wardrobe and in behavior. This is also true of Steed, although both the behaviors and the reason for the wardrobe are different. With his bowler hat, tightly furled umbrella, and well-cut suits, Steed presents an image either of a typical civil servant or a man-about-town, each of which he regularly employs, depending on circumstances. Neither the stereotypical civil servant nor the stereotypical man-about-town are particularly known for their physical prowess: Steed’s mode of dress, combined with his open and courteous friendliness and urbanity are therefore disarming to those he encounters, leading them to conclude (erroneously) that he is unlikely to be able to defend himself successfully from physical attack.

Steed sometimes consciously plays up his relationship to these stereotypes, while at others he lets the image he presents via his usual modes of speech and dress do the work for him. When he does finally decide to reveal himself to his enemies, sometimes he does it suddenly and overtly, while at other times he merely drops hints that he is not to be trifled with, and then shrugs and comes out swinging when the baddies actively pick a fight. However, no matter what the circumstances, no matter Steed’s own well-justified confidence in his own abilities and delight in feeling superior to an opponent, and no matter how many hints about his prowess he might let drop as warnings, he never attacks first just to show off. He waits until he is given a good reason for fighting, which usually takes the form of a direct attack upon himself or the need to rescue or defend someone else who has become a target for the villains.

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i’ll do better than that. i’ll break his arm.

One of the few instances in which Steed reveals himself almost immediately takes place in “A Sense of History.” Steed has been cornered by a group of students who are under the leadership of an obnoxious young man named Duboys, who turns out to be the chief henchman for the diabolical mastermind behind a trail of murders. Duboys is a bully, used to cowing others and using fear to bend them to his will. He assumes that he’ll be able to do the same to Steed, but when Steed refuses to wilt before the younger man’s thinly veiled verbal threats and then attempts to leave, Duboys commits the fatal error of touching him, both with obvious menace and without Steed’s permission. Steed already dislikes being touched by strangers, even when he knows they mean him no harm. Having a hand laid on him aggressively by a bully and a thug is therefore intolerable. Even so, Steed doesn’t try to physically dominate Duboys right away: first he warns Duboys that he won’t stand for being bullied by putting his own hand on Duboys’ shoulder and informing him that he doesn’t like the way he is being treated. It’s not until it becomes clear that Duboys intends to escalate the conflict that Steed decides to teach this disrespectful whelp a painful and memorable lesson, which he does with lightning speed.

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Steed: I object to having my word doubted.

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Duboys: Get your hand off me.
(Steed puts Duboys in an armlock)
Steed: I object very strongly indeed.
Duboys: GET HIM!

Duboys has made the mistake of taking Steed at face value. He sees a man some decades older than himself (and therefore with one foot in the grave already, according to him), and who although tall and broad-shouldered lacks bulk and is therefore not an obvious physical threat. And then there is the way Steed is dressed. He is wearing a bowler hat and a very conservative pin-stripe suit, over which is draped a fellow’s gown. From this very misleading evidence, Duboys concludes that Steed is probably another weedy academic who couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag, and who therefore can be easily intimidated or, if necessary, beaten into submission. Steed, of course, sees all of this, even though at no time has he assumed a persona that might have contributed to Duboys’ assessment of him as an easy target. Nevertheless, Steed knows exactly how Duboys perceives him, which makes it all the more delicious when he gets to prove that, far from being a hapless bookworm, he is significantly faster, stronger, and more skilled than Duboys is.

But it’s not only Duboys who has misunderstood who Steed is and what he is capable of. Professor Acheson, who did not see the armlock, likewise is surprised to learn that fierceness lurks behind Steed’s mild-mannered exterior. After Acheson chases the students off, he tells Steed to report Duboys to the Proctor if he keeps misbehaving, whereupon Steed says with his own special brand of arctic cheer that if Duboys bothers him again, he’ll break his arm.

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Acheson: Of course, if Duboys gives you any more trouble, just report him to the Proctor.
Steed: I’ll do better than that. I’ll break his arm.

Acheson was clearly expecting Steed to say something appropriately polite and conciliatory. It takes him a moment to process the fact that Steed has just threatened to inflict a grievous bodily injury on Duboys. And not only that: he is shocked when he realizes that Steed wasn’t joking. Acheson cannot reconcile what he sees on Steed’s surface with what Steed has just coldly promised to do.

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you’re in danger of ruffling my feathers

Steed takes a somewhat different approach in “The Living Dead.” Here, instead of presenting as his usual dapper self and letting that do the talking, he also adapts his behavior as part of his attempt to get the bad guys to underestimate him, while at the same time he dropping hints that messing with him might not be a very smart thing to do.

The local duke seems to be implicated in the strange goings-on that Steed and Mrs Peel have undertaken to investigate, so Steed heads out to the estate to see what he can find. He quite deliberately trespasses on the duke’s land, whereupon the duke’s gamekeeper and his assistant fire a warning shot at him. As Steed comes scrambling out of the brush, he adopts what Lord Peter Wimsey called “a silly-ass-about-town” attitude, prattling on about how lucky it was that he wasn’t shot.

Masgard asks him whether he saw the sign telling trespassers to keep out. Steed responds in another flood of cheerful babble that yes, in fact, he did see the sign, a marvelous sign, beautifully painted with lettering and everything (although not the font that he would have chosen), totally an excellent sign. At which point Masgard decides to get rough, grabbing Steed by the front of his shirt and angrily telling him that the sign meant what it said. Steed gets Masgard to back off without breaking character by whacking him on the wrist with his bowler and warning him: “You’re in danger of ruffling my feathers.”

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Steed: On the whole I’d say an excellent notice.
Masgard: It meant what it said. Keep out. Keep away.
Steed: You’re in danger of ruffling my feathers.

Here Steed is doing two things at once. He is purposefully trying to deceive Masgard as to his identity, by pretending to be a singleminded but not very bright sportsman (the little shimmy he does when straightening his jacket is pure gold), while at the same time letting Masgard know through action and subtext that maybe tangling with him is not such a good idea. Before the situation can escalate any further,  however, the duke arrives and demands to know what is going on. Steed spins a yarn about wanting to do some hunting on the duke’s land, so the duke takes him home for a drink. The duke might be taken in by Steed’s current persona, but Masgard isn’t as easily fooled, although he hasn’t quite made up his mind whether Steed is what he appears to be.

Steed encounters Masgard again later, in the exercise room at the duke’s house. Masgard is sunning himself under tanning lamps, and Steed questions him about the homeless guy, Kermit, and the ghost he supposedly saw. Masgard makes up a story about wanting to put the kibosh on the story about the ghost as a way of keeping tourists and spiritualists and other undesireables off the estate to protect the game. He says that he’s sure Steed will agree, since he is a sportsman himself. Steed, who has been standing next to a weightlifting apparatus attached to a handle and a cable, says that he does agree, and as he says this, he pulls the handle up to the side of Masgard’s face and then lets go.

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Steed: As a sportsman, let’s just say I share your concern for the game.

Besides wanting to annoy Masgard with the sound of the retracting cable and the clank of the weights crashing back down, Steed is also dropping a second hint that tangling with him is a stupid thing to do. He does this quite subtly, and although it’s not clear exactly how much Masgard can see because of the dark glasses he’s wearing, it’s all in how Steed holds that handle. He’s got it pinched between his forefinger and thumb, as if to say, “See, look at how I’m holding this weight like it’s nothing at all. You might want to consider what that means.”

However, Steed never gets to demonstrate personally to Masgard why ruffling his feathers is a bad idea. He is taken prisoner by Maggie, Masgard’s confederate, is taken before a firing squad, and has to wait for Mrs Peel to come rescue him. (About which more in the corollary post I promised above. I ended up talking about another episode or two instead, but the principle still applies.)

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feather dusters at four hundred yards

Horace: Here, that’s the man! That’s the man that broke into Lord Darcy’s flat!
Steed: He’s right, you know.

The stills above capture the moment at which Steed’s cover is blown at the meeting of the Hellfire Club in “Touch of Brimstone.” Steed and Mrs Peel have been following a trail of clues about a series of calamitous practical jokes that have been played on such important people as heads of state and highly placed government officials, the latest of which resulted in the death of the VIP in question. They have found that a man named John Cartney is the ringleader behind those jokes, and that he heads up an attempt at recreating the infamous Hellfire Club of Regency London which Steed finds out has plans to try to take over the British government.

Unlike the situation in “Living Dead,” where Steed attempts to conceal his dangerousness under a silly façade, in “Brimstone” being dangerous is part of the criteria for belonging in the first place. Steed infiltrates the Hellfire Club by passing a series of tests meant to uncover whether he has what it takes to be a member: specifically, an ability to hold his liquor (in quantity), and a willingness to take stupid dares that could end with serious injury.

Steed is handed a two-handled flagon, which Willy fills with wine. At first, Steed’s expression shows that he thinks this will be a piece of cake. And then Cartney tells Willy to “fill it to the brim.” After the initial shock at the amount of wine they expect him to consume wears off, Steed drains his flagon with aplomb and then smiles and asks for seconds. Steed is showing them that not only can he play their little games and win, he can up the stakes and still come out ahead.

The second test is one of physical daring. A dried pea is placed on a chopping block. Steed is told he has to move the pea out of the way before Roger’s axe descends. He is warned about Roger’s expertise, and Willy waves at him with a prosthetic hand that he earned when he tried playing that little game.

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Cartney: NOW!

Steed, of course, is much smarter than Willy. He knows that if he wants to leave that room with the same number of fingers he had when he came in, he’ll have to find a different way to move the pea. So instead of trying to brush it off the chopping block, he blows it off. Steed’s hands need never go near the blade of the axe. This impresses the others, and although Cartney admits Steed to membership in the club on the strength of his performance, his expression is difficult to read. Is he suspicious of Steed and does he think he will bear watching? Or is he considering Steed’s potential usefulness?

After Horace blows Steed’s cover, Cartney and the others give him the chance to fight for his life. Cartney also gives him the choice of weapon, but when Steed makes a joke about feather dusters instead, Willy presents him with a sword. Steed accepts the challenge.

Cartney: You will be given a chance against Willy, here. The choice of weapons is yours.
Steed: Feather dusters at four hundred yards.
(Willy holds up a saber)
Steed: Swords!

Cartney has a very high opinion of Willy’s talents as a swordsman, and rightly so: he is very, very good. While Cartney knows that Steed has both gumption and brains, he cannot know for sure that Steed is also quite deadly with a blade. After a long and difficult fight, Steed finally defeats Willy, running him through and then punching him in the head with a giant haymaker.

In this episode, the deception Steed engages in involves demonstrating his skills, not concealing them. His nonchalant attitude towards the duel has the effect of making him look even more dangerous than passage of the other two tests might suggest, since he has the audacity to pretend that a fight for his life is a mere bagatelle, something he deals with all the time. Steed is hiding in plain sight: he is that dangerous, he is that audacious, and fighting for his life is something he actually does on a regular basis.


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