A conversation with fellow tumblr celluloidbroomcloset about the ways in which Cathy and Steed show affection for each other got me thinking about a few episodes where the two of them are shown expressing physical affection. This is relatively rare for Cathy, who is a very reserved person with strong boundaries, but it’s clear from many instances across Seasons 2 and 3 that she does love Steed very much, and part of the expression of that love comes with physical touch.
As the conversation unfolded, I was reminded of two instances in particular, one from Dressed to Kill and the other from The Undertakers, both of which end with Steed and Cathy drinking champagne together while sitting back to back, or nearly so. These two instances are some of the clearest expressions of the physical comfort Cathy and Steed have with each other: in each one, they lean back against each other and enjoy that physical contact while also celebrating the end of the case with some champagne.
L/top: Dressed to Kill. Cathy and Steed sit back to back on the tiger-skin rug in Steed’s flat. They are both wearing dark casual clothing. Cathy holds a glass of champagne in her right hand. Her head is tilted back slightly, and she seems happy. Steed is smiling and holding a bottle of champagne in his left hand and a champagne glass in his right. He is about to pour himself some champagne.
R/bottom: The Undertakers. Cathy and Steed sit nearly back to back on the settee in Cathy’s flat. Steed wears a light-colored suit and tie. Cathy wears dark trousers and a light-colored shirt with ruffles down the front. Steed holds a glass of champagne in his left hand, and with his right he pours some into the glass that Cathy holds. They are both smiling and happy.
I think it’s significant that one of the ways they express their affection and comfort with one another is by sitting back to back. This is because one of the most important moments of their first case together—and of the beginning of their journey as colleagues and lovers— takes place with that very thing: standing back to back. I’m thinking of the final battle in Warlock, where Steed is standing at bay inside a ring of evil warlocks and Cathy descends from the dais and moves to position herself at Steed’s back. She does this without being asked, and Steed accepts it as the right and natural thing for her to do. They’re both ready to go down fighting right there, to take on the whole coven of warlocks by themselves if necessary.
Now, I don’t know whether the blocking decisions at the end of Dressed to Kill and Undertakers were consciously chosen by either the directors or the actors to be explicit references to the way Steed and Cathy start their personal and professional lives together. But even absent that out-of-world decision, I still think the Cathy-Steed back-to-back thing is a metaphor for their relationship as a whole. They both care about each other, and they’d each die protecting the other. I like to think that in terms of the characters in-world they continue to enjoy sitting back to back in peaceful moments not only because it’s cozy and affectionate but also because for them it is a reference to that first battle and to that first case that brought them together. Cathy has Steed’s back, and he has hers, without fail, in their relationship as lovers and in battles with the enemy alike.
⊕ Content notice for mention and some discussion of sex trafficking and abuse
The Season 1 episode “Toy Trap” moves into fairly edgy territory for an early 1960s television show, exploring as it does issues of sex trafficking and pornography involving young, vulnerable women. Issues concerning the status of women also come to the fore in the divergent attitudes of Dr Keel and Steed towards Bunty Seton, the 19-year-old daughter of one of Keel’s friends and colleagues, who has come to London to find work and live an independent life. But Steed’s feminism and Keel’s lack thereofare not the only loci for an examination of gendered attitudes or gender relations in this particular episode, because the ways in which some men and women see heterosexual relationships as something that for good or ill may be exploited to their own advantage is one of the main themes of the story.
One of the main drivers of this move to exploit relationships is patriarchal culture and its attendant oppression of women. With certain glaring exceptions (**koff**Steed**koff**) many of the male characters (and at least one female) treat the women as property that can be owned, traded, and used for their own purposes without regard for what the women themselves might need or want. Many of the women, for their part, likewise see men as a means to an end, since finding a suitable male partner could bring with it an economic security that was difficult for single women to obtain in early 1960s Britain, along with a bump up in social status if the partners married. The villains, therefore, are playing both sides against the middle: they draw young women into their sex trafficking racket so that the women can be used for the pleasure of men, thus generating income for the traffickers; and they also turn the women’s need for the status and economic security guaranteed by attachment to a man against them, using an apparent—but ultimately false and exploitive—fulfillment of that need as the bait for their trap.
Following some exchanges on tumblr regarding the whole Steed/Tara/Cathy/Emma conundrum, I began mulling some things over in my fevered brain, to wit:
A certain subset of (usually male) fans seem to be of the opinion that Tara is somehow the most suitable partner for Steed, some of them even going so far as to say that she is his “soulmate.” Cathy on the other hand, gets relegated by some viewers to Noli Me Tangere Ice Queen status, while Emma is seen as not being in either a romantic or sexual relationship with Steed, or if she is considered to be having sex with him it is simply a “friends with benefits” arrangement without much emotional attachment.
The first extended blog series that I attempted when I started writing about The Avengers had to do with my perceptions of the arc of Steed and Mrs Peel’s relationship over the course of the entirety of Season 4. I’m republishing it here, since bits of it connect with new stuff I’m doing, and other bits of it might do so in future. As with the Medieval Maunderings series, I’m reposting here with some light edits that will remain unacknowledged.
There originally were nine parts to this (all of which have titles and subtitles taken from fencing terminology, in honor of the way Mrs Peel is introduced to the audience), to which I tacked on some addenda, and you can get to all of those by following the links below, by scrolling through the posts on my homepage, or by clicking on “Exclusivity Arc” under “Themed Blog Series” in the “Categories” menu.
» The command sequence that begins a fencing match: on guard, ready, go!
Steed and Mrs Peel face off with foil and umbrella
When we first meet Mrs Emma Peel (“Town of No Return”), she is in her apartment, practicing her fencing moves. She invites Steed in, and they begin a conversation that is a mixture of an invitation to take coffee, a challenge to a duel, and double entendre. We learn a lot about Mrs. Peel as an individual in her opening scene with Steed. She’s athletic and a skilled fencer who can give Steed a run for his money; she’s intelligent, has scientific training, and is sufficiently active and respected in her field to have publications in journals; she stands up for herself when challenged; and she has a sharp, wry sense of humor.
» ”No touch” and “touch” respectively. The first means that no point has been scored; the second indicates a scoring attack.
“Too Many Christmas Trees” is is the first episode to deal directly with the question of infidelity vs exclusivity in the relationship between Emma and Steed. It contains several scenes that hint towards Steed’s relationships with other women, and Emma’s first direct expressions of jealousy and mate guarding. As fellow tumblr celluloidbroomcloset has stated elsewhere, “Trees” is a watershed episode in the arc of the relationship between these two characters.
NOTE: As with Part II, this section has also received some substantial revision based on the change in my understanding of what actually happens with the blonde and why in TMCT. If you want to read the original version, please start here and follow the links to the end.
» Eng. change of engagement: often a kind of jockeying for position in which one fencer will attempt to place their blade on the side of the opponent’s that they think will give them the most advantage.
If the first half of Season 4 is the arc that brings Steed and Mrs. Peel from what might be an initially non-exclusive relationship to one with an expectation of mutual fidelity, then the second half of the season shows the growth in that relationship as well as sparring back and forth over fidelity—or at least what seems on the surface to be expressions of jealousy. In the first eight episodes of that part of the season, Steed’s apparent interest in other women will get Emma’s dander up, and Emma will wave her apparent interest in other men at Steed to get back at him for what happened at Storey’s house. Therefore, throughout the second half of Season 4, we have a metaphorical fencing match over sexual matters that is a varied reprise of the literal one in “Town of No Return,” except that the stakes now are whether Steed and Emma will be able to trust one other, not the outcome of friendly swordplay and a cup of coffee with cream.