From her very first introduction in “Town of No Return,” Emma Peel is presented as being both extraordinarily intelligent and a skilled fighter. She draws on these abilities in episode after episode, helping Steed put the bad guys out of business, but it takes a while for them to catch on that she is more than just an adjunct to Steed. This is a shift that can be tracked in two episodes in particular: “Girl from AUNTIE” in Season 4 and “Correct Way to Kill” in Season 5.
When Emma tangles with the baddies, it’s usually under one of the following three rubrics, all of which eventually find their way back to Steed:
- the bad guys don’t know about her or her relationship to Steed, but her/their cover is blown and the baddies find out that she’s actively working the case with him; or
- it is obvious that she is working with him from the beginning, so she is targeted equally with him in her professional capacity; or
- the bad guys know that she and Steed are linked through an important personal relationship, so they try to capitalize on that in order to get to Steed, independently of any knowledge they might or might not have about her abilities or her professional relationship to him.
It’s not until “Girl from AUNTIE” that the villains decide to go after Emma for what she knows and does in her own right, not just because of her personal and professional connection to Steed. In this episode, Emma has been kidnapped by a dealer in rare items, on behalf of an enemy agent named Ivanov. Steed manages to track down and arrest Ivanov before he can take possession of Emma. The arrest is publicized, so Mrs Peel is put up for auction instead, as “Lot 17.”
The auctioneer tells the room full of foreign diplomats and enemy agents that Mrs Peel “carries the disposition of Western defense bases in her head, is a cipher expert of no mean ability, and would be a splendid addition for any intelligence system anywhere in the world.”
At this point, then, about three-quarters of the way through Season 4, Emma has come to the villains’ notice in a way beyond her connection to Steed. Her association with him likely has led to her having at least some of the knowledge claimed by the auctioneer, but it is that knowledge, combined with her other abilities, that make her valuable to them. Further, her professional relationship to Steed is not even a factor for the people who have captured her. It’s unclear whether they realize she also has a personal relationship to Steed, because they make a clumsy attempt to “replace” the missing Emma with an actress named Georgie, which will fool noone who knows Mrs Peel at all.
Just as Emma often pretends not to know Steed when they are each working under cover from different angles, Steed is careful to maintain a distance from Emma in this episode. In a move uncharacteristic for him, Steed uses a false name in his dealings with the villains. That the bad guys thought they might substitute Georgie for Emma suggests to Steed that Emma’s captors don’t really know anything about him, his work, or the depth (or even existence) of his relationship to Mrs Peel, but at the same time he knows that he has a reputation with the people who ultimately might be interested in Emma and who might have engineered her capture. Therefore, in his dealings with the auctioneer Steed gives the surname “ffitch,” because he wants to keep himself as anonymous as possible in order to increase his chances of being able to find Mrs Peel before something bad happens.
In “Girl from AUNTIE,” Mrs Peel is seen as a desirable form of property. She has secrets and abilities that are potentially useful to Eastern Bloc agents and others. However, the abilities that are emphasized here are her intellectual accomplishments, not her talents with firearms or hand-to-hand combat. Although it is possible that the auctioneer’s statement about her usefulness to any intelligence agency also encompasses Emma’s physical skills, those are significantly backgrounded here, which is unusual with respect to how she usually is presented in relation to the bad guys in the final acts of the rest of the Peel era stories.
♦ ♦ ♦
By the time we arrive at “Correct Way to Kill,” the baddies have changed their tune with respect to Mrs Peel. When she rifles the papers she finds in Notskii’s safe, we learn that the opposition has designated her not only as dangerous, but as more dangerous even than Steed is, and therefore to be avoided if at all possible.
Emma is chuffed to learn that the opposition think she’s more dangerous than Steed
In contrast to “Girl from AUNTIE,” the dangerousness highlighted here is primarily physical, not intellectual, as we see in two scenes where Emma beats up the bad guys. First, she flattens Notskii when he reenters his office after she finds the photos with the danger assessments on them.
Later, she infiltrates SNOB, the school of gentlemanly comportment that is acting as a front for the villainous plot, where she fences with two bad guys at once. She later polishes one of them off, while the other is dealt with by Olga, the Eastern agent who had been assigned to work with Steed.
It’s not that the bad guys in “Correct Way” undervalue Mrs Peel’s brains: they may not be the sharpest tools in the shed, but they are smart enough to know that her intellect is not to be underestimated. It’s that the emphasis here is on her martial abilities, in terms of both unarmed combat and her skill with a foil.
♦ ♦ ♦
While Emma is always treated as Steed’s equal, it is still her relationship to him that often is in play when the bad guys go after her, even at times when Steed isn’t the direct target of their activities. However, there are other times, such as in “Girl from AUNTIE,” where the villains recognize that they don’t need the two-fer: if they’ve got Emma, they’ve got a force of nature that will be no end useful if they can bend her to their will, so it doesn’t matter whether they also have Steed or not. Or conversely, they recognize Mrs Peel as the ultimate badass she is and try—unsuccessfully—to keep their distance.
Yes, Emma is Steed’s partner, and they solve cases in double harness. But she is also a formidable opponent in her own right, and the villains are wise to treat her with the utmost respect and caution.